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How dog training programs can improve prison rehabilitation

Dog training programs benefit both inmates and the recipients of the trained service dogs


Anecdotal reports from staff, inmates and recipients of the service dogs are overwhelmingly positive.

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Article updated on September 19, 2017.

By Brian Neese, C1 Contributor

In 1981, Sister Pauline Quinn began the first dog training program for prison rehabilitation, Pathways to Hope. She went on to help start other dog training programs across the United States, providing opportunities for inmates. She believed the programs would offer them renewed hope through the love of animals, just as she had experienced.

At the age of 13, Quinn escaped an abusive home and was living on the streets in Los Angeles until authorities found her, she told The Compass. There was no procedure for runaways in the 1950s, so she was placed in adult psychiatric wards of hospitals, which only extended her suffering.

“I was thrown away in 14 different institutions, 36 different times,” Quinn said. “I was abused and tortured. They chained us to our beds and sometimes tied my hands behind my back and then tied them to my ankles. One day — maybe it was night, I don’t know because there were no windows and the lights were kept on all the time — I began praying to God. I prayed that if he would help me change my life, as payment to him I would dedicate my life to helping others.”

Over time, Quinn’s prayers were answered. When she was released, Quinn lived on the streets and found a stray dog that she took care of, a German shepherd named Joni.

Quinn told the Los Angeles Times that dogs “love us unconditionally, and people need that – especially people who are wounded, they need to feel loved. So the dog is very much a healing tool.” Joni helped Quinn heal and eventually start the first prison dog training program. Her story and programs are a testament to the effects that animals can have. And her successful dog training programs have inspired others to follow in her path.

How prison dog training Programs work

Prison dog training programs pair animals with inmates who train dogs for adoption. Other training programs can prepare dogs to help people with physical or mental disabilities, to sniff out narcotics in airports or other public areas, or to track down wildlife threats at national parks. The programs can vary widely in purpose and structure.

The Wall Street Journal notes that at a women’s prison in Washington state, “offenders here earn their way into the dog program by remaining infraction-free during their incarceration.”

The job pays $1.41 an hour, triple that of work in the kitchen. Inmates stay with abandoned, abused and neglected dogs, caring for them and teaching them skills the dogs will use, such as ones that can help people who use wheelchairs. Some inmates receive canine therapy, where they can talk with a psychologist while a dog is by their side. The prison also has a commercial unit that offers kennel and spa services to locals.

At the Lexington Correctional Center south of Oklahoma City, inmates provide obedience training for dogs that need extra attention. “The program, which accepts donations, has a two-year waiting list,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “Most people give $100 for a month of training.” The dogs’ largest impact may be on the inmates. “They’re so loving, so understanding,” inmate Yolanda Pouncey said. “There are days when I come in all down on myself. But the minute that dog looks up and smiles at me, it just takes that all away.”

With dog training programs, a common scenario is that one dog is able, in a way, to rescue two people. For Robert Butterfield, serving 13 years for robbery and stealing drugs, training a stray 60-pound black-and-white pointer mix named Mickey helped him overcome shyness around other inmates. It also helped with the isolation of prison. Butterfield’s training of Mickey resulted in the family of 9-year-old Celia Dutton adopting him.

For Celia, who has Rolandic epilepsy, Mickey helped her get the sleep she needed. Infrequent seizures caused Celia to have facial tics and stomach pains from the anxiety. But with Mickey, things improved. Mickey began sleeping next to her at night, and he was there for her one night during a seizure. “He jumped on my bed and helped me not be scared anymore,” Celia said. Mickey refused to leave her side during the seizure.

Benefits of Dog Training Programs in Prison

Improvements in inmate behavior and mental health

A literature review from the Massachusetts Department of Correction found that “anecdotal reports from staff, inmates and recipients of the service dogs are overwhelmingly positive.”

In a canine program for depressed inmates at an Oklahoma medium security prison, “Not only did the program decrease depression among those inmates, but the rates of aggression decreased among the inmates as well.”

