SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture--Tsunami survivor Kiyoko Sasaki embraced Hinomaru and weeped while talking to the male dog that she recognized as a kindred spirit.
“You suffered hardships, didn’t you? You are the same as we are. You endured a lot,” said Sasaki, 82, a Soma resident whose house was destroyed by the tsunami following last year's Great East Japan Earthquake.
Hinomaru, who lost his owner in the disaster, is now part of the International Therapy Dog Association (ITDA), which trains dogs to offer comfort to and lift the spirits of people in hospitals and other facilities.
The ITDA took eight of its dogs to temporary housing facilities and schools here on May 27 and 28.
Of the eight dogs, two, Hinomaru and a female dog named Kizuna, lost their owners in the turmoil and chaos that ensued after last year's March 11 quake and tsunami and the subsequent accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The two dogs returned to Fukushima Prefecture for the first time since the disasters.
When Hinomaru and Kizuna were taken to a temporary housing facility in Yunuki district in Soma, elderly people there welcomed them with smiles and applause. They stroked the heads of the two friendly dogs repeatedly.
Both of the dogs are estimated to be 3 years old. Kizuna became a stray in an inland city of Nihonmatsu while Hinomaru was found in the Hisanohama district in the coastal city of Iwaki that was devastated by the tsunami.
Both of the dogs were placed under protective custody in autumn 2011 by public health centers. At that time, although they were wearing collars, their owners could not be found.
In late 2011, a local animal lovers’ organization told the Tokyo-based ITDA that dogs that became strays after the disaster and were placed under protective custody would be destroyed soon. The ITDA immediately obtained 10 of the dogs, including the two.
Hinomaru and Kizuna received initial training as therapy dogs in a facility in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, for six months and returned to Fukushima Prefecture as “trainees.”
For the next two years, the two dogs will undergo a 45-item training regimen to become fully fledged therapy dogs. One of the mandates is to walk at the same pace of people they accompany.
“The two dogs, who should have been euthanized, have instead become productive. We want to save other dogs that are also facing being destroyed,” said ITDA representative Toru Oki, 61.
ITDA has decided to construct a facility in Tokyo that will accommodate stray dogs from the disaster areas and train them as therapy dogs. The association plans to complete construction of the facility this summer.
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