Volunteering at an Animal Shelter in Japan: What You Need to Know

Volunteering at an animal shelter is one of the most heartbreaking, rewarding activities I have ever done. I often speak in an exaggerated, flamboyant way, but nothing about this post is or will be as such–I can’t promise this will not be a solemn post, but I do promise a lot of (happy) “aww” moments if you give me the chance.

I am a dog lover–as you can tell by my profile spheal. (My second favorite animal is manatees, by the way, but they won’t make much of an appearance in this entry–if you somehow had predicted and expected that, I’m sorry to let you down.) I first volunteered at an animal shelter when I was in 5th grade–I was technically too young to do so, but I had my connections. When I was in the US in my senior year of college–away from home and my own dog–I volunteered every Tuesday for 2 hours at the local animal shelter. I cannot praise that shelter enough, as it was one of the most successful ones I’ve seen; they have too many volunteers, have such a fantastic turnover rate that they take in animals from other shelters, have over 11,000 likes on Facebook, and saved over 2,250 lives (how they measure adoptions) from January 1, 2015 – December 31, 2015. At the time of this post, they have saved roughly 400 since January 1, 2016. They are strictly no-kill unless it is absolutely necessary (such as, unfortunately, an outbreak of deadly and highly contagious pavovirus in puppies). Their standard of being in the shelter too ridiculously long without finding a forever home is a couple months (which is not to say this is not a fine or fair standard to have, but this will come into comparison later).

Snow White was at the shelter for several months before finding a loving family.

Snow White was at the shelter for several months before finding a loving family.

There are many sectors for people to volunteer–foster parenting, PR, technical matters, and of course, directly caring for the animals. This latter section is broken down into several groups–the classic cats vs. dogs (although they do often also have a store of rabbits and sometimes other more exotic animals), then as I went with dogs, adoptable dogs vs. strays. I again went with the latter.

I spent most of my time, therefore, on the stray side of the shelter not visible to the public. This is the side of all the dogs who are sick, lost and found and waiting for their owners to *maybe* come get them, dumped at the shelter, abandoned on the side of the road, given up by their owners for various reasons, or essentially ready for adoption but still undergoing some exams. This is where the dogs who are undergoing intensive treatment are placed, wrapped in blankets, with blank, unseeing eyes as you try and coddle them without touching them (as this could worsen their brittle state unless you’re approved to do so), and ultimately, either pass away or survive.

The worst case I witnessed during my months as a volunteer there.

The worst case I witnessed during my months as a volunteer there.

This is where the most scared dogs are kept, the ones who either unequivocally fear or hate humans, or otherwise crave their touch and often cannot get it (except of course by certified personnel), for most are under quarantine. There’s an immense sense of joy once you see your dogs graduate from the “stray” side to the “adoptable” side, and then a bitter-sweetness when you see them disappear from the “adoptable” side to an adoptive family. There is also an immense heartbreak when you see some of the sweetest dogs you fostered as a volunteer then return to the “stray” side and undergo the process all over again.

Images from the shelter

I can go on and on about this, but I need to end this section here and move on to the main crux of this post.

Volunteering in Japan

I looked this up almost as soon as I learned where I was specifically placed at on JET–what animal shelters were near enough to me to help out at.

In Japan, this, unfortunately, was not so straightforward as making a simple Google search and submitting an application to volunteer. While toy poodles dressed in ridiculous jean skirts and with bows in their ears are everywhere, information about animal welfare is disappointingly low. Animal shelters do exist, but ask a random Japanese person on the street what an animal shelter (動物保護施設 doubutsu hogo shisetsu or 動物保護センター doubutsu hogo sentaa) is, and most people will tilt their heads like a little puppy at you. Puppy mills (繁殖所 hanshokujo or just パピーミル papii miru) are also a rampant problem, but these are even less-widely known and are almost never reported on by the mass media. What most people will recognize are the 保健所 (hokensho, or animal control offices), which are anything but shelters–these are basically government run pounds that put 1 week as an expiration date on any animal that passes through its doors (usually dogs, as you see feral cats roaming around quite a bit here, which is in general deemed acceptable). I can’t even say that they then euthanize the poor animals, as gas is the weapon of choice to bring their lives to their ends. Tochigi, as an example, recently switched from gas to injections, but even this should be looked at with a cautious eye. While this of course doesn’t apply to everyone, an unfortunately common trend in Japan is to treat pets like fashion–the cute ones stay, until they’re not cute anymore. Animal welfare in Japan is improving, but is still very, very far from ideal.

