Sometimes, when the world is seemingly crashing down around you, all it takes to find comfort is a friend’s warm hug and patient listening. It doesn’t really matter if your friend is furry, feathered, or even scaly. Throughout history, animal companions have helped humans deal with complex emotions.
After losing my father in law and moving back to the family home, we had to deal with a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy. It was difficult enough to deal with the lawyers and bank people on top of all of the emotions that we were facing.
Who owned what and what was owed to whom seemed irrelevant. We were struggling with the loss of someone so important to our family. The heartache of never seeing your loved one again makes you want to scream at the top of your lungs that the money doesn’t matter; you would give up all the money in the world if it meant having your loved one back.
I know that I’m not the only person who struggles with bouts of loneliness and depression, especially as an expat in Japan. In fact, there was a recent GP blog post about dealing with the culture shock of living in Japan. While I have certainly learned to implement many of the suggestions in that post, animal companions have always helped me deal with difficult emotions, especially grief.
So I brought up the subject of getting a dog. Everyone in the family was very supportive of the idea and recalled that my father in law’s family always had dogs in the past. So our minds were made up. We were going to get a dog. But where do you go from there?
In Japan, finding an apartment where you can have a small pet like a hamster or hedgehog is not as easy as one would think. Many land lords are not very flexible with the no pet rule.
A friend of mine recently moved and asked the landlord whether the no pets rule applied to small animals like hamsters. After much deliberation, he decided that rodents and small pets were also prohibited.
The difficulty of finding a pet-friendly apartment increases as the size, loudness, and potential smell of the pet increases. Most of the apartment buildings that allow pets for a fee are either very expensive or very old.
GaijinPot Apartments has a pretty selection of pet friendly apartments in Japan.
Animal companions are companions, and companionship is a reciprocal relationship. If you expect support and love from your companion, you have to be willing to give just as much back.
If you are only going to see the animal a few hours at night before you go to sleep, perhaps you should stick with a small pet that doesn’t need a lot of attention. Also consider who may be able to take care of your pet while you are away, and what may happen if you have to relocate abroad.
If you have your heart set on an animal but you realise that you can’t actually have one, you can always volunteer with a rescue organisation instead. Animal Refuge Kansai is one such organisation that is very foreigner friendly. We later adopted our second dog from them.
Larger mammals are very expensive in Japan if you buy them at a pet store. No matter how you feel about pet stores, the truth is that there are far more affordable and humane options. As previously mentioned, animal rescue organisations exist in Japan, but you can also find dogs and cats at the animal shelter (hokenjo) or even by direct rescue. When we got our first dog, we did the latter.
We scoured the internet for dogs in need. We found appeals from all over Japan from owners who needed to give up their pets. One woman had a beagle that was in a near-emergency situation.
The dog was given to the woman as a present from her husband prior to their marriage. Within the next four years, she had gotten married and had 3 children. With so many small children, taking care of her dog was the last thing on her mind. She had him tied to a pole in their gravel driveway. He had a habit of chewing to relieve boredom, and due to a lack of toys, he had chewed up his dog house. She removed the house, and he was left without shelter.
The sad photos of him tied to the pole on the gravel driveway without shelter or water pulled at our heartstrings. She didn’t want any money for him. She just wanted to find him a better home.
It was a huge risk, but we rented a car and trekked all the way to Shizuoka from Mie for this dog, then named Rikku. We knew nothing about him. We didn’t want to get our hopes up, but they were certainly up.
As we pulled into the driveway, Rikku lifted his head from his prone position. As we turned off the engine, his tail began to wag. My heart began to pound. I opened the door, and his tail began wagging even harder, in time with my heart. I cautiously walked up to him, knowing to exercise proper safety around unknown dogs, but he immediately strained at his chain with his tail wagging furiously. I took the risk and squatted next to him. He lunged. He planted sloppy doggy kisses all over my face. I hugged him and he kept twisting around to lick and cuddle me. Perhaps he was just starved for attention, but perhaps he somehow knew he was meeting his forever family.
After talking with his former owner, gathering up his paperwork, and collecting the few possessions he had, we got ready to leave. We untied Rikku and he followed us to the car. He jumped right inside without any prompting. He didn’t respond to the woman who kept repeating his name and saying goodbye. We are fairly certain he never even knew his name.
On the ride home, he energetically cuddled me and looked out the window. He would turn to me and grunt as if trying to communicate in what he thought were the noises humans made. His moxie and spunk made me laugh. I remembered a similar acting cartoon canine, and a lightbulb flashed in my brain. It was then that we renamed him Spunky.
Enjoy the Rewards
Seven years and countless hugs later, Spunky has helped my family in so many ways. Likewise, we have helped him through his herniated disks and other health problems. He lives indoors and sleeps in a nice bed surrounded by people who love him. On nice days, he runs around our inner courtyard and lounges in the sun on our deck.
While I type this, he is patiently lying at my feet. As I reread this article to myself, I hear the heavy thumping of his tail each time I murmur his name. It’s a name he knows is uniquely his because we, his companions, use that name as we share our affection with him.
Animal companionship is certainly reciprocal, and it’s a blessing for both sides if you have the ability and responsibility to commit to it.