In Japan, young offenders learn by training abandoned dogs

A youth and an abandoned dog participate in the correctional program at Yachimata Juvenile Training School in Japan. CREDIT: The Yomiuri Shimbun.)

YACHIMATA, Japan – “Down,” came the instruction from a 19-year-old youth, but the dog did not move. The teenager looked somewhat distraught.

“It’s OK. The dog trusts you, too,” said Sae Hokoyama, 31, a trainer with the Humanin Foundation, a general incorporated foundation, in Tokyo.

The teenager repeated the command and after several tries, the dog laid down. The teenager’s face broke into a broad smile and he stroked the dog’s head.

Yachimata Juvenile Training School in Yachimata hosts a program for offenders to discipline and train abandoned dogs.

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The program aims to strengthen offenders’ resilience and their understanding of the importance of life by letting them train abandoned dogs once marked for culling, and by allowing the dogs to return to a family.

According to the Justice Ministry, this initiative involving the training of abandoned dogs as part of corrective education and their subsequent transfer to families is the first of its kind in Japan.

Just over 50 young men aged 17 to 20 who have committed crimes such as theft and assault live at the school. The school started the program last July as part of its corrective education, with each young man responsible for a dog and its training for a period of about three months.

Humanin Foundation takes in abandoned dogs in the care of entities such as local governments and conducts dog training at the school for a few hours on weekdays. On weekends, volunteer families in the area look after the dogs, and exchange letters with the youths.

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After the dogs have been trained, they are transferred to families willing to adopt them. So far, six young men have participated in the program.

There are 52 juvenile training schools in Japan, all of which provide life counseling and moral education. In the search for effective corrective education methods, the training school in Yachimata devised this program with assistance from Hokoyama, who had been involved in a program using dogs at U.S. correctional facilities.

It is said that at a youth correctional facility in Oregon that has carried out a similar program since 1993, the youths in that program found they had gained greater resilience and responsibility while training dogs, as well as a greater sense of self-respect. This helps prevent recidivism.

“I thought about the value of life,” said a 20-year-old offender at Yachimata Juvenile Training School who participated in the program from July to October last year.

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He stopped going to school after the upper grades of primary school, and was arrested five times on charges such as assault. This is the second time he has been put in a juvenile training school.

He became flustered at first when the dog training went less smoothly than he’d expected. However, he never used violence against the dog because he recalled the violence he suffered at the hands of his stepfather.

“I thought it would be meaningless to use violence,” he said, feeling a sense of empathy with the dog.

He was furious at the selfishness of owners who had abandoned their dogs but said, “I’ve realized I also did selfish things and hurt many people.” He and the volunteer family taking care of the same dog also reported to each other on its status through letters.

“I was able to save a life that was to be culled. I could be useful to someone for the first time,” he said.

At the closing ceremony of the program, he wrote “Go and live happily” on a bandanna and tearfully tied it around the dog’s neck.

Yoshikazu Yamashita, an instructor at the training school, said: “Participants (in the program) take to the dogs earnestly and with affection. They recognize the importance of life and make great efforts to fulfill their responsibilities. We hope they’ll make good use of this experience after they go out into society.”