Dog Training as Therapy for Prisoners

The Dog Trainer looks at some successful programs for shelter dogs and prison inmates. Get your Kleenex ready. 

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
May 4, 2012

Dog Training as Therapy for Prisoners

by Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA  

In need of some uplift? Have a box of tissues nearby? Then head for an internet search engine and type in “prison dog training program.”

What you'll find is that selected prison inmates help train and socialize shelter dogs or, in some programs, service dogs. One example: At Cedar Creek Corrections Center, in Washington state, 10 inmates are preparing service dogs to work with veterans of the wars in Iran and Iraq. Many of the vets have post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. The dogs can be taught to alert them to approaching persons, so the vet doesn’t overreact to being startled, or to perform more traditional service dog tasks such as picking up dropped items. Dogs can even learn to wake the vet from nightmares.

My colleagues Lisa and Brad Waggoner of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina, have just begun a program for shelter dogs at the Colwell Probation Detention Center. Four dogs and 8 detainees (2 handlers per dog) will share a dorm room. Lisa and Brad will teach weekly manners classes, while a vet and a groomer will provide classes in general dog care and grooming. 

Prison dog programs help the dogs and their adopters – that’s obvious. But they benefit society in general, too, because they change the prisoners. Many of the men and women participating in these programs have had little or no experience of kind care – getting it or giving it. As one program director put it, "More than one [prisoner] has told me that they had never had to be responsible for anything before. Now they have to protect, nurture, attend to, and educate a dependant." 

Participation in the programs is often an incentive for good behavior. A Texas program reported a 63 percent drop in disciplinary incidents since their dog-training program started. Prisoners report that they learn to be more patient and nurturing; sure, they have an interest in saying that, but it matches everything we know about how people and animals learn.

I’ve often pointed out in my articles that the best way to teach dogs manners, or change problem behaviors, is to work with them bit by bit to draw out the behavior we want, and then to reward it. The same goes for human beings. So the benefits of prison-dog programs should come as no surprise, even as they move us to tears.


Jolanta Benal is the author of The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet

Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.




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