One of N-san's rescue missions.

One of N-san’s rescue missions.

In any case, I did some searching around and found several grassroots animal shelters in Tochigi. I managed to get in enough contact with one called Happy Tails that I was able to meet the woman running the organization, N-san, before she allowed me and the team of JET volunteers I assembled to actually go and visit the dogs and cats in her care–a background check interview, if you will. Luckily I passed with flying colors (hoorah), and first made a lone visit to her facility before calling on any other Tochigi volunteers.

N-san is running the entire organization out of her own home–an average-sized Japanese house in a residential area. I was there to walk the dogs, which came out one after another as I completed the circuit and returned to her house for the next. The bigger dogs came first, then the smaller ones. Then more smaller ones. And still more smaller ones. I eventually had to give her an end time, as it seemed I wouldn’t finish the never-ending line of dogs waiting to be walked. Every time I returned to switch dogs, I was met with rounds of howling and barking coming from within the walls–N-san had asked me to call her cellphone when I was ready to switch instead of ringing the doorbell, for obvious reasons, and even still…

A handful of the rescue children.

A handful of the rescue children.

Eventually, several hours passed, and I had to get on my way home. Apparently I had passed the next level of the rightly placed trust-exam, and N-san asked if I would like to come upstairs and see the situation for myself.


All the experience I had built up from volunteering in the US could not have prepared me for this.

I hadn’t even scratched the surface of the number of dogs walked, as, at any time, there are roughly 50 in her care. Her entire house is dedicated to the rescued animals–her entryway is bursting with sanitation supplies and pet food; each of her rooms is sectioned off into pens holding 10-15 dogs at least. Her kitchen is dominated by tiny, white balls of fluff, while what I expect would be a living room in any other persons’s house is dedicated to the handful of larger dogs and a smaller pen of special care miniature dogs. This goes on for about a few more rooms. She has one room filled with about 20 or so cats and one sweet shiba inu, Hana, who does not prefer the company of her own species.

Feeling the love



“I only have one other regular volunteer, who comes to help several days a week. Otherwise, it’s mostly me taking care of all of them,” N-san explains. When asked how frequently the pets in her care find their forever homes, she answers in an equally heartbreaking manner: “It really depends. In a good month, we will have 1 or 2. Sometimes we have a dry spell of about 6 months with no one.” It would be easy to assume that N-san would readily give away dogs to anyone who asks, but she is a strong woman who stands her ground–she continues, “It’s not rare that I turn away families looking to adopt because they don’t seem fit for some reason or another.”

Kai, a mixed breed, snuggling up to Hachi

Not all the dogs are necessarily up for adoption either. Hachi is an Akita inu that we English-region volunteers describe as lovable, adorable, fluffy, and, most iconically, derpy. On four legs, he stands up to my waist, yet is a gentle giant and absolutely no hassle to walk. He likes to use his size to inadvertently knock over other dogs trying to get human attention, and also likes to steal slippers. “I can’t give him up for adoption,” N-san says. “He has a brain disorder, so he sometimes has seizures. I’m afraid that if even if he does find a good family, he’ll be relegated to living outside.

“Most of the larger dogs were abandoned,” she continues. “The vast majority [most of the small dogs] are from puppy mills.”

