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Pups behind the razor wire: helping inmates learn life skills

The rehabilitative benefits of working with companion animals are being trialled in a Queensland prison, where eight long-term offenders are training four labrador/retriever/golden retriever-cross pups to become assistance dogs.

Assistance dogs are companions for people with disabilities and are often able to help open doors and retrieve dropped objects. They not only assist the vision impaired – the famous Guide Dogs – but assist people of any age with disabilities, as well as providing companionship, affection and greater opportunities for social activity.

The Queensland Department of Corrective Services introduced Pups In Prison last year in partnership with Assistance Dogs Australia to help inmates develop patience, compassion, self-regulation, communication skills and cooperation. The program was officially launched by Queensland’s Minister for Police and Corrective Services Judy Spence at the Darling Downs Prison in April.

Similar programs have been trialled in NSW and the US, but two University of Queensland post-graduate students who are evaluating this project, Claire Eddie and Georgia Sakrzewski, believe they will be the first to measure the puppies’ impact on prisoners and staff.

Both Eddie and Sakrzewski are psychologists with the Department of Corrective Services. They will be evaluating changes to the prisoners’ psychological wellbeing, criminal attitudes, loneliness and parenting skills and also the job satisfaction and workplace morale of prison staff. Data will be collected by questionnaires, prison visits, feedback from correctional officers and face-to-face interviews with prisoners and staff.

The puppies, which were bred by Assistance Dogs Australia, were handed over in February when they were eight weeks old. The prisoners and staff received preliminary training from Assistance Dogs Australia and will be raising and training the puppies for 16 months. The pups will be given basic socialisation and obedience skills, and learn to obey the standard commands of ‘sit’, ‘come’ and ‘stay’.

The puppies live with the prisoners who have the responsibility of caring for them, but also have purpose-built kennels and enjoy regular home visits with prison staff. Staff chosen to work on the program are experienced dog handlers and breeders.

Director of UQ’s Centre for Companion Animal Health Professor Jacquie Rand says the puppies should help to rehabilitate the prisoners, who were coming to the last few years of quite lengthy sentences.

“Companion animals provide unconditional love, and it’s very hard to find any kind of love in prison,” Professor Rand says. “Prisoners can feel lonely and isolated and this lack of love and warmth can exacerbