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For dog training instructor Sae Hokoyama, watching troubled young people transform themselves into responsible citizens with the help of man’s best friend is a gratifying experience.

At the first juvenile training school of its kind in Japan, young male offenders get the opportunity to train abandoned dogs, benefit from companionship and learn mutual trust while giving dogs a chance to be adopted from shelters by new families.

Yachimata Juvenile Training School in Chiba Prefecture is the site of the correctional education program where abused dogs are trained. Young offenders, who like their canine companions suffer from lack of trust in humanity, develop self-esteem by contributing to society, Hokoyama said.

“I combined all my knowledge and skills to formulate a program and curriculum best suited for a juvenile training school in Japan,” said Hokoyama, manager of the Humanin Foundation, the Tokyo-based animal protection organization that runs the program.

Hokoyama earned qualifications related to canine studies in the United States and engaged in animal-assisted interventions at various facilities, including the Sonoma County Sierra Youth Center in Santa Rosa, California, and the Washington Corrections Center for Women, where dog training programs have been run for offenders.

She said her experience at the youth correctional facility in California greatly influenced her decision to get involved in teaching at a similar program for juvenile offenders in Japan.

“I saw girls around age 15 to 18 visibly changing through contact with dogs, and that experience made me want to start such a program in Japan,” Hokoyama said.

The corrective education program was launched at the Japanese juvenile training school in July 2014.

Following a trial phase, the Justice Ministry began to cover the expenses for the biannual 12-week course in this year’s fiscal budget.

According to the foundation, the objectives of the program include helping young people improve self-esteem, develop empathy toward others, and acquire such social skills as patience, responsibility and the ability to communicate effectively with others.

An offender is assigned to train one dog for re-homing and is basically responsible for the dog’s progress. Currently, four dogs are paired with four youth offenders. The next corrective education program is expected to begin in November.

“It helps with developing their sense of responsibility,” Hokoyama said, noting they start thinking, “‘If I stop here, the dog’s growth will be stunted. If I give up on this dog, it will never change.’ So, if a dog learns new things, it will help to boost the youth’s self-esteem.”

Teamwork is another emphasis of the program. Since many of the youths at the facility are not good at working in a team and might act selfishly, achieving a common goal is a priority.

“In our (current) program, four juveniles and four dogs start and finish the program together,” Hokoyama said. “If anyone or any pair struggles, the others will think together and help them find a way to overcome the obstacles,” she said.

One of the boys, for example, was having trouble getting a dog to give him its paw.

“The boy has asked another participant for advice and they take turns in training that dog to see how it works out,” she said.

The team efforts they engaged in significantly impacted their lives at the correctional facility, and participants often thanked institution officials for letting them take part in the program when they were released. Hokoyama also received thank-you letters and messages from juveniles through the foundation after their release.

“Personnel including myself who were around these young people have observed big changes in their lives through the program, so we believe it is a program which we must continue, and I hope we can increase the number who participate,” she said.

Since the program’s launch, 12 dogs have successfully found new homes, with another four due to go up for adoption at the end of the fifth program this month.

“Achieving the goal of zero-culling is our major goal, but at the same time another objective of the foundation is to increase the number of animals that can contribute to the improvement of the lives of people,” Hokoyama said.

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