The benefits of prison canine training programs are so many that it is to be hoped that policy makers will recognize their advantages for both the prisoners, prison personnel, and the public that receives the trained dogs in the end. Some programs train shelter dogs in basic obedience, increasing the chances of the dogs for adoption. Other programs train service dogs, usually for the physically disabled. Many of the studies I’ve read are based on interviews with prisoners, sometimes including guards and prison personnel, but all have emphasized the psychological benefits to the prisoners who are able to participate. A study that recently came to my attention discussed a benefit that I hadn’t seen mentioned much before, which was the effect the programs have on prisoners who aren’t participating in the program. In the paper, written by Professor Wendy Turner, then of The Ohio State University and now of the University of Southern Indiana, much of the story is told in the words of the prisoners. One said:
We have guys that have transferred from different facilities and some of them have been incarcerated for 15 or 20 years and seeing a dog, even though they’re not really considered pets, that’s the closest thing to home that they’ve seen in years. Being able to spend five or ten minutes of their day, getting on the floor and playing with a dog is, that’s the highlight of their day.
The entire prison environment seemed to change as a result of the dog training program. According to one prisoner:
It has changed this place a lot. A lot of people’s, I’m not gonna say soft, but they’re softer than what they was, ya’ know. They let their feelings come out, lay down, play with the dogs, ya’ know, talk real feminine to ‘em and stuff like that… It changed D dorm a lot, ‘cause I was around D dorm before the dogs actually come in here and there was more fights and, ‘ya know, a lot more aggressive stuff going on up there. Now you don’t really see too much of that. It’s like they just go over and pet the dog or something. Their whole attitude changes pretty much.
Professor Turner’s study appears in Federal Probation and is available online through the U.S. Courts website. Wendy G. Turner, “The Experiences of Offenders in a Prison Canine Program,” 71(1) Federal Probation (June 2007). If enough recidivism studies establish that return rates for prisoners that have participated in these programs are lower, it will be hard to find a policy reason for not expanding them.