Home inFocus Governing Post-Pandemic (Spring 2021) Prisoners, Dogs, Love, and Rehabilitation

Prisoners, Dogs, Love, and Rehabilitation

Paul J. Larkin Jr. Spring 2021
Inmate Paul Dixon plays with Judy as they take part in a program at the Sander Estes Unit of the state prison system in Venus, TX. (Photo: Rodger Mallison)

To err is human.

To forgive, canine.


Somewhere between 9,000 and 150,000 years ago, man made a deal with another species. Man allowed relatively tame wolfs to enter their small communities to stay warm by the fire and eat whatever scraps families did not finish. In return, those protocanines became nighttime watchdogs, warning of the approach of predators or rival tribes, as well as hunting companions, whose speed and courage enhanced humans’ ability to track and capture wild game.

Over the millennia that followed, man and canine adapted to each other and became far more than just useful collaborators. Today, in many families dogs are an integral part of the household. Americans spend billions of dollars each year in money and time feeding, bedding, treating, exercising, and generally caring for their dogs. In return, dogs gives us unconditional loyalty and love. It’s the best deal man ever made.

Atop being man’s best friend, dogs perform numerous roles in modern society. Some, like the now famous “Conan,” assist the military in the field or on base. Others perform as service dogs for the blind or disabled. Still more work with the courts where they provide comfort for victims or children appearing as witnesses. As Odean Cusack explains in his book Pets and Mental Health, “pets seem to bring out the best in us. If there is a capacity for affection, compassion, for empathy or tenderness overlooked by our human fellows, a pet has an uncanny ability to ferret it out.”

What probably few people know, however, is that dogs help some Americans who almost no one cares about: prisoners. Dogs are part of numerous rehabilitative programs in federal and state prisons in the United States and foreign nations such as Australia, Canada, England, Italy, New Zealand, and South Africa. Under those programs, prisoners raise and train dogs for a year as a prelude to the dogs’ receipt elsewhere of advanced training necessary to become service dogs. 

The concept that dogs can perform a rehabilitative function for prisoners is a novel development. In the nineteenth century, society labelled prisons as “penitentiaries” in the hope that, through prayer and introspection, offenders would acknowledge their wrongdoing and reform their nature. Today, federal and state prison systems are largely “correctional” facilities in name only. They serve principally to isolate and incapacitate hundreds of thousands of offenders, at a considerable cost, rather than to reform them, which is largely deemed impossible. If rehabilitative programs using dogs can materially contribute to the rehabilitation of offenders in a cost-effective manner, they would be a valuable addition to the options currently available. 

Rehabilitation as a Justification for Punishment

For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the justification for punishment was the need to correct the moral failings of wayward parties. Punishment should serve, not to satisfy impulses of vengeance or retribution by inflicting pain on an offender, but to reform someone who had gone astray because of a disease of the soul or mind. Whether it stemmed from the religious beliefs that all of us are sinners and that society can bring anyone back into the fold through correction and penance, or the secular belief that some people are “mad” rather than “bad” are therefore in need of psychosocial treatment, the “rehabilitative ideal” sought to transform the character of offenders into that of ordinary, law abiding citizens. That justification gave birth to the creation of the so-called correctional facilities like the Cherry Hill Prison in Philadelphia, the Elmira Reformatory in upstate New York, and the federal correctional facility in Leavenworth, Kansas.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, society ditched the rehabilitative ideal and many of its rehabilitative mechanisms. Gone was belief that offenders were not fully responsible for their crimes. Gone was the belief that that society was morally obligated to help them to walk the straight and narrow. Gone was the belief that, just as physicians and surgeons could best decide what medical treatment an injured or diseased patient needed, judges and parole boards could best determine what rehabilitative efforts were optimal for convicted criminals. Prisons became warehouses for the segregation of prisoners from society for the length of their sentences, which should be long and uncomfortable. Incapacitation replaced rehabilitation as the justification for punishment, sentencing guidelines or mandatory sentences became common, and parole disappeared. Congress went so far as to prohibit a district court from even considering rehabilitation at sentencing.

Yet, rehabilitation did not completely become the criminological equivalent of kryptonite. Prisons could still offer “good time” credits toward an early release (viz., a reward for positive in prison behavior), along with adult education programs, vocational and technical training, GED classes, cognitive-behavioral drug or alcohol treatment, life skills training (e.g., managing a checking account), and the like. But they were seen as being like a T-Rex’s forelimbs, useless appendages, rather than as the heart and soul of an effort to reform inmates.

Then, a few people thought that dogs might be better at rehabilitating prisoners than people are. They were on to something.

