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Dogs with a care factor

FOUR assistance dogs and their handlers from Japan performed sophisticated techniques in helping disabled people at the Life and Sunshine Pavilion at World Expo Shanghai this week.

Their performance attracted many visitors as they demonstrated how much the lives of disabled people can be changed by small but smart animals.

Assistance dogs are specially trained to help people with disabilities. They not only provide specific services for their handlers, but also greatly enhance their lives with a new sense of freedom and independence.

There are three different types of assistance dogs according to their different genre of service: guide dogs, hearing dogs and service dogs which help people with eye, hearing or physical problems.

It is the first time that hearing dogs and service dogs have been introduced in China.

As soon as Yoichiro Nishizawa issued the instruction from his wheelchair - "Middle, go and get my cell phone" - the five-year-old pure black service dog named Middle stood up, quickly found the owner's phone, and brought it to him. People were amazed by Middle's excellent performance.

"Service dogs mainly help people with disabilities, other than those related to vision or hearing, by performing tasks such as pulling a wheelchair or fetching dropped items," said Yutaka Akita, director general of the Japanese Society of Assistance Dog Research.

"Some can even use their body to help to cool down the shaking legs of half paralyzed people," he added.

Apart from Japan's 51 service dogs, it has 19 hearing dogs who can help deaf or hearing impaired people by alerting their handler to important sounds such as doorbells, smoke alarms, ringing telephones or alarm clocks. They may also work outside the home, alerting to sounds such as sirens, cars and a person calling the handler's name.

Japan also has 1,045 guide dogs - like the one in the heartbreaking movie "Little Q" - which people are more familiar with compared to the other two types of assistance dogs. "People still have some misunderstandings about assistance dogs," Akita said.

"In Japan, there are special associations for the three types of dogs and they will hold 200 to 300 promotional activities a year in public places, like today's performances in the Expo Park, to help people better understand the animals and their works.

"They also provide brochures about assistance dogs or channel information through the Internet," he added.

"Our volunteers will help to raise potential puppies until they are old enough to start formal training, and help them build a gentle personality. In some cases the dogs are rescued from animal shelters, especially for hearing dogs," Akita added.

The demonstrations in the Expo Park were conducted by four groups: the five-year-old black Labrador service dog Middle and his owner Yoichiro Nishizawa, Aya Azuma and her four-year-old hearing dog Ami, a Foxy Dog with a beautiful golden coat, the two-year-old guide dog Cross, a mix of Golden Retriever and Labrador and his owner Morio Sugai, and seven-year-old guide dog Anthony, also a Labrador and his owner Yoko Sakurai.

"They all have plenty of experience in showcasing the assistance dogs' working skills and are happy to introduce these to China," Akita said.

During our interview, the four dogs rested on the lounge area floor, obviously tired after finishing their performance.

"Please do not touch the assistance dogs," pavilion staff politely reminded the audience.

"All assistance dogs must receive special training and tests before they become qualified workers," Akita said.

"People should be aware of not touching them or speaking to them while they are working. But lots of people still consider them as companion animals and will pet or speak to them on the street," he added.

"This mostly happens to hearing dogs, who are small."

The first hearing dogs were introduced from the United States in 1975 and Japan had its first one in 1984.

Hearing dogs do not have to be selected from special breeds as their work does not involve physical duties. Many are therefore selected from animal shelters.

In order to guarantee the rights and interests of working animals and their holders, Japan in 2002 passed a law concerning assistance dogs for people with disabilities, the first of its kind in the world.

"Actually the guide dogs operated for years before the law came into effect, but many public areas or public facilities were all restricted to them," Akita said.

"Even in today's Japan, we can still see some areas that refuse assistance dogs. Before the law was passed, there were limited rules applying to guide dogs, mainly in traffic circumstances; that is to say, they saw such working animals in the same light as disabled people's traffic aids like bicycles and cars."

In Japan, about 30 to 40 people with disabilities will apply for assistance dogs per year, and only dozens can get one.

A qualified assistance dog needs to be trained for three to four years and will retire around 10 years old. Some retired dogs will enter special nursing homes or live with volunteers.

In the lounge area, Azuma, owner of hearing dog Ami, put a soft blanket on the floor and let her companion rest on it. Service dog Middle sat closely beside his owner's wheel chair and kept a close eye on his every movement.

The pavilion canceled the scheduled second-round performance that afternoon at the request of all assistance dogs' owners. The dogs were exhausted.

When he left, Sugai did not apply the harness to his guide dog and, helped by a friend, let Cross relax.


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