A Dog’s Life, Japan Japanese dog-owning culture is for the dogs (literally!)

    Nowadays, people see their dogs as part of their family, and they treat them – and spend on them – accordingly. There’s day care, organic food, health insurance, personalized birthday cakes… it all makes some people think that dog culture in the US has gotten out of control.

    But quite on the contrary, what bothers me is this: We’re falling behind Japan. I’ve seen way too many things for dogs in Japan that we don’t have that I want. Yeah, there’s some wacky stuff I could live without, but mostly, I feel like we have some catching up to do.

    Dogs Everywhere

    statue of dog and toy of pug

    If you’ve ever met a friend in Shibuya by the famous statue of Hachiko – a dog who died in the 1930s – you know the Japanese love of dogs is nothing new. But in the last couple of decades, pet ownership has increased to new heights. It’s estimated that in 2012, one out of four Japanese households had a cat or a dog, and one estimate of the number of pet dogs is 11,530,000.

    In fact, it’s often noted that there are more pets than children. Figures are tossed around like, the number of dogs and cats combined has outnumbered children since 2003, or that in 2006, there were more pet dogs than children under 12.

    I guess some people like children more than I do, because when I read articles like that, my reaction is, “You say this like it’s a problem?” And it’s true that with increased popularity come some new issues. But like in any good capitalist society, those increased numbers also mean new business opportunities, which result in awesome stuff for dog owners to take advantage of.

    Going Places

    patrons sitting at chirori dog cafe

    The Japanese innovation that I’m most jealous of is the dog cafe. Dog cafes aren’t to be confused with cat cafes, where you go to pet cats that live at the cafe. A dog cafe is a place for you to go together with your own dog. There are fancy dishes you can order for your pet, and there’s human food, some dog-themed, like this pancake from the cafe pictured above in Odaiba:

    dog themed stack of pancakes

    It’s a good thing my two pugs can’t read this article, or they’d be demanding we immediately move to Tokyo. They’re not interested in playing ball or going for walks in the woods. Their taste in entertainment is the same as mine: they like to go out to eat. But since health rules ban dogs from restaurants in the US, our opportunities to do this are incredibly restricted. We have to find a restaurant with a patio or sidewalk table, they have to let us sit at it (many places don’t want dogs even outside, and it’s often strictly speaking illegal there also), and, of course, the weather has to be suitable, which it hardly ever is. To me and my dogs, these cafes would be heaven on earth.

    sign on fence of Japanese dog park

    If they were normal dogs that like to play outside, Tokyo would also be a great place to live, because I also came across the best off-leash dog park I’ve ever seen. Yoyogi Park is more famous for, say, synchronized rockabilly dancers and other wacky human activities, but it also has an amazing, huge dog park. As you can see from the sign above, it’s divided into sections for different size dogs, which is important for safety, but something there’s rarely room for in the dog parks in my neck of the woods.

    Japanese dogs and owners playing at dog park

    But you’re not restricted to fun near home. Maybe the most amazing dog-related business that we don’t have is a chain of hotels called Wan Wan Paradise that are especially for people to stay with their dogs. There are services like groomers, trainers and photographers, activities like group hikes, and facilities for swimming and dog sports. Here’s a bulletin board of photos of happy guests at their hotel in Toba:

    cork board with photographs of dogs pinned on

    If you’re a very well informed American dog owner, you may say “But wait! We can do this. There are dog camps.” Yes, there are dog camps where you can stay for a week with your pup and do all kinds of canine activities. But Wan Wan Paradise is no campground. For the humans, there are all the facilities of a hot spring resort, including the fancy food (check out the photo galleries here and here)

    It’s hard enough to find a hotel in the US that will simply tolerate letting you bring your dog along. A resort that actually catered to them would be paradise indeed.

    Canine Cuisine

    menu of fancy dog food

    Dog cafes – like the one at Tokyo SkyTree that has the menu pictured above – are far from the only place where you can get fancy dog food in Japan. If you’re driving to one of those special dog hotels, apparently you can even get special dog bento at some highway rest stops

    What’s a dog bento, you may ask? They’re probably a lot like this one, from a pet shop in the same mall in Odaiba that I mentioned above:

    dog dishes in plastic containers

    The shop also had amazing and creative treats that imitate both Japanese and Western style human food:

    pet treats shaped like animals
    fancy dog food treats

    And if those aren’t fancy enough for you, you can order a special New Year’s dog bento:

    special bento meals for dogs

    OK, now that is over the top. But I admit it: if I lived there, I’d be first in line to pick mine up.

    Fashion

    store shelves with clothes for dogs
    Source: Aaron Olaf

    I’m totally on board with dog restaurants and hotels, but here’s where things start to seem crazy to me: Japanese dog fashion.

    Yes, there’s a lot more dog clothing in the US than there used to be. But the majority of it is practical, to keep your dog dry or warm. And the clothes that are purely decorative are usually no fancier than t-shirts. There is more elaborate stuff, but it’s fairly rare.

    In Japan, it’s a lot more common to dress your dog, and there’s a lot more fancy fashion. There are also particular categories of garments that are nearly unheard of here. Yes, we have dresses, although they have a lot more of them. And I can almost understand, for a special occasion, a dog manicure, if you have the sort of dog (unlike mine) that will let you touch its precious paws.

    What they have that I can’t get my head around are the pajamas, and the pants:

    display mannequin for dog pajamas
    Source: Stéfan

    Why would a dog need to sleep any way but naked? And why would one need to wear pants? But to be honest, I don’t understand most of Japanese human fashion either, so maybe I’m missing something.

    Not All Roses

    black pug looking at the camera
    Source: Lachlan Hardy

    Not everything is perfect for the dog owner in Japan. Before I drop everything and move myself and my pugs to Tokyo, I’d need to deal with the fact that it’s still quite hard to find a rental that allows pets.

    I also saw a video of a Japanese trainer suggesting that the polite dog owner should carry an absorbent pad for her pup to pee on – even OUTDOORS. Picking up poop has become standard in most of the developed world, but picking up pee is just plain nuts.

    The rapid rise of the pet dog in Japan also has some dark sides. Like the US, Japan has a problem with puppy mills, businesses that churn out dogs with little concern for the welfare of either the parents or the puppies. And there’s not much of a culture of adopting from shelters, so most abandoned pets are euthanized.

    But I feel pretty confident that a dog in a loving home in Japan has it as good as anywhere in the world. When I was at that cafe in Odaiba, there was a couple with a pug, and of course I had to show them all the pictures of my own pugs on my phone. The woman asked how old they were, and when I told her that the older one was 14, she reacted exactly the way I would have: She wanted to know how I did it. How did I care for my dog that she lived to be that old? My Japanese is minimal and her English was only a little better, but we managed to have the same conversation I’d have had back at home about the ingredients in dog food. It convinced me that Japanese dog lovers are the same deep down, even if some of them they do dress their pups in pants.