Preparing for the Next Disaster

Dogs that Save Lives

Disaster preparedness is not only something that concerns people. Training programs are now being offered for dogs and trainers so that in the event of an emergency, survivors can be found in piles of debris and as many lives as possible can be saved. Support for the training program as well as for the training facilities and equipment is being provided by the Nippon Foundation.


The importance of moving quickly to find survivors

In operations that involve saving people trapped in collapsed houses or buried in a landslide, mention is often made of a “72-hour wall.” That is to say, the chances of finding survivors fall dramatically, statistically speaking, after the 72-hour mark. Outside Japan, it is sometimes referred to as the “golden 72 hours.” Since people can survive up to three days without water, it is crucial to find them during this time. The 72-hour mark is, however, only one guideline. The length of time may be shorter if a person has suffered injuries, is caught in the debris, or faces extreme temperatures. This makes the search for survivors a race against the clock.

Although special devices to facilitate the search for trapped survivors exist, there is not an adequate supply. This makes it nearly impossible to respond in the event of a major disaster, such as the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
However, another way for finding survivors exists; namely, search and rescue dogs. These dogs contribute to rescue operations by using their sense of smell to find survivors trapped in collapsed houses and debris. Immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake, rescue dogs with overseas rescue teams that were deployed to Japan, along with domestic rescue dogs, rushed around saving lives in devastated areas.

As has been pointed out, rescue dogs have an important role to play in Japan, a country prone to earthquakes, typhoons, and other natural disasters, and various organizations have created programs to train these dogs. One such group is the Rescue Dog Trainers’ Association, which is the only Japanese organization that belongs to the International Rescue Organisation. The RDTA offers tests for rescue dog in line with IRO standards.

The Nippon Foundation has provided grants for RDTA activities since 2008. In response to growing awareness of the role rescue dogs play following the Great East Japan Earthquake, the foundation decided to provide support for the establishment of the RDTA Yatsugatake Rescue Dog Training Facility in Fujimi, Nagano Prefecture, to train world-class rescue dogs and trainers.

Increasing the number of rescue dogs in Japan

The Yatsugatake Rescue Dog Training Facility is located on a huge tract of land and has piles of debris and containers arranged to recreate actual disaster areas. The center’s opening ceremony, held on May 3, 2013, was attended by Alfons Fieseler, a rescue-dog expert who formerly headed the Germany’s Railway Police Department School. A special seminar using the new facility was organized, with 30 teams of people and dogs of different sizes and breeds taking part.

Photo“The level of Japanese rescue dogs has risen markedly over the past decade,” Fiesler says. “And further progress can be made if facilities, like the one at Yatsugatake, are made use of and training programs are organized. What we need to do now is to raise the level of the trainers who accompany the rescue dogs to the disaster areas. The trainers need to be able to pick up on what the dogs are thinking and take appropriate action immediately.”

Many people assume that rescue dogs are brought up and trained in police and fire department facilities. However, outside Japan, most of these dogs are family pets, representing a variety of breeds. Small dogs, for example, also have a role to play because they can enter small openings in collapsed structures and piles of debris.

Hopes are growing that a system will be set up in Japan for deploying regular household pets as rescue dogs in the event of an emergency. The seminar at Yatsugatake included staff from a nonprofit organization that trains rescue dogs as well as members of the public who own dogs.

A woman from Tokyo taking part in the program described how she had gotten involved. “When I brought my dog to the center for obedience training, I was told he was cut out to take part in the rescue program because he has a natural curiosity about things. He is having a great time here. To him, it’s not ‘training’ per se but an elaborate game of hide and seek—he can run around to his heart’s content on a huge piece of land. And for my part, I’m happy knowing that if and when the time comes, we’ll be able to help out in some way.”

Photo of Hidehiro Murase, the president of RDTAHidehiro Murase, the president of RDTA, says the organization has plans to build an indoor training center and overnight accommodations, and also to make improvements to the Yatsugatake Rescue Dog Training Facility and put its efforts behind increasing the number of rescue dogs in Japan. “Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, there has been greater awareness about search and rescue dogs,” he notes, “but we don’t have nearly the number of trainers needed, especially in view of the strong possibility that another disaster will strike. I want as many people as possible to be aware of the amazing work these dogs do and make full use of this training center for a variety of programs.”

Video produced and edited by Masayuki Tanaka
Photographs by Kei Kodera