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Dogs in Prison - Programs for Prisoners

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Inmates who train shelter dogs or puppies to become service dogs -- get even more benefits than the dogs whose lives they save. Shelter dogs with behavior problems (including shyness!) may be euthanized in some shelters. But with a few months of training, they can become loving, obedient, and ready for a permanent home!

There are approximately 159 Canine programs in prisons in 36 states (in the US). When 61 prison supervisors were surveyed about their satisfaction with the programs, 60 said they would recommend this program to other prisons. They teach an invaluable lesson that no matter how much you have suffered in the past, you can still heal. Even dogs who have been traumatized can heal, and it is the same for the inmates who work with them.

These prison programs where inmates train puppies to become service dogs, or older shelter dogs who are rehabilitated to become more adoptable, are very promising approaches to healing in the prison system, for humans, as well as saving the lives of dogs in shelters who would otherwise be destined to be euthanized. They have such a dramatic impact on the prisoners, in terms of teaching them skills and giving them a sense of purpose.

There are two main types of programs; some use rescue dogs (sometimes kittens) from shelters, rehabilitate them, and then they are adopted to forever homes. Other prison programs (such as Puppies Behind Bars) work with puppies, preparing them to become service dogs. Youth correctional facilities that utilize dog training have resulted in zero recidivism according to a current study on these programs.

In addition to teaching inmates, employable skills in the 72 billion dollars a year pet industry, these prison-dog programs teach good work habits. Working with dogs builds good character, a sense of responsibility, patience, increased compassion, focus, forgiveness, nurturing, healthy routine and hygiene, and healing from trauma. Helping a dog that had no hope, to learn and become highly adoptable, builds self-esteem, and creates a sense of purpose, often sorely missing in the inmate population. These programs help inmates make a meaningful contribution both to the dogs, whose lives they are transforming, as well as providing a life-changing companion dog for those who adopt them.

Shelter dogs who might otherwise be challenging adoption cases, such as those with behavior problems due to lack of training are great candidates for prison programs. Or those shy or traumatized dogs who cower with fear in the back of the cage, thus being overlooked by potential adopters are also perfect for these programs. Other obstacles to quick adoption might be lack of socialization, and lack of canine good manners, with people. Or dogs who have been traumatized or owner-surrender dogs, injured or older age dogs, or even perceived physical shortcomings. For example, black dogs have a much slower adoption rate than non-black dogs. In the shelter and rescue circles, it is called BDS, black dog syndrome, and according to PetFinder, a website that has placed over 346,000 pets, black cats and dogs can take up to four times longer than their lighter-colored mates.

Dogs in Prison - Saving Lives

In 1981 Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun first coupled dogs and inmates when she founded a prison dog training program in Washington State. According to Kohl, in the article, “Prison Animal Programs: A Brief Review of the Literature,” Sister Pauline recognized the therapeutic effects of dogs after her own recovery during a psychiatric hospitalization. Soon after her program began, other states followed. There are now 36 U.S. states with programs in 159 facilities. Kohl states that when 61 prison administrators were surveyed, “All but one responded that they would recommend a prison program to other prison administrators. The administrator who did not recommend the program explained that he only answered as such because it had no financial gain for the institution.”

Puppies Behind Bars Program

Many of the 159 prison dog programs pair inmates with shelter dogs for training to make them suitable for future adoption. Some even work with unadoptable cats, to socialize them. Others, such as one called NEADS, which provides dogs to combat veterans, work with puppies, eight to ten weeks old that are socialized and trained for about a year with the inmate before being returned for future advanced training and work as Service Dogs. The organization C.H.A.M.P. works specifically with women inmates. Another program is “Dawgs in Prison,” under the direction of Gulf Correctional Institution, in Wewahitchka, Florida, whose mission is to “Provide training and education for both inmate and dog, resulting in permanent homes for the dogs, viable job skills for the inmate, and productive jobs and a law-abiding life upon release.”

Puppies Behind Bars works with Labrador puppies and takes them all the way to service dogs. Dog Tags, one of the Puppies behind Bars initiatives, trains 15 dogs a year for veterans with PTSD and TBI with the dogs having special training. In a personal interview with Gloria Gilbert Stoga, the founder of this program, she describes some of the skills of a PTSD Service Dog as, “The dog has the ability to enter a room before the veteran, assuring him or her it is safe. The dog can awaken them from nightmares, knows how to watch their back, and how to stop people approaching, if their approach is making the vet nervous.”

While there is not sufficient research investigating the power of these programs, anecdotal reporting indicates that in youth correctional facilities, those working with the canines (which they could only do as a result of continued good behavior) – had zero recidivism after having worked in the canine program. With employable skills, many youth go on to work full time with dogs once released from juvenile facilities. As Jane Goodall points out, working with dogs “plays an important role in reducing antisocial behavior in prisoners.”

Kathy Foreman comments that many prisoners have Post Traumatic Stress, and working this closely with dogs tends to alleviate their symptoms of PTSD. It turns out that the puppies trained by prisoners, who are able to give them loving guidance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, become some of the best service dogs, with an 87% success rate, compared to a 50% success rate of professional trainers. Being involved with a canine program, and perhaps saving a dog that would otherwise have been euthanized, helps inmates make a meaningful contribution to someone in the future whose life will be completely transformed by the presence of a service dog. Foreman says: "It provides the (inmates) with a task that not only helps them pass the time but allows them to use their prison time to give something back. The dogs help the inmates, providing a calming presence and unconditional love."

