KANAZAWA, Ishikawa Pref. - Japan has no unified standards on the training of rescue dogs, leading to concerns among the human handlers of these canine heroes that both their speed and efficiency could be hampered when responding to disasters.
The importance of uniform international standards for rescue dogs was never more obvious then in the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which marks its 13th anniversary this week. Immediately following that disaster, search dogs coming in from other countries were reportedly delayed by Japanese immigration officials over quarantine regulations.
In Japan, breeding and training rescue dogs is done by the National Police Agency and private organizations. Four major organizations have branches in each prefecture and send rescue dogs to disaster areas at the request of local governments.
The Ishikawa Prefectural Government concluded agreements in 1997 — two years after the Hanshin quake — with the Japan Rescue Association and two other organizations for the deployment of rescue dogs.
The prefecture also decided to provide up to ¥25,000 a month to train 10 dogs selected by its screening panel. In fiscal 2006, it allocated ¥550,000 for the program.
But because every organization applies different standards for determining whether a dog has been properly trained to sniff out survivors, officials have pointed out that canines lacking the ability to perform in disaster areas have slipped through and been identified as ready for action.
“The present system has double and triple standards. The best way is for the central government to unify the standards,” said Masayasu Ogaki, chief of Ishikawa’s disaster countermeasures section.
Hironari Ito, an executive of the Japan Rescue Association, said there have been moves in the past to work out uniform domestic standards for rescue dogs, but “few organizations supported them and the attempts ended inconclusively.”
“Although we take part in disaster training with other organizations, it is difficult to unify recognition standards because of differences in mobilization and other policies,” an official of the Japan Kennel Club said.
The Japan Rescue Association only recognizes dogs as being ready if they have undergone about 1,000 training sessions in simulated disaster areas and have acquired the ability to quickly locate people and alert their handlers.
Last April, the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group under the United Nations held its first meeting of experts in Geneva to discuss standards to recognize rescue dog teams.
The advisory group was created to work out rules for disaster operations after rescue teams from various countries created a chaotic situation when they rushed to the site of an earthquake in Armenia in 1988.
When a large-scale disaster occurs overseas, the NPA sends rescue dogs as part of the International Emergency Rescue Squad mobilized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
“Like European countries that have recognition standards for rescue dogs, Japan should also create such standards and introduce them at international conferences,” said Mitsunori Namba, who attended the U.N. meeting when he was head of the international emergency assistance section at the Foreign Ministry.