Rehabilitative Power of Dogs

More than a century ago, Florence Nightingale realized that pets have the power to ease the suffering of hospital patients. Contact with small companion animals lowered patients’ heart rate, blood pressure, and stress. Her insight led to the use of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in long-term residential facilities, and to the testing of that practice in different psychiatric and women’s correctional facilities. Each pilot program was a success. The rates of violence and attempted suicides for psychiatric patients responsible for a pet’s care decreased, and life in the ward noticeably improved. Women prisoners responsible for a dog developed a sense of self-esteem, learned a skill, and received college credit. The practice spread nationwide. Today, numerous states and the federal government have similar programs with such doggone clever names as Pawsitive Partners Prison Program, Prisoners Assisting With Support Dogs (PAWS), A Dog on Prison Turf (ADOPT), Puppies Behind Bars, Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles & Creating Hope (POOCH), and Death Row Dogs.

Here’s how those programs work: Prisoners must volunteer to become a trainer. Prison staff select participants based on such factors as a prisoner’s criminal history, disciplinary record, custodial level, and remaining term. Once selected, prisoner-trainers must keep their noses clean, which means avoiding fighting or disciplinary infractions. The dogs have a diverse nature. They come in all breeds and sizes, often from a local shelter. The facility pairs each prisoner with a dog, who might live with his or her “person” on an around-the-clock basis. Prisoners learn training, grooming, and caring techniques from professional trainers. Each pairing can last from 40 days to 18 months. After “graduation,” the dogs leave to become service dogs for the disabled, or perhaps move into a home where they become members of a new family. Successful prisoner-trainers can then reapply for another buddy-in-training.

The experience benefits prisoners in several ways. Prisoners obtain vocational skills and work experience that could lead to employment in the pet care industry after their release. The experience is also therapeutic for prisoners. In fact, it might not be an uncommon experience for prisoners for the first time in their lives to feel loved by another creature, and express their own love for their own dog.

These programs appear to be quite beneficial for others too. Non-trainer prisoners benefit from a reduced level of violence and tension in the facility. Recipients of a trained dogs wind up with a companion or helper. The community benefits whenever a recipient’s life improves. And the dogs not only escape death row, but also wind up in a “forever home.” The result is a “win times five.”

Why Aren’t these Programs More Widely Used?

With all those benefits, why do we not hear more about these programs? Why are they not part of every prison facility? One explanation is architectural. Not every prison is built to accommodate the demands of these programs. If the dogs stay with prisoners on a 24/7 basis, there must be a way to allow the dogs outside for recreational and other purposes at several times during the day. There may be no location near an entrance/exit point that could house a large number of dogs and their trainers. If the dogs are kenneled at night, there would need to be a separate location for them inside the prison but near an exit, so that they are not exposed to the elements. There might not be space in any such region for them. 

Another explanation is political. Politicians generally do not use their political capital to improve the lot of prisoners, particularly in states where offenders lose their right to vote after conviction. Politicians also attract fewer ballots from eligible voters by arguing, “Every prisoner should have a puppy,” than by barking, “Every offender should rot in prison.” Chichi rehabilitative programs also don’t generate much interest or support from like-minded, law-and-order legislative colleagues. Voters care more about themselves than inmates. A dollar spent on one of these programs is a dollar that cannot be spent elsewhere, whether on other criminal justice resources – such as hiring additional police officers or upping the salaries for the ones already on the force – that keep voters safe or on other state functions – such as emergency medical care, public education, state parks, electricity generation, and so forth – that voters use. 

A third explanation is practical. These programs would have more gravitational power than a black hole if they could be proved successful at saving lives or preventing other serious crimes. Unfortunately, that cannot be done. In part that is because it is virtually impossible to quanitfy a negative – viz., a crime that was not committed, and a person who was not victimized. In part, that is because there are no “double blind” studies establishing the programs’ success that are comparable to the ones used to prove that a drug is safe and effective. Why? No prison wants to take the risk of canicide by randomly assigning dogs to prisoners. As the result, the selection process eliminates the random assignment that statisticians use to measure effectiveness. Even elected officials willing to support can only talk abstractly about the societal value of rehabilitated offenders. Theoretical explanations go only so far in the battle over limited public funds. 

“Do Not Ask for Whom the Dog Barks. It Barks for Thee.”

Because the phrase “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is not inscribed above the gates of the nation’s prisons, we should not jettison all hope for the rehabilitation of their inhabitants. The federal Second Chance Act is evidence that the nation has not consigned rehabilitation to the category of failed experiments. It would not be Quixotic to hope that correctional officials will continue to see the rehabilitative potential of dogs. 

Paul J. Larkin Jr. is a Senior Legal Research Fellow at Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.