In Japan: 14 years
Identity: Search and rescue dog trainer / Hiking tour guide
Not long after John first arrived in Fukuoka, a tragic event took place back home that was to have a significant impact on his career path in Japan. A friend was swept away in an avalanche and it was days before a search dog finally found his body. After seeing the distress suffered by his friend’s family, John decided that search and rescue was for him. Concerned by the lack of rescue animals in Kyushu, he taught himself how to train dogs and eventually earned certification through the Kyushu Rescue Dog Association. Since then, he has travelled to locations around Japan – including Tohoku – with his canine rescue partner, Mana, to aid emergency efforts. Unfortunately, search and rescue doesn’t pay the bills, but he manages to combine his love of the outdoors as owner of Amarok Outdoor Adventures. The company organizes group hikes in some of the most spectacular spots in Kyushu. His personal ambitions remain firmly with search and rescue training, though, and he is working towards establishing a volunteer ground search and rescue team here in Fukuoka.
What brought you to Japan in the first place?
I always wanted to do Japanese martial arts ever since I was a kid and I when I started working and making my own money, I found a dojo and I started aikido there—when I was around 19 or 20. The main instructor was from Fukuoka originally. In ’97 she brought her sensei, from Fukuoka, to do a seminar in Vancouver. I’d always had a dream to go to Japan, just for a visit and after I saw that, I said, “Yeah, I want to go there and train.”
How did you first get into training search and rescue dogs?
We always had a dog at home, when I was growing up, so I always loved dogs. Being able to do something as a team with your dog, instead of it just being a pet, has always interested me. The year that I came to Fukuoka, a buddy of mine got swept away in an avalanche just outside of Vancouver and they couldn’t find his body for a while. Once the snow thawed out, they sent in a dog to look for him and it was actually the dog that found him. I remember seeing his family, who were saying “Where is he? Where is he? Why can’t he come home?” After I saw how they felt, I thought that this was something I could do. I mean, even though my buddy was dead, at least he was brought back to his family.
I had spent three years in the army and I was always interested in the police and fire department and stuff like that—I’m not a sales kind of guy [laughs]—so I thought it was something I could do.
The thing that got me started in Japan was the thought that if I’m going to be in Japan for a long time, I don’t just want to just do aikido and English. There’s got to be more—there IS more that I want to do instead of just those two things. [As a foreigner] You can’t join the army in Japan, you can’t join the fire department in Japan, so there’s only volunteer work. At that time, when I started, there was no rescue dog association in Kyushu.
When I got to the first place that I could have a dog, I started reading a book and contacted people on the internet to see how they trained their dogs. After I started training my first dog, I found the Kyushu Rescue Dog Association. Its main headquarters are in Kumamoto. I went down there and took their test with my dog and got certified through them.
Are you on call?
Basically, we’re on call. We’re a group of volunteers and people have other jobs. If somebody goes missing, the call, when it does go out, is sent to the Rescue Dog Association and they send an e-mail or call up the main people who usually go out and ask if they’re free. You get a basic idea of the situation, like is it a wilderness search or Alzheimer’s—we get a lot of old people with Alzheimer’s walking out of their home and never coming back. That’s actually the main thing we’re called out for. Also, of course, there was Tohoku, last year.
Were you involved?
Yeah, the earthquake and tsunami were on Friday and we went down on Saturday to the main training area and figured out where we were going to go. Originally there was a chance that we were going to get put on a military flight but that never panned out, so I took out the back seats of my truck and me and another handler put our dogs and our gear in and just drove up. We left early Sunday morning and it took about 25 hours—one slept, one drove. We went to Kesennuma, in the upper part of Miyagi prefecture. It was pretty hard hit.
When you got there what was it like?
It was just crazy. And after driving 25 hours, we go into the disaster center, and we say to the head of the fire department that we’re a rescue dog society from Kyushu—Miyagi prefecture had actually asked us to come—and he just looked at us straight and said, “Rescue dogs are only meant to find people who are alive. There’s nobody left alive, so we don’t need you.” That was Monday morning. I mean, that’s just a whole different article.
What did you do then?
Well, at that time, I just got pissed off and thought, “We’ve got to start looking somewhere.” So, we were just about to start heading down—and this is the thing that gets to me about the Japanese system—when one of the other rescue dog associations met us and asked us where we were going. We explained what happened and they asked who we talked to. I said that we talked to the fire guy and he said, “No, no, the fire department, dame dame, here you have to talk to the police.”
