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Police dogs fill new role in searching for missing elderly

Barry and assistant inspector Tomoyasu Murayama are seen in the Tokyo suburban city of Tama. (Mainichi)

Police dogs, traditionally used in tracking down criminal suspects, are now increasingly being used in searching for elderly dementia patients who have wandered off, marking a shift in their role in Japan's graying society.

    Early one mid-June morning this year, a woman arrived at a police box in the Tokyo suburb of Tama, saying, "My husband is missing." When she returned home after work, her husband, in his 50s and with younger-onset Alzheimer's, was not there, and she couldn't find him anywhere in the neighborhood, either.

    Assistant inspector Tomoyasu Murayama, 54, of the Metropolitan Police Department's forensic science department, was called to search for the man. He brought his police dog, Barry, a male aged 2 years and 6 months, and hurried to the woman's home. After being given a pair of socks the husband had worn the day before to sniff, Barry set out in full search mode.

    Two minutes later, Barry found the husband collapsed at a property located around 100 meters from the woman's home. He was barely conscious, but after being taken to a hospital, he recovered. It seemed he had wandered into the property and collapsed there.

    Murayama says, "If the discovery (of a missing person) is delayed, it can affect their survival. I am glad I was able to see the woman with a relieved look on her face."

    According to the National Police Agency (NPA), in 2015 police around the nation used police dogs 6,141 times to search for people such as the elderly who had wandered off or hikers missing in the mountains, about double the figure from the 3,028 times of 2006. Previously it was more common for the dogs to be mobilized for crime investigation tasks, such as tracking down suspects or finding drugs, but in 2008 rescue searches became a more common use.

    A rise in missing dementia patients is thought to be the main reason for the increase in police dogs being utilized for rescue searches. In 2015, a total of 12,208 people were reported to police as missing due to dementia, about a 27 percent increase from the 9,607 of 2012, the year the NPA began releasing the statistics. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is calling on investigators not to hesitate to request police dogs for searches of missing people, and from January through September this year police dogs were used in searches 2.6 more times compared to the same period last year.

    According to the MPD, the effectiveness of search dogs is higher if they are used within 90 minutes of the person going missing. MPD's forensic science department chief Tomoaki Uehara says, "Searching with police dogs is a low-tech method that has continued since the Taisho era, but it is not inferior to high-tech methods like using security cameras."

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