An Ancient Dog Finds its Place in the Modern World

Photo: Johnny Cosmo

Taiwan’s Indigenous Formosan Mountain Dog

“Don’t be mad,” my wife said one afternoon in an unexpected phone call telling me that our 16-year-old daughter had found a puppy on the street near our home. “There are signs up in the neighborhood and somebody is looking for him. Can we keep him until we find the owner? Should only take a couple of days.”

When I got home that night, this little black puppy with long legs and floppy ears looked me square in the eye, grinned, and all but vocalized: “Hey, I know you – you’re my new owner!” Then he jumped up and bit me on the hand.

That was three years ago, and that little bundle of legs and ears is now a 50-pound lean, muscular, smooth-coated, black-colored tugou with a face like a wolf and the saunter of a panther. Although he looks like a wild beast, Butter (to complement “Pancake,” our dachshund) has an easy-going personality, is playful and sociable, and can outrace pretty much any dog that he has encountered. His eyes are soulful and wise, and he’s definitely the most popular member of our family (except with the dachshund).

Throughout Taiwan and the world, dog lovers such as my family are coming to appreciate the unique charm of Taiwan’s local “dirt dogs.”

Taiwan tugou are now seen not just skulking along the riverside parks or near farmhouses, but also under the doting care of middle-class families. In our Muzha neighborhood, neighbors meet nightly on the riverbank to allow these sociable dogs to play off-leash in big happy packs while pampered and leashed purebreds look on with envy. The same traits that once made them valuable hunting partners – loyalty, courage, sociability, and athleticism – now make them popular with families as both pets and watchdogs.

Taiwan’s military even flirted with replacing the German shepherds in its K9 Corps with local dogs, although it’s unclear if this switch was ever made. The dogs have become so popular that rescue centers in Taiwan are even sending dogs overseas for adoption. A dog that may have once lurked under a highway overpass, surviving by raiding garbage bins, can fetch US$800 in the United States.

Crucially, though, not just any old tugou will do, and enthusiasts make sharp distinctions between the true “Formosan Mountain Dog” (or more simply the “Taiwan Dog”) and the teeming hordes of mongrels populating Taiwan’s alleyways, parks, and mountain areas.

The Taiwan Dog is considered to be the descendant of ancient breeds that accompanied Taiwan’s aboriginals across the Taiwan Strait from mainland Asia thousands of years ago, and is now regarded as a rare breed. Most tugou are actually mixes of the ancient breed and more contemporary breeds such as German shepherds, Akitas, and pit bulls, each of which was imported in large quantities at various points in Taiwan’s history.

Chen Ming-nan is perhaps the dogs’ greatest advocate in Taiwan. His fascination with the dogs goes back decades, and he spent years combing Taiwan’s aboriginal villages in search of the purest Formosan Mountain Dogs. Because these dogs survived in the harsh mountain wilderness of Taiwan’s interior and worked side by side with aboriginal hunters, Chen says, the dogs evolved to have superior physicality, athleticism, loyalty, and empathy with their human masters.

He sees these dogs as being extremely useful as part of mountain rescue teams, for example. But more importantly, in his view, is that this native dog species is “our national treasure.” Chen expresses gratitude “to our ancestors for leaving us with this very good breed,” but notes that “unfortunately, it will soon become a historical relic if not preserved.”

For thirty years Chen owned the Formosan Mountain Dog Conservation Center, which housed and bred such dogs. He has been sought out by researchers from around the world for his expertise, and his standards have formed the basis of what is now known as the Taiwan Dog.

The global standards setter for pure-breed dogs, the Federation Cynologique Internationale (FCI), now recognizes the Taiwan Dog as a breed under FCI-Standard N° 348, described as a “medium-sized dog with triangular head, almond shaped eyes, thin pricked ears and a sickle tail.” The Taiwan Dog is “extremely faithful to his master, keen in sense, alert in movement, bold and fearless.”

The FCI noted that “Taiwan Dogs are originally native Taiwanese dogs, descendants of the South Asian hunting dogs which ancient local inhabitants used to live with in the central mountainous districts. This breed was the loyal companion of the ancient hunter in the wild forest.”

The American Kennel Club has followed suit and now includes the Taiwan Dog in its Foundation Stock breeders program to establish the breed in the United States. The Taiwan Kennel Club likewise recognizes the Formosan Mountain Dog as an endemic breed.

As only some 4% of puppies born on the streets survive to adulthood, their best chance for survival is to look cute and be adopted by humans. Photo: Timothy Ferry

Whether an animal qualifies as an authentic Taiwan Dog, Chen says, is determined not just by its meeting general criteria for morphology and temperament. He accepts a dog as a true specimen only if it exhibits specific behavioral or personality traits. Are they loyal and fearless? How is their sense of smell and their hunting ability? Dogs that make the grade form a breed stock that he hopes will rescue the breed’s genes from total dilution in the genetic sea of tugou.

“The number of Taiwan Dogs is already very small,” he says. “So I very deliberately dedicated my life to saving the Taiwan Dog.” Chen has since retired and has given all of his dogs to other enthusiasts, but he is still very much involved in the care and breeding plans.

Chen is joined by a number of Taiwanese both in Taiwan and abroad who have embraced the Taiwan Dog as a national emblem and are committed to preserving it. Dominic Chang now lives in Northern California but hails from Taiwan and is one of the founders of the Taiwan Dog/Formosan Mountain Dog Enthusiasts Club of America, as well as being involved with the Taiwan Dog Breeders Association that engages in carefully controlled breeding of the Taiwan Dog.

He sees the dog as both an international emblem and a symbol of Taiwanese spirit that can be embraced by all political parties in Taiwan’s increasingly partisan society. “The Taiwan dog is not just a breed from Taiwan but really an extension of what we as Taiwanese are all about,” he says. “We are loyal, protective of our family, committed and are not fearful of adversity,” he wrote in an email. “The Taiwan dog should be our unspoken ambassador to the world.”

According to Johnson Goh, Chang’s partner in the Taiwan Dog organization, only around 3,000 “pure” Taiwan Dogs exist and only about 10% of them are suitable for breeding, with perhaps only 100 of the purest specimens surviving.

“This dog has been Taiwan’s loyal companion throughout history and as Taiwanese, it is our duty to preserve them,” said Chang.

What is a Taiwan Dog?

Despite the pronouncements of the FCI and other kennel clubs, however, debate continues over what actually constitutes a Taiwan Dog. Is it an ancient breed that ties Taiwan to its aboriginal past, or a recent breed created from a generalized “village dog” that has been selected and bred to fit a modern ideal of a mythical past?

The debate is broader than one focusing on just a single breed, and recent studies by a host of biologists, ecologists, and geneticists have been turning conventional theories of the origins of dogs on their head.

Approximately some 850 million of the billion or so dogs in the world do not live in homes, lack any pedigree or even a specific mixed heritage, and live mostly beyond the control of humans. Known variously as strays, mutts, dump dogs, and pariah dogs, they are now more likely to be dubbed “village dogs.” These are the original, authentic dogs, according to scientists such as the husband-and-wife team of the Coppingers, who recently published the book What is a Dog?.

Rather than humans domesticating a wild gray wolf, scientists now suggest that dogs actually domesticated themselves by adapting to a niche created by humans – human trash. These scavengers evolved to eat comfortably around humans, in stark contrast to shy, wild canids such as wolves, coyotes, and jackals – successfully exploiting this niche, much as rats, pigeons, and other animals have.

As they were not bred by humans, Darwinian forces have seen them develop into a remarkably uniform size and shape around the world, being mostly around 15 kilograms in weight, shorthaired, and lean. These dogs are not strays, as they never had a home with humans from which to stray, and they are not “mutts” or “mongrels” because they are not mixes of purebreds.