In Canada and the States, there’s more of a communication line that goes sideways, so that all agencies can inter-communicate and work together. But in Japan, it’s police, fire army and none of this [gestures, indicating a lack of communication]. So we went up in the same room. What they had was a room and they had the fire, the police and the military here [draws a diagram of a room split into three different sections. We came up and spoke to a guy not three or four metres away [from the fire department representative] and he said, “Oh, thank you so much, we can use you!” And while all this is going on, y’know it’s a disaster—time, time, time is ticking! All the time it took me to drive up there and all the time it took me to talk to people, we could have been searching, but nobody seems to give a shit.
Is this situation likely to change?
After Tohoku, things are starting to change. It’s starting to get to the point where we’re able to work together [with the authorities] to build a training model. After Tohoku, they realised that all the international teams, the one common thing they all brought was dogs. The Fukuoka Fire Department was saying that they want to build a role model of how to use volunteer dogs, so, yeah, it’s getting there.
When you did get going, what were you searching through?
Everything—mud, wrecked buildings, cars, just everything everywhere. In the places where there wasn’t wreckage, there was about this much [indicates about 6 inches] mud, and the smell of mud. A lot of the warehouses that got caught held fish that was freezing, so you had clumps of sanma (pike) all over the place. We came across a piece of tuna. I thought it was a leg at first.
Did you come across any bodies?
When I was there, we found about four or five. Kesennuma is near the ocean, so a lot got washed back out.
That must have been quite tough.
I don’t know if that’s why I feel that I’m made for this kind of work. Of course, it’s tragic and we have to treat these people with the utmost respect and if it was your friend, you’d be devastated but you just try to keep that somewhere else. Luckily, it was still fresh, so, y’know, it was just like people sleeping. There was no bad smell, there was no bloating, there were no bits because there was no explosion. And the way they were, they were covered in mud, so it was hard to tell that it was a person.
The one thing that got me the most, was not from the dead. We were searching one apartment and there was a huge pile of rubble here [draws a diagram, indicating that the pile was beside the building]. We came in, searched the rooms and then got up on the rubble pile. When we were up there, a lady—she was only in her mid-twenties, if that, and she had a baby on her back—she came up to us, just in complete shock. She pulled out a pacifier and said, “Will this help you? I think my baby’s in here somewhere.” There was just so much stuff in there, it was such a big rubble pile, it just wasn’t possible. When you get up on top, you saw that the pile was going all the way down the road for hundreds of metres.
We found out later, that the family had stayed in their house because they didn’t think the tsunami was going to be so bad, but then when it got crazy, they were going to evacuate. She had her newborn on her back, so I guess it must have been a one-year-old son that was getting washed away and the father went to save him and they both got washed away, so it was only the mother and the new born that escaped. Seeing her face, I think that gets to me more than bodies.
How long does it usually take to train a search and rescue dog?
It depends, usually for standard response, it takes about two years. Some dogs just get it, so in that case, it can take a year. Also, it depends when you start—if you get dogs when they’re pups and start to play games that make them use their nose instead of their eyes, it happens a lot quicker. Also, when they’re small, if you take them to a whole bunch of different places, like where they can feel vibrations from jackhammers or they can feel vibrations from engines, they become a more solid dog.
So, you own the dog too?
With rescue dogs, it’s a team. You really want to keep the handler and the pup together for as long as possible.
How often do you go out?
This year has been slow, which is good. There’s the disaster side—there was Tohoku and two years ago in Hofu, Yamaguchi, there was a landslide and part of an old folks’ home got washed away. They were the main two disasters. Other than that, there are hikers that go missing and don’t come home and, like I said, people with Alzheimer’s. Those happen every once in a while—probably four to eight times a year. Also, we go out looking for suicides.
Besides you, are there many other search and rescue dogs in Fukuoka?
No, right now I think there are other organisations but in Kyushu, but the Kyushu Rescue Dog Association is the biggest one. With them, there are about sixty dogs and not as many handlers all around Kyushu, and in Fukuoka there’s just me.
I want to start a volunteer search and rescue team in Fukuoka. In Japan, there aren’t any. They have them in Britain, in Canada – in the States alone, they have 1,500—where people undergo actual training to do this stuff safely.
In Japan, there was one search about three years ago, an eleven-year-old boy went missing on Karakuni-dake in Miyazaki. He went hiking with his mom and dad and grandparents and he thought they were walking too slow, so we went on ahead and they said they’d meet him up further. When they got to where they were supposed to meet him, he wasn’t there. It turned out that he had gone along a different trail and on his way back, he fell into a ravine.
They put out a call at three o’clock that their son went missing—they called the fire department, who searched until five o’clock when they said, “Oh, it’s getting dark, we have to call off the search.” In North America, you do not stop, for 72 to 96 hours, you do not stop. There’s always people on the ground searching. But they’re logic was sekinin, responsibility—they’re worried about nijisaigai, or rescuers getting hurt. They don’t want any of the rescuers getting hurt because it’s the responsibility of the person upstairs who sent them.
If you go on a search, people get hurt, it’s just the nature of the job, but they don’t see this. So, then there’s this boy out in the woods, on his own, in the middle of the night, scared shitless—and nobody’s coming. Then, if you check the weather report, the next day, from early morning, the temperature’s going to drop. It was October 31, it was going to drop to five degrees and it was going to rain for the next three days.
It was a full moon that night and on a full moon you don’t even need headlamps, you can see, but they wouldn’t go search in the middle of the night. I was told that you’re not allowed to go. I said “I’ll go!” They said, “No, no, you can’t go. If you go and you find him, you’re not allowed to say it was a rescue dog that found him. You have to say you went hiking at night to go take a picture of the sunrise and you found him.”
What happened to the boy?
He died. [He went missing] on Saturday. I only got the call on Sunday. They searched Saturday but they didn’t put the call out to everybody. They said, “OK, well this is in Miyazaki, so let’s call out people in Miyazaki first.” Then they searched for a day [on Sunday], and didn’t find him, so they were going to search for him the next day, which was a Monday. I got the call on Sunday night, and drove down and I think we started at 7:30 am, Monday morning. At noon, they finally found him and he had severe hypothermia, so it was the cold that got him. He did actually fall into a ravine, and he had a cut on his head, but where he fell to where he was found, he had moved, so he was still alive after that. But, they didn’t search for him. If they had searched on a full moon when he was probably still partially conscious and he could respond (it’s really, really quiet out there at night), he might have come home alive.
Tell me more about what you want to do to improve search and rescue in Fukuoka.
What I want to do is start a volunteer ground search and rescue team where rescue dogs are one component. I’ve got a couple of friends down in the Fukuoka Fire Department who, on their days off, have been going out and looking for people where the fire department search has been called off.
If we can show them, “We’re volunteering and we’re a higher level than you, so what are you guys doing?” and get them to change their ways of thinking, then maybe we can get them to change the way they’re being trained. I’m just tired of finding dead people, when you don’t have to, if you just train for it.
Moving on the business that pays the bills—your hiking tours. What’s your favourite hike in Kyushu?
One of the most beautiful places is Yakushima.
Jomon is nice but it’s better to spend your time going through the whole area—going through places like Shiratani. All my customers want to go to Jomon but you have to start at 5am and then GOOO!!! LOOK AT THE TREE! TAKE A PICTURE! AND THEN GOOO!!! You‘ve got to get out of there. You have to ask, “Did you really have fun?” We do that, but I also like to put in a nice, slow day at Shiratani or do the three-day traverse around the island. It’s really, really nice – we did that last year.
Kuju, in Oita, and Okue, in Miyazaki, are also nice.
What about in Fukuoka?
Yeah, I did one yesterday. The trail we took was from Saga but it’s right on the border with Fukuoka. The mountains up there are Ihara-yama and Baizan. During Golden Week, mitsuba tsutsuji (azaleas) are in bloom, so it’s a nice hike. Also, Fukuchiyama, in Kitakyushu—we go up there quite a bit. And Hiko-san, of course. Yeah, there’s a lot of good hiking around Fukuoka.
Finally, I often see people on hikes with what seems like crazy amounts of gear and I’ve always wondered, it really necessary to have all that when you’re going hiking?
There are certain parts where you have to have the proper gear—like vibram soles on your hiking boots and stuff like that—but you don’t need the big-ass leather boots that weight 50 lbs. You have to carry all your gear so, if you can, pack light. As long as you know what you need—you have a stove, you have gas, you have water. Usually when I go out, I plan that I might have to be out for a night. You don’t have to be out for a night in a hotel, right, you just have to survive the night. It might the worst night you ever have, you might be cold, but you’re not going to die. There are essentials like a first aid kit and if you’re worried about your knees or your ankles, you might want a trekking pole, or two. If you’ve got a tarp, you can use the trekking pole as a pole for the tarp.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn162, June 2012)
Interview and text by Hugh McCafferty.