Unconditional love is one of the most healing forces there is. And the dogs bring this to a group who has had little or none of it in their life. Working with animals can facilitate major changes in psychological well-being, even among those who do not have a positive self-image or hope for the future.

In juvenile detention centers where the response to authority figures is often negative, bonding with a dog creates more positive behavior, and this good behavior was rewarded by allowing inmates to continue to work with the dogs. Good dog = good person. Thus it creates "a cycle of good."

In the US Army Medical Journal on canine therapy, Shubert says, "Unlike dealing with many people, the feedback of (dogs is instant, non-judgmental) quick and honest. In addition, working with animals can lead to increased feelings of self-sufficiency and accomplishment, which, in turn, can lead to more positive self-regard. Success in this new role as an animal trainer is believed to lead to an improved self-image and self- confidence." These prison programs for adults and teens have been highly successful in helping people to lead meaningful, productive lives. One of the Dawgs in Prison inmates said after his release: "I woke up during my first year of the DAWGS program. My attitude changed. My health changed. My priorities changed. Everything changed in my life in order for me to be responsible enough to take care of one of God’s precious creations. DAWGS gave me the wisdom to see what kind of changes were needed in my life in order to be a productive citizen again after 26 years behind bars. "

My Program, Dogs are Healers, is part of the Human-Animal Connection program. We brought therapy dogs into a women's prison in Hawaii. We also help veterans with PTSD who wish to adopt a dog. We provide basic training and emotional support skills. The twelve-to-sixteen week program focuses on bonding and healthy attachment. Many of the incarcerated women we worked with did not have healthy connections in their lives. A lot of them already had children, but did not have good mothering skills, such as setting boundaries, and using positive re-enforcement to guide and shape desired behavior. Dogs also cheer up the inmates and smiles and laughter are heard for the first time. As has been said, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”

The most important lesson dogs can teach us is how to love and to be loved in return. The development of trust is a critical healing step for dog and inmate. For some women, it will be the first experience of feeling trust, and of not giving up on a living being. Through the requirements of our program, with its strong structure, women will gain a sense of responsibility. Other prison programs have shown great success rehabilitating the dogs, as well as the women, who gain compassion. The healing that comes from the devoted, loving attention from dog to human and vice versa is life- changing.

Buddy loved working with the incarcerated women

In our program the dogs are put through a series of training steps, and must pass twelve obedience skills for the Canine Good Citizenship test. With potty training and excellent manners, these dogs will be turned into highly desirable adoptions. As part of the training program, the women provide a variety of Animal-Assisted Activities and therapy visits behind bars. Examples might be dog-reading sessions to help other inmates improve their reading skills, visiting those in the infirmary, petting and cuddling sessions with inmates not in the training program, or even helping correctional officers to de-stress. Others in the prison can request therapy and enrichment visits. In short, the dogs will become fully trained as love ambassadors and therapy dogs for visitation on the outside.

The success with a dog that might otherwise not have a chance in life, significantly raises human self-esteem. A well-known quote is:

“My goal in life is to be as good of a person my dog already thinks I am.”

According to inmates who have participated in these programs in other states, having a dog, even for a time “inspires you to be the best person you can be.” While there is sadness in turning over a dog to a forever home, knowing that this dog will not be euthanized is very rewarding. In addition to the benefits for the women in the program, who generally maintain a 100% compliance with rules in order to maintain contact with their dog, (according to data from existing programs) the entire prison benefits from the calming presence of the dogs.

The women in the Dogs are Healers program also learn vocational skills such as dog training, walking, grooming, and other skills that would lead to meaningful employment. Some programs also include training in personal and professional development and job readiness. Shelters have been known to hire former inmates, so this partnership would be encouraged even further by providing certifications of the level of training they have received. As stated earlier, the pet industry is an over 82 billion dollar industry and growing every year. It is one of the few employment areas with a 52% job rate growth. PetSmart, one company, hires 53,000 employees (that is more than TSA, the Federal Transit Security Administration hires.)

Here is some footage from our Act Resilient, Dogs Are Healers program inside a women's prison in Hawaii.

Dogs are Healers plans to expand its scope beyond just physical training. It will also focus on learning Healing Touch, working with animals during meditation for spiritual development, learning to refine non-verbal communication, and learning the foundations of deeper non-verbal communication between animal and human. It is hoped we can interest University research students to document the results of this unique approach to deepening the human-animal bond.

By participating in the various prison dog programs, inmates will make meaningful contributions to their dogs, to their prison community, and to the larger community which has a tremendous need for trained companion animals. This will transform the lives of those who become their permanent life-long guardians. These programs help to restore hope to those who need it most.

Me and Buddy, one of our therapy dogs who worked with women prisoners.

I have had the opportunity to do healing work, volunteering with hundreds of dogs at the Humane Society in Hawaii. Whatever good I have done for them, they have done much more for me. They have opened my heart and expanded my ability to experience "mind-to-mind" communication. My plan is to take what I have learned and share it with others who may benefit from the huge capacity for healing that comes from giving and receiving pure canine love.

The tremendous potential for dogs to become our partners in healing and our partners for life is barely being scratched. They can teach us how to live more compassionate lives. They can train us to be more empathetic and more joyful. They can help us to – frankly – be nicer. Through supporting and allowing dogs to express their true potential, we express the best that is within all of us.

And just to finish, here is a story about an inmate who trained Pavlov, a "wild" dog, who ended up being released early. He lost touch with Pavlov, and do to the efforts of many people, he got a chance to be reunited with his prisoner dad.

And here is a trailer about Ex-Cons working with wild mustangs.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection

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