Images from Happy Tails


Fast forward five months to now. I set up monthly volunteer days that started just within the Tochigi JET network I manage but has since spread to other Tochigi ALTs and friends of friends, both foreign and Japanese. N-san has made 2 puppy mill rescues since (no matter that her space is always limited–she is motivated by her will to save, not at-home comfort), which she writes about in her blog, and which I help her translate into English. Unfortunately, my experiences with working with the stray side of the shelter in my US facility are nothing compared to the reality she faces every day–internal and external complications are regular occurrences, and she is regrettably no stranger to death of those in her care. She is passionate, active, and brilliant–I don’t believe “giving up” is a word pair in her vocabulary, unless it’s in the context of giving up a dog she’s taken care of for years to a loving forever family. Even with one extra regular volunteer, caring for her charges takes up most of her day, yet she still helps run a clinic attached to her abode, and has the time to study English–which she speaks incredibly.

I remember most of the walk-able dogs names at this point, and feel a sense of relief when I see news of adoptions–not yet 10 even, but even a handful is progress. So far, no one has been re-relinquished, which is uplifting. Bunta, a one-eyed, three-legged, understandably irritable and distrusting medium-sized breed, occasionally comes up to me for pets now–a major breakthrough–although he still has tried to snap at me several times when he hasn’t directly requested the touch.

Thanks to Farah Iqbal for the photo

What we do is only a small dent in aid: walking the dogs who are physically able to walk or be outside (carrying or pushing the ones who can’t or won’t in a stroller), cleaning the cat room, preparing towels and plastic bags and doing other “clerical” tasks, taking photos of the pets to PR them and show the world that although they are strays and have endured much suffering, they are still dogs and cats capable of love and of being loved. After a couple times N-san gave me a donut maker that someone had dropped off to her, and every visit I make sure I prepare some doggie donuts as treats beforehand. I helped her set up a Facebook page in addition to helping her translate her blog where I can. This list seems long written here, yet like a minuscule contribution when you actually see the situation with your own eyes, like you’re trying to chip away at a wall that you know will never fall in your lifetime.

But that isn’t the point of volunteering. While it is nice to imagine having a larger contribution, being part of a grassroots movement is just that–you are at the beginning, at the roots. This is truly a “to the world, you are one person, but to one person, you are the world” situation, and viewing yourself as a hero out to save the world may be counterproductive and somewhat selfish. A helpful selfishness, but selfish all the same, as you put the focus on yourself.


Thanks to Farah Iqbal for the photo


And that is why I walk stray dogs in Tochigi.


Some need to be carried on walks because they have never been outside–and walking is foreign, uncomfortable, or even terrifying for them.

Some need to be carried because their bodies are in such horrifying, permanent states that they cannot walk like normal dogs.

Some love walks, but couldn’t care too much about the humans walking them–they are walking on business, not for the human’s pleasure, and this needs to be understood to be selfless.

Some love the walks, love the air, love the humans that rescued and help them.

Most, no matter how timid they are, or how scared of you they are, or how aggressive they are, will grow to love you.

And that is the amazing quality of dogs.

Thanks to Farah Iqbal for the photo

Thanks to Farah Iqbal for the photo


For more information about adopting in Tochigi, visit sites such as Tochi Pochi and the Tochigi Animal Shelter (both Japanese only).

For more information about Happy Tails, visit N-san’s blog (Japanese, and work-in-progress English) and our Facebook page (Japanese and English). For more information or any inquiries, please send a message to our Facebook page in either English or Japanese, and we can get back to you as soon as we can.

Please try to find a volunteer effort in your area if you can. To find animal shelters, a good first point of contact is a volunteer center, which coordinates the efforts of various organizations, and can be found in most localities.


And finally,

Here’s a manatee.




Author Bio
Kelsey Lechner

Kelsey Lechner

This dog-loving former Tochigi CIR hails from its sister-state of Indiana and loves traveling the world and eating everything. She graduated after completing a thesis discussing the links between human trafficking and idol culture, and now works in Tokyo for an international human rights NGO.


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