Local authorities across Japan are struggling to reduce the number of abandoned pets they put down. But a program by Tokushima Prefecture aims to improve the situation by turning unwanted dogs into rescue and therapy animals.

Tokushima Prefectural Animal Welfare Center will attempt to train around 100 abandoned dogs as working animals, in the first such program by a municipality.

Upon hearing the cue “search,” Monaka, a mixed-breed, started running during an exercise simulating a disaster rescue at an outdoor training school in Itano, Tokushima.

Monaka was soon able to locate a trainer posing as someone in need of rescue and notified handler Sana Okamoto by barking.

Now around 12 months old, Monaka was found on a street last June. After being deemed a suitable candidate, Monaka was taken to the training school, where Okamoto met the dog.

At the time, Okamoto, 19, was studying about animals at a college, but she recalled feeling out of place there.

After deciding to quit, she became a handler. She took Monaka home and the two started the required training to pass the prefectural certificate test.

According to the center, two dog and handler pairs, including Okamoto and Monaka, were undertaking training as of December.

However, it says not many dogs can endure the grueling training program and securing enough handlers is also difficult.

The prefecture plans to spend ¥300,000 ($2,550) training each dog, with the goal of having 15 rescue dogs and 85 therapy dogs by fiscal 2018.

Naoki Nishizaka, a spokesman at the Disaster Rescue Dog Network, a nonprofit organization based in Toyama Prefecture, welcomed the efforts, saying, “Rescued dogs are often traumatized and there needs to be extra consideration in training and caring for them.”

According to the Environment Ministry, around 28,000 abandoned dogs were euthanized across Japan in fiscal 2013.

Ikuyo Ishikawa, an official at the prefectural center, expressed hope that people will pay more attention to animal protection by knowing what rescued dogs can do.

“I hope for a society that does not need to kill (animals),” although it is a difficult goal, Ishikawa said.

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