His Majesty King Bhumibol raised several dogs over the years, but was rarely pictured with one until 1998, when His Majesty was presented with a stray dog by the staff of the Rama IX Medical Centre.
With a copper coloured coat, the dog was named “Tongdaeng”, and was in fact His Majesty’s 17th dog.
She soon became His Majesty’s constant companion as well as one of the most famous dogs in the country.
From her lowly birth as a street dog on Nov 7, 1998, Tongdaeng’s example shows pedigree has nothing to do with loyalty and behaviour. These redeeming qualities were brought to the fore in a book written by the King titled simply, The Story of Tongdaeng.
According to the story which was written in both English and Thai, the little puppy cried all the way to the palace when she was taken from her mother at the age of five weeks. However, once she was presented to His Majesty, she stopped crying and settled in his lap as if entrusting her life to his care.
She was fostered by another of the King’s pets – Mali -- who had just given birth to a brood a few days earlier.
Tongdaeng’s distinct markings include half a collar, white socks on all four paws, a tightly curled tail with a white tip, and a dappled nose. His Majesty noted that she resembled the Basengi breed of hunting dogs that originated in Africa. Since she was larger, he called her the Thai Super Basengi.
His Majesty wrote about Tongdaeng’s qualities in the book, and the story became a parable for the theme of loyalty in a society where greed, consumerism and power have become priorities. Tongdaeng is described by the King as “a common dog who is uncommon”.
The story gives examples of Tongdaeng’s patience, gratefulness, respect, obedience, politeness and humility.
‘’Whatever the King tells her, even very softly, she understands and acts accordingly. Once, Tongdaeng found a chicken bone left by crows in a bush in Chitralada Villa and was chewing on it. The King saw this and said: ‘Tongdaeng, that is not good’. She immediately spat out the bone and ran to join the King.’’
Tongdaeng is also capable of keeping time for her master.
‘’Sometimes, she would be sent to remind the King of the time. Usually, after completing his exercise walk, the King would stop to chat with those who had come to meet him and sometimes he would stay longer than he should. Tongdaeng, who stands a distance away from the King, would approach him and begin to lick his hand repeatedly. The King, understanding the message, would tell the people, ‘Tongdaeng has come to remind me to go’.’’
Tongdaeng is quick at learning and always obeys orders. She learned to lie on her back when the King says: ‘’Tongdaeng, belly up.’’
Once, she stopped scratching when His Majesty reminded her that he had already given powder for her itchy stomach.
Tongdaeng’s loyalty to the King is unwavering. She always exhibits good manners in the King’s presence, always sits lower and never leaves his side.
‘’If His Majesty makes a slight movement, or even clears his throat, she would lift her eyes to check on him.’’
The King also admires Tongdaeng for her respectful behaviour. Other dogs like jumping on his lap and licking his face. But Tongdaeng always stays lower than the King even when he pulls her up to embrace her.
‘’Tongdaeng would quickly crouch on the floor, her ears down in a respectful manner, as if saying, I dare not; it is not proper.’’
To show her love and respect, Tongdaeng often licks the King’s hand vigorously. The Story of Tongdaeng was later available in a comic form in which the King was presented as just a silhouette of light.
On Sept 26, 2000, Tongdaeng gave birth to a litter of nine pups sired by Tongthae, a Basengi. His Majesty bestowed the surname “Suwannachat” on the family, and named each of them after a Thai dessert that began with the word ‘’Tong’’. They spawned another book by the King titled Khanom Luk Luk Tongdaeng (Desserts that are the offspring of Tongdaeng.)
In 2004, His Majesty created a wall calendar featuring a different photograph of himself with Tongdaeng for each month.
This was followed in 2005 by what became an annual tradition of homemade greeting cards from His Majesty the King to the people, featuring the King with Tongdaeng and her brood, with a border of tiny smiley faces.