The country that created the world's first cloned canine plans to put duplicated dogs on patrol to sniff out drugs and explosives.
The Korean Customs Service unveiled Thursday seven cloned Labrador retrievers being trained near Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. The dogs were born five to six months ago after being separately cloned from a skilled drug-sniffing canine in active service.
Due to the difficulties in finding dogs who are up to snuff for the critical jobs, officials said using clones could help reduce costs.
The cloning work was conducted by a team of Seoul National University scientists who in 2005 successfully created the world's first known dog clone, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.
The team is led by Professor Lee Byeong-chun, who was a key aide to disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk. Hwang's purported breakthroughs in stem cell research were revealed as false, but independent tests proved the team's dog cloning was genuine.
The seven new cloned male dogs are all healthy, though one was sent to a university laboratory a few days ago for a minor foot injury it received during training, according to training center head Lim Jae-ryoung. For now, the dogs all share the same name: "Toppy" — a combination of the words "tomorrow" and "puppy."
"They have a superior nature. They are active and excel in accepting the training," said Kim Nak-seung, a trainer at the Customs Service-affiliated dog training center.
In February, all seven dogs passed a behavior test aimed at finding whether they are genetically qualified to work as sniffing dogs. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of naturally born dogs typically pass the test.
If the cloned dogs succeed in other tests for physical strength, concentration and sniffing ability, they will be put to work by July next year at airports and harbors across South Korea, according to the training center.
The agency says the cloned dogs could also save money.
"We came up with the idea of dog cloning after thinking about how we can possess a superior breed at a cheaper cost," said agency head Hur Yong-suk.
Normally, only about three out every 10 naturally born dogs it trains — at a cost of about $40,140 each — ends up qualifying for the job.
Lee of Seoul National University said it cost approximately $100,000 to $150,000 to clone each of the seven golden Labrador retrievers.
He said the seven are the world's first cloned drug-sniffing dogs.
The university team did not ask for payment from the customs authorities because it created the clones for academic purposes with government funds, Lee said.
He said his team has so far cloned 20 dogs and five wolves.
On Thursday the dogs frolicked with trainer Kim, running together and chasing a red rubber ball he threw across a playground — a part of training aimed at bolstering their stamina.
"If I look at them very carefully, there are now some small differences in their facial features," said Kim, who has been training the dogs since they were born. "But it's still hard to tell."