A new project is under way that is giving a new leash on life to man's best friend.
The program is training dogs who have been left homeless by the Great East Japan Earthquake into therapy dogs capable of helping humans in hospitals and senior citizens' facilities.
In mid-December, four dogs were moved from Fukushima Prefecture to a facility in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, for training.
The project is being organized by the International Therapy Dog Association, based in Tokyo.
Established in 2002, the association trains stray dogs about to be put to sleep or that have been abandoned by their owners to serve as therapy dogs. Currently, 31 dogs trained by the association are active and an additional 30 are in training.
The head of the association is blues singer Toru Oki. Since May, the 60-year-old Oki has been providing support to victims of the March 11 quake and tsunami by visiting evacuation centers in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures with therapy dogs.
He has also been contacted by local animal rights groups that have taken in dogs unable to find new owners.
The four dogs that have recently begun training were given to Oki by an animal rights group and the Iwaki dog control center. He named the four dogs Hinomaru (Japanese flag), Kizuna (personal ties), Sachi and Fuku (both mean happiness) with the idea of encouraging disaster victims and praying for their happiness.
Although Hinomaru and Kizuna had collars, their owners have yet to be found.
Sachi and Fuku are siblings born from a feral bitch and they were taken under care in August when they were 4 months old. They were so fearful of humans that they rarely left their cages. Fuku's leg is deformed due to malnutrition, and the dog is unable to stand.
Oki said such dogs can help humans because "they are dogs that understand what pain is."
The dogs have lived through terrible experiences, including being tossed around by tsunami, losing their owners or having been abandoned.
According to the Fukushima prefectural animal protection organization, about 250 dogs left homeless by the natural disasters have been taken into care as of Dec. 19.
Efforts will first be made to restore the health of the four dogs at the Matsudo facility. After a sense of trust is developed with humans, the dogs will undergo a two-year training program that contains 45 subjects, including walking alongside a person using a wheelchair.
After completing training, the dogs will be used to help senior citizens living in temporary housing in the disaster-stricken areas or those suffering from dementia or cancer.
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