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Date with a dog!

THE LATEST fashion accessory for the fun-minded singleton who wants to meet their ideal date or the busy young executive who is too busy for a full-time pet is… a date with a dog, effectively part-time dog ownership, writes Nick Mays.

To meet this pressing social demand, a new boutique in south Tokyo is now renting man’s best friend out by the hour.

Situated alongside other seafront shops of the Odaiba beach park, Puppy the World is fuelling the latest craze in a culture where people like their pleasure fast and fleeting. For a little over £7, customers can choose from an array of 35 dogs and enjoy the thrill of dog ownership for all of an hour.

A large board showing photographs of potential companions first confronts visitors entering the shop. The dazzling choice includes Aria and Uran, both Chihuahuas, CoCo, the miniature Dachshund, Baruto the Labrador and the Toy Poodles Puffy and Prin.

Small blue rosettes have been attached to the pictures of Nobunaga and Rinto to mark them out as the shop’s favourite ‘rentals’. The latter, described as a spirited young Chihuahua, weighs in at just over 2lb and appeals openly to the Japanese worship of anything "kawaii", or small, cute and loveable. A bit like a Tamagotchi, in fact, but furrier.

While the choice of dog is entirely the customer’s own, the 15 staff at Puppy the World are adept at judging which dog’s personality would best suit the customer. A reporter from the The Times newspaper was offered a feisty 1st 12lb bulldog called Jojo, with a spiked collar and particular passion for a brightly coloured tennis ball.

Before walkies can begin, an elaborate contract must be signed, identification documents produced and the shop’s proprietors must like the look of the customer. The staff then hand over a bag containing water, a tin bowl and plastic bags to clean up the inevitable effect of a blind date on a nervous dog. Once the lead has been handed over, all the liability is the customer’s own. At peak times, more than 70 people a day arrive at the store to secure their single treasured hour of canine camaraderie.

Hiromi Maeda, the owner of Puppy the World, explains that her customers fall into a broad range: families with small children who live in flats where pets are not allowed; older couples who used to own a dog but can’t now for whatever reason; and dog-owners who believe that their animals are lonely and want to introduce them to a temporary friend.

However, the great majority of customers are young dating couples hoping for a disposable glimpse of domestic bliss.

As Hanako Iida, a college student browsing the dog menu, explained: "It is just such a perfect way to spend a date. I can walk along with my boyfriend and we can pretend that we own a cute dog together. I would really love to own a dog, but I live with my parents, and even a little one would set off my Dad’s allergies."

Plastic

Puppy the World is not alone in offering young Japanese responsibility-free animals. Around the corner is a moodily lit emporium called Cats Living. Near the door, a human-sized plastic statue of a cat is slumped talking on a mobile phone and welcoming customers to the cat museum. Here, £7 will buy you an hour in a mock-up sitting room filled with playful cats.

The rental part of Puppy the World is not enormously profitable. The true purpose of the rental business, says Ms Maeda, is to let potential owners get a proper feel of what it is like to own a dog. Once a customer has tried an hour with a dog, they can pay an extra £55 to take it home overnight and learn its feeding pattern. And maybe bond with the dog. Across from the photos of the dogs for rent are cages of puppies for sale. Starting prices of around £900 per puppy seem to justify the rental experiment.

The rest of the shop is testament to the insanity of the Japanese around dogs. Surpassed only by the British in their adoration of all things canine, 120 million Japanese own 11.1 million pet dogs, and spare no expense in treating them to any gimmick going — hence Puppy the World offers dogs a Jacuzzi before their Dead Sea mudpack beauty treatment and claw manicure.

It adds a whole new meaning to going out with a dog, doesn’t it?