SEOUL – For Toru Oki, 61, his two occupations — musician and therapy dog trainer — are one and the same.
“Music is my job, whereas therapy is my lifework,” he said.
Oki, who has 36 years’ experience in training therapy dogs, is preparing to bring abandoned dogs over from South Korea to Japan to train them and send them back to work at medical institutions.
He came up with the plan after he was invited by South Korea, which puts down around 20,000 dogs and cats each year, to visit Seoul and the port city of Busan, its second-largest metropolis, to speak about the benefits therapy dogs can provide.
“Dogs are just like human beings. If they are trained, they will respond to us brilliantly,” said Oki, who first learned about therapy dogs when he visited the United States as a blues singer in 1976.
In Japan, 175,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in fiscal 2011, according to the Environment Ministry.
Oki said it takes time to help restore dogs’ trust in people if they have been betrayed or abandoned by their owners.
“Nevertheless, these dogs are all the more able to save people’s lives because they know pain firsthand,” he said.
Japan’s first therapy dog, Chirori, had been abandoned and would have been destroyed had Oki not adopted her. After becoming a therapy dog in the early 1990s, Chirori visited scores of hospitals, helping to lift patients’ spirits and facilitate their recovery. She died in 2006.
“When it became widely known that Chirori actually helped people, abandoned dogs began to be seen in a different light,” Oki explained.
The Tokyo native recounted how dogs helped him deal with his stutter when he was growing up. The animals were a source of comfort because they always “waited patiently for my words,” he recalled.
These days, Oki is turning his attention to Fukushima Prefecture, which was devastated by the natural and nuclear disasters of March 2011.
Many canines were left behind when the government ordered residents to evacuate around the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, which suffered three core meltdowns and tainted much of the prefecture with radiation.
Oki said he is planning to adopt these abandoned animals and train them as therapy dogs to bring comfort to those affected by the disasters.
“A nation that can’t even save the life of a small being will never be able to save the life of a human being,” he said.