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Karen Howard and her service dog, Oliver, look out over Mutsu Bay in Aomori Prefecture, Japan. Howard moved to Misawa, Japan, in 2007 with her family after her husband, Bryan, got a three-year assignment to Misawa Air Base. Krean Howard has a neurological condition that affects her balance and speech; she needs Oliver to help her get around.
Karen Howard and her service dog, Oliver, look out over Mutsu Bay in Aomori Prefecture, Japan. Howard moved to Misawa, Japan, in 2007 with her family after her husband, Bryan, got a three-year assignment to Misawa Air Base. Krean Howard has a neurological condition that affects her balance and speech; she needs Oliver to help her get around. (Courtesy Karen Howard)
Karen Howard and her service dog, Oliver, look out over Mutsu Bay in Aomori Prefecture, Japan. Howard moved to Misawa, Japan, in 2007 with her family after her husband, Bryan, got a three-year assignment to Misawa Air Base. Krean Howard has a neurological condition that affects her balance and speech; she needs Oliver to help her get around.
Karen Howard and her service dog, Oliver, look out over Mutsu Bay in Aomori Prefecture, Japan. Howard moved to Misawa, Japan, in 2007 with her family after her husband, Bryan, got a three-year assignment to Misawa Air Base. Krean Howard has a neurological condition that affects her balance and speech; she needs Oliver to help her get around. (Courtesy Karen Howard)
Karen Howard, and her service dog, Oliver, pose with a Japanese guard in Irosaki in northern Japan. Oliver earned his certification as a service dog under Japanese law earlier this year.
Karen Howard, and her service dog, Oliver, pose with a Japanese guard in Irosaki in northern Japan. Oliver earned his certification as a service dog under Japanese law earlier this year. (Courtesy Karen Howard)

TOKYO — Before Oliver, Karen Howard didn’t want to leave her Maryland home. With Oliver, she’s traveling Japan.

About 20 years ago, Howard was diagnosed with Machado-Joseph disease, a neurological condition that causes slurred speech and loss of balance. Over time, Howard went from steady steps to needing a cane.

By 2004, the cane wasn’t enough. Instead of a walker, she opted for a specially trained service dog, one that could steady her gait and help her pick up things outside her reach.

Through Fidos for Freedom, a group that helps match service dogs with people who need them, she got a Labrador-golden retriever male called Oliver.

“Now that I have Oliver, I’ll go anywhere,” said Howard, 49. So when her husband, Bryan, a Department of Defense civilian worker, got a chance in 2007 to take a three-year assignment at Misawa Air Base, the family didn’t hesitate.

They did, however, have to figure out how to live in Japan with an American service dog. Misawa vet officials said they couldn’t recall another service dog coming to Japan before or since.

Because rabies has been eliminated in Japan, the Japanese government requires that all incoming dogs have microchips, receive two rabies inoculations, and wait 180 days to build immunity to the infection.

Families can do the 180-day quarantine at their stateside homes and provide the proper paperwork when they enter Japan. Military families PCSing to Japan can bring their dogs before the 180 days elapse as long as they keep the pets on base, both Japanese and base officials said. People living off base must put their dogs in Japanese or military kennels during the quarantine.

But Japan makes an exception for service dogs, according to at Kazuhiro Yonekawa, an official at Japan’s Animal Quarantine Service office at Narita International Airport. “You can’t separate the owner and the dog,” he said.

Howard and Oliver were allowed to begin traveling throughout Japan in the fall of 2007, even though the dog’s quarantine was at about the 70-day mark, Howard said.

Yet there was another hoop to jump through: Japan’s requirement that service dogs be certified.

A Japanese organization, Japan Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, worked with Fidos for Freedom to establish Oliver’s credentials, but because Howard and Oliver are considered visitors, the certification for Oliver, now 8, must be renewed each month.

With the certification came an identification card for Howard and official permission for her to take the dog wherever she wants to go, including trains, restaurants, stores and museums.

After two years living in Japan, Howard, her husband, and their three teenage children have grown accustomed to frequenting places that welcome Oliver. Howard says she once felt self-conscious about her symptoms.

“Now, people don’t see me,” she said. “They see Oliver. It’s brought me a good deal of independence.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

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