Village dogs aren’t breeds but “land-races,” or “a geographically based population within a species,” as defined by the Coppingers.

Questions remain over whether the Taiwan Dog now recognized as a breed is actually a village dog. Embark Veterinary Inc., a firm that has spearheaded genetic analysis of dogs throughout the world for both consumers and research, divides the world’s village dogs into such categories as European, African, Indian, Asian, American, and East Asian, based on regional distinctions. Historical photos of aboriginal tribesmen taken over a century ago include small, wiry, smooth-coated, terrier-looking dogs.

Left, one of Chen’s authentic Taiwan Dogs reveals the classic triangular face, black nose, and powerful build. Photo: Timothy Ferry. Right, a photo from 1871 shows an aboriginal hunting party with a Taiwan Dog. Photo: Wikipedia.

Are Taiwan Dogs actually just a local variant of the general East Asia Village Dog (EAVD), unbred scavengers that aided aboriginal hunters in exchange for scraps? Or were they purposefully bred for a role as hunters? Chen says that these dogs were indeed bred to be hunters and even distinguishes three different kinds of Taiwan Dogs based on their tribes of origin.

Certainly the Taiwan Dog today seems to be bigger than the dog seen in the old photos and averages 12-22kg in weight (25-55lbs) – and stands 40-54cm (16-21 inches) tall. There also seems to be a disproportionate number of black and brindle coats, while most village dogs around the world are a sandy yellow or tan color. Could these qualities be the result of human breeding for desired traits? Or could they be the result of Founders Effect, in which a population bottleneck might occur for whatever reason, leaving behind only a small number of survivors capable of breeding, and whose genetic traits show up disproportionately in future generations. The Taiwan Dog has been the victim of numerous culls over the centuries, particularly by the Japanese.

Embark Veterinary sampled dogs from aboriginal villages in four regions of Taiwan, as well as dogs that were sent abroad as “Formosan Mountain Dogs.” Most of the dogs sampled in the study came up as primarily EAVD, with traces of other breeds. So far the Taiwan Dog remains genetically indistinguishable from the EAVD.

Linda Bakeman, a Taiwan Dog enthusiast in the United States who works closely with the Embark team and Taiwan Dog owners in the United States and Taiwan, said in written correspondence that the observed differences in size between the modern Taiwan Dog and its ancestors “might actually be recent and even inadvertently created by the same people trying to preserve the purity of the line.”

She observed that “in terms of the efforts of breeders of ‘Taiwan Dogs,’ who have been trying to preserve the breed for 30+ years, until now they breed for body, height, weight, physical and behavioral characteristics that make the dogs look a standard way.”

In this sense, these efforts are creating a modern breed, rather than preserving an ancient one.

As Taiwan already has thousands of street dogs living in its parks and alleys and filling its shelters, the breeding of a “pure” Taiwan Dog has generated controversy among dog lovers, including enthusiasts of the breed in the United States, Canada, and other places.

In one thread on the Formosan Dog Lovers group on Facebook, plans for breeding the Taiwan Dog to preserve the lineage were met with outrage. “They will breed more and more and sell more and more and more, and more will end up in the streets, mountains and shelters,” wrote one dog lover.  “You are NOT helping these dogs in any way. You are just making sure that more dogs die.”

Yet seeing Taiwan Dogs in their mountain homelands, and appreciating the intense personalities and physical attributes of these dogs, it’s hard not to sympathize with those who see something vital, valuable, and worth preserving.

The Taiwan Dog is acclaimed for its “extreme loyalty, tenacity, and versatility,” says Johnson Goh. “The wisdom they possess is almost magical, and most importantly the way a Taiwan Dog bonds with its human is very unique and intense.”

Whether called a tugou or a Formosan Mountain Dog or a Taiwan Dog, clearly this is an animal worth loving.