This is an environmental watch with a difference. A clean-nosed crew, sniff out trouble and keep the streets safe for schoolchildren: meet Tokyo’s real-life Paw Patrol puppies.
They may not have the gadgets and gear of their beloved cartoon counterpart, but the dogs from the Wan-Wan Patrol (bow-wow) are a favorite in Tokyo’s Karasuyama neighborhood.
Twelve year old Yurika Igarashi hopes to see Sakura, a furry toy poodle, when she is on her way home from school.
“Sometimes I get scared when I go home alone, but I feel fine when I walk with the Wan-Wan Patrol,” he told AFP, gently holding Sakura in his lap.
Sakura is one of the 150 puppies that make up the Wan-Wan Patrol, a program that asks dogs and their owners to turn their daily walks into neighborhood guards, monitoring children, keeping an eye on residents, and helping prevent crime.
The Karasuyama program is one of the oldest community initiatives in Japan and was founded by a local police officer.
“Individual owners walk in whenever they can and have their dogs wear the same scarf,” said Keiko Shimizu, the current patrol leader.
Clearly marked canines patrolling the streets mean “we can help make the neighborhood less vulnerable to crime,” he added.
Many dog owners are parents of local school students and former students, but others only participate in community viewing as residents.
One recent morning, the five dogs in lime green scarves of the Wan-Wan Patrol wagged their tails as they accompanied the children to elementary school.
Pu, a 17-year-old shih tzu, is one of the oldest members of the patrol and can no longer walk alone. But she proudly participates from the comfort of a doggy stroller pushed by her owner.
“This program helps us get to know each other and be good neighbours, and I feel like this place stays safe that way,” says Michiko Takeuchi, owner of a poodle and Maltese mix Kojiro, and mother of a local schoolboy.
And patrols aren’t just for show.
“We had a member who found an elderly person who had died alone,” patrol leader Shimizu told AFP.
“They realized it by seeing the room lights were still on in the morning. We walk around the same hours on the same route every day, so it’s easier for us to notice if something’s out of the ordinary.”
Japan has a reputation for being one of the safest countries in the world, with a very low violent crime rate.
But there have been occasional tragedies, including last month’s devastating crash east of Tokyo in which a drunk driver rammed his truck into a group of schoolchildren, killing two people.
Jun Ameie, principal at the local Kyuden Elementary School, said neighborhood guards helped reassure parents and children.
“Parents appreciate that there are many people in the neighborhood who care and make sure the environment is safe, especially these days when we hear so many reports of crimes involving children,” he told AFP.
“I believe children can play carefree outside of school and anywhere else in the neighborhood, because they know that many adults care about their safety,” added Ameie.
For the young Igarashi, the cuddly canines were a reliable source of comfort.
“Of course it’s nice to walk the dogs, but I also feel protected by them.”