Assistance dogs and their owners often get a bum rap in a society that is supposed to be, on paper at least, inclusive and nondiscriminatory.
In reality, people like wheelchair-user Naoto Anzue and his pet pooch, Dante, are turned away at shops and restaurants, although Anzue possesses the legal right to be accompanied by his highly trained dog on public premises.
That’s why Anzue, 46, is pinning his hopes on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics being an occasion to welcome all such assistance dogs and their human companions from around the globe.
Anzue, the only person who is partnered with a licensed service dog from Akita Prefecture, wants to take full advantage of the country’s celebratory mood to foster a more friendly community for dogs and their owners.
“Lots of foreigners will be coming for the Olympics and Paralympics. Among them will be assistance dog users, and the government has to prepare for that. I see this as a catalyst,” Anzue said in a recent interview.
“I want to see our community turn into one that welcomes all assistance dogs, anytime and anywhere.”
Since 2014, the Tokyo Olympic organizers have held discussions on improving access for people with disabilities in the capital, and this spring the disability anti-discrimination law was enacted. But changes don’t happen overnight, Anzue said.
“I’ve been denied entry to buildings because of my dog many times, although service dogs are guaranteed legal access anywhere. Most people don’t know that, and we need to start by educating the public,” he said.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there are 71 mobility service dogs in Japan that help people with physical disabilities. There are over 2,000 such dogs in the United States and 1,000 in Britain, based on data from the Assistance Dog Network.
Of the 71, only eight dogs were registered in Tokyo as of July. Dante, a 4-year-old male Labrador Retriever, was officially registered in Anzue’s hometown in Akita in August, making him the second licensed service dog in the prefecture.
Considering that there are more than 13 million residents in Tokyo, the odds of spotting a professionally trained dog like Dante in the jam-packed business hub are like winning the lottery.
The giveaway is that Dante can be identified by his yellow cape. But there is no single governing body that oversees all service dog centers in Japan, and the color of a cape depends on the organization to which the dog belongs.
Anzue says he gets more “hellos” from strangers when he is accompanied by his cream-colored four-legged pal. Still, he is aware that many Japanese are not familiar with the Act on Assistance Dogs, a law passed in 2002 that ensures assistance dog users the same rights as every other citizen.
He wants to spread the gospel about helper dogs like Dante and make the service available to any disabled person seeking security and safety from a lifelong canine companion.
When Anzue suffered a serious spinal injury in a motorcycle accident in Shizuoka 15 years ago, he was 31. After a year and a half of hospitalization and two years of rehab, Anzue moved to Tokyo to start life anew.
It was at this time that Anzue was first introduced to Fraser, an Australian-born Labrador that assisted him for nine years.
A former Self-Defense Forces member, Anzue also landed a new job as a PR officer at the Guide Dog & Service Dog & Hearing Dog Association of Japan, the only center in the country that trains all three types of assistance dogs: service dogs, guide dogs and hearing dogs.
Fraser, Akita’s first service dog, died in June 2015, and then Dante took over as Anzue’s new companion. Thanks to an occasionally challenging but otherwise harmonious relationship established with Fraser, living with Dante was smooth sailing.
“I’ve always liked dogs but never owned one in my life. Every day I was discovering something new about how dogs behave. It was troublesome and enjoyable at the same time,” Anzue said.
“I was still recovering and it was hard enough to take care of myself at that time. But as I learned to take care of a dog on top of that, it gave me a huge boost of confidence,” he said.
Some of the many impressive tasks service dogs are taught include opening bottles, breaking apart chopsticks, unwrapping rice balls, opening and closing refrigerators, and retrieving items such as cellphones and television remote controls.
Anzue, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo, drives to his workplace in Yokohama three days a week, rarely using public transportation. If he had a choice, he would leave Dante in the car and make short shopping trips alone to avoid unwarranted stress.
“Dante isn’t a guide dog so it’s not like I can’t get by without his help outdoors. I think he’d much prefer being in a car alone than squeezed into a tiny space like an elevator,” Anzue said.
“When I leave the house I don’t expect people to understand how to deal with a service dog, so I’m not surprised when I’m told no. I just report the incident to the people in charge,” he said.
It costs an average of ¥3 million to raise and train one service dog, and organizations that support these types of dogs host fundraising events and seek donations in order to run their nonprofit businesses.
Until dogs turn 1 year old, they are cared for by volunteers known as “puppy walkers” who accept the newborn dogs into their homes and teach them basic communication and social skills.
They next undergo an aptitude test to determine whether they have the right stuff to become a helpmate to a person with a disability. The matchmaking process and certification test follow.
Once the newly certified dog settles into a permanent home, the user is taught how to feed, potty train and take care of a large breed, while the dog center provides monthly grooming services when the dog is bathed — the only thing Anzue cannot do for Dante.
Most service dogs “retire” when they reach 10 years of age, and are adopted by the family of the users, passed on to volunteers, or returned to the organizations where they came from.
Anzue has been fortunate to have found Fraser and Dante, which have helped improve his quality of life, and hopes Japanese society will learn to appreciate the invaluable role these loyal dogs play in the lives of their owners.
“To be honest, I can pretty much do the daily chores without Dante’s help. To me, Dante gives me more psychological support than physical. Knowing that he will be there for me in case of an emergency means a lot,” he said.
“I cannot imagine life without him. Dante is more than family to me.”
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