Animals and Prisoners: A New Lease on Life

Ian Somerhalder Foundation

   Everyone who has ever loved an animal knows how much joy and peace they can bring to our lives, and this serves as one of the ideas behind the growing programs which place dogs with prisoners to be trained for a better chance at adoption.  The program is designed to rescue more animals from death row all while offering inmates a chance at redemption by providing a needed service to help our communities.  It gives both an animal and inmate a new lease on life.

   Programs around the country started emerging in the 1990s that paired local rescue organizations with surrounding area correctional facilities.  The thought was that if we can socialize and train shelter dogs, they will be more desirable to families, and this would help increase the number of adoptions and decrease the number of death sentences doled out to these innocent animals.  Along with the rescue of these wonderful animals, the programs help to rehabilitate inmates by giving them the unconditional love only an animal can give as well as teaching them about the responsibilities and hard work of caring for someone else.  It gives inmates an opportunity to give back to the community that they harmed.  These programs not only train and socialize the animals, but they also provide training and socialization for the prisoner, and this positively benefits the animals, the inmates, and the communities.

   Regular programs that train service animals are quite expensive and range between $10,000 and $25,000 per dog, depending on which service the animal is trained for.  To train each animal on obedience, socialization, and confidence takes a tremendous amount of time.  Dogs gain this confidence by being around human beings and by repeatedly being introduced to a wide variety of situations.  This is usually done during a 12-18 month process.  After this, dogs are tested for their level of obedience, socialization and confidence, and if they pass, they move on to their last 5-8 months of specialized training.  If they do not pass, they are typically placed in homes instead of becoming a service animal.  This process is lengthy and expensive.  Therein lies the idea of placing these animals with inmates who have nothing but extra time to devote to training the dogs.

   Not only do inmates have an almost unlimited amount of time to spend with the puppies, but they also benefit from learning about the responsibilities necessary in being a puppy raiser.  This can be an amazing facilitator in their road to rehabilitation. The inmates must take classes and train the dogs together in class groups.  Being the primary person responsible for a dog teaches the inmate patience, how to give and receive unconditional love, what it is like to be completely responsible for another living being, and team work.  Most of the inmates who have been given this unique opportunity have experienced positive strides toward rehabilitation and feel a sense of fulfillment in giving back to the community. This process has been shown to decrease depression and other mental health problems in inmates taking part in these programs.  They can finally feel proud of what they are doing with their lives and take their responsibility very seriously.  The lives of all people and animals involved in the process are significantly improved.

   The programs allow for dogs to live with their inmates for an extended amount of time.  Once the dog and inmate are matched up, the inmate is responsible for all care associated with the dog.  They take over feeding, housebreaking, grooming and obedience training.  Some dogs only live with their handler for a few weeks if the objective is just to socialize and train the dog for basic obedience and ready it for a regular adoption. However, service dogs live with their handlers for a full year or more of training.  When this is the case, the dogs are given to puppy sitters on the weekends.  This is done to expose the dogs to things they would not experience in prison with their handlers such as hearing doorbells, riding in cars, or walking down a crowded walkway or department store.  Once trained, these dogs are given to families or agencies to begin their lives as service dogs. For dogs that do not make it as specialized service animals but have been trained, they will be given to people with less severe needs.  Either way, the animals will spend the rest of their lives as companions to people who need them instead of losing their lives on death row at the shelter they were rescued from.

   These programs that pair inmates with dogs are training the animals for a variety of specialties.  After September 11, 2001, law enforcement agencies expanded their need for service dogs trained for explosive detection.  These dogs are called EDCs or Explosive Detection Canines.  The dogs are also being trained to be service dogs to disabled children and adults as well as Seeing Eye dogs and seizure disorder canines.  There is also a program called Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who’ve Served Us, and these dogs are trained to assist wounded soldiers coming home from their own service to our country.

   At this point, hundreds of dogs have been trained and adopted.  Most of these animals were on death row and were intended to soon lose their lives.  These programs saved their lives.  Now they are improving, and sometimes, saving the lives of their inmate trainers and their current or future owners.  For example, at the Ashland County Humane Society, a young blue heeler/beagle named Taffy was days away from her death sentence because no one wanted her due to her lack of obedience and socialization.  Thanks to an Ohio program for inmates to rehabilitate and train unwanted dogs, Taffy was rescued from her death sentence and placed with an inmate at the Mansfield Correctional Institution to be trained and later adopted out.  Taffy’s new trainer is a long-term inmate who has given a new life to 22 dogs.  Just in this prison’s program, over 200 dogs have been saved and given homes.  This program helps give new life to doomed dogs by giving them the chance to be rehabilitated and adopted into good homes (Rhoades).

   There are over one million men, women, and young adults living their lives in the confinement of our nation’s correctional facilities.  Meanwhile, 15 million animal prisoners are facing a possible death sentence in shelters across the nation.  These innocent animals have not committed a crime, but yet they face death unless we take the steps to give them a new life and a second chance.  By teaming these two unlikely groups together, we can cure their individual isolation and give them all hope and rescue in the form of one another (Rhoades).  This hope is now being extended to animals outside the canine breed.

   Several prison organizations are taking on the animal/inmate partnership, but they have expanded this to include animals other than just dogs.  In Ohio, the Ohio Reformatory for Women has taken on an animal rescue project to help save and rehabilitate injured and orphaned animals of many species.  They have a basement filled with birds, squirrels, ducks, rabbits and many other animals.  The Ohio Wildlife Center takes in the animals and then sends them to the Reformatory to recover in the hands of the trained inmates.  These inmates are trained to care for the various animals, and they take shifts to provide 24-hour care to the injured animals.  Once the animals have recovered, they are released back into their natural habitats.

   Another program that pairs animals and inmates is the Charles Hickey School in Maryland which houses young men between the ages of 12 and 20.  This particular program pairs retired thoroughbred horses with troubled young men.  Monique Koehler, founder of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, says, “We need to seize the opportunity to let the animals help these kids find something good in the world.”  This is true of all of the programs pairing inmates with animals.  The Hickey program requires the young men to take responsibility for all of the animals’ care.  They feed, groom, exercise, and tend to the injuries of all horses in the program.  Many of the horses came from the racetrack and have been abandoned or pushed aside since their winning days are over.  Some of the horses come to the program in poor health and some are even weeks away from dying.  The care offered by the boys in this program helps turn the lives of these horses around, and the responsibility and affection often turns the lives of the boys around as well (

   Similar programs are being created all over the country to help both inmates and homeless animals create new hope for new lives.  The success of these programs is not surprising since studies have demonstrated that many positive benefits are attributed to the unconditional love and acceptance given by animals to humans.  Animals need to be loved in return.  The sharing of this love and acceptance creates better companions in animals and betters the people who train them. Both are given optimism and a new outlook on life.


By Megan Frison

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