A service dog program at a Colorado correction center had a “positive morale boost among inmates and staff, as well as decreases in high blood pressure and anxiety in the dog handlers.”

A study of human-animal interaction found improvement in social sensitivity among prison inmates in the treatment group, while scores dropped in the control group.

In the Journal of Family Social Work, researchers found strong emotional and behavioral benefits for inmates in two Kansas prisons. “The men who train the dogs often form deep emotional bonds with the animals,” the researchers said. “It was not uncommon for men to get tears in their eyes when they spoke of giving up their dogs. Several inmates who were training small dogs in fact held them on their laps during our interviews; others were obviously proud of what their dogs could do and demonstrated this to us while we talked.”

“Many of those we interviewed believe that the strongest positive they receive from the program is the change it effects in their attitudes and emotions. For these men the dogs are truly therapeutic,” the researchers added. “Participants believe that the dogs help them to deal with anger, teach them patience, give them unconditional love, and simply make doing time a little easier.”

Grady Perry, a program leader at an Alabama prison, told The New York Times that the dog training unit’s incident rate is “almost nonexistent” and added that the “dog program just kind of calms everyone down.” These types of reports are common and are in part responsible for the rapid growth of prison dog training programs across the globe. “Unfortunately,” the Massachusetts Department of Correction notes, “there is virtually no systematic research on the effects of animal programs [in prisons].” More research is needed to verify and understand the extent of these trends.

Marketable skills for inmates

Inmates not only gain marketable skills by participating in dog training programs while in prison, but the programs encourage them to make use of these skills. “A lot of these guys have never been given a lot of responsibility, and this is their chance not only to be a responsible adult but a responsible citizen,” Perry said.

The responsibility inmates are taught can help them once they are no longer in prison. For some inmates, they plan on taking dog training skills with them. USA TODAY says that inmate Teddy Teshone has learned discipline through an Atlanta prison dog training program. Now, Teshone wants to be a dog trainer when he leaves the prison.

Recidivism rates decrease

The Pontiac Tribune in Michigan reports that the nationwide recidivism rate hovers around 50 percent. However, Leader Dogs for the Blind, which pairs future service dogs with inmates, has a recidivism rate of just 11 to 13 percent.

Only four of 35 inmates who completed one Georgia dog training program and were released have returned; without the program, coordinator Robert Brooks estimates the number would have been about 17. “It’s really made an impact because guys get in here and they get attached to the animal,” Brooks said. “There is someone else counting on them to make good decisions.” A Nevada Law Journal article on a dog training program in Washington explained that the average three-year recidivism rate in the state is 28 percent, but it is only 5 percent for inmates who have participated in the program.

Improves prison rehabilitation

Prison dog training programs are part of the larger effort to rehabilitate inmates. As awareness of the programs increases, more inmates could gain a chance to train, save and bond with dogs that can, in turn, enhance inmates’ lives. At Alvernia University, the online B.A. in Criminal Justice program includes learning about important trends in corrections and rehabilitation. Graduates are prepared to help make a difference in corrections, law enforcement, security and other criminal justice fields.

Other benefits

According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the savings gained by dog training programs justify the lack of systematic evidence for the programs’ benefits. Not only is the cost for dog training much less in prisons than typical dog training programs, but prison programs are more effective due to the additional time inmates spend with dogs.

A California prison told Capital Public Radio that the program has “a much higher success rate with puppies that are raised in prisons than we do in the general population.”

People in homes who train dogs for the Leader Dogs for the Blind program in Michigan have a 40 percent success rate. Puppies raised by prisoners have a 70 percent success rate.

A New York program, Puppies Behind Bars, has been more successful than traditional training. The program had an 87 percent success rate, compared to 50 percent for dogs trained by volunteers in the public.

Dog training programs often rescue dogs that may otherwise be euthanized. The Humane Society of the United States says that 2.7 million adoptable cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters each year. Some programs specifically target at-risk dogs that struggle to get adopted – or dogs that may never be considered for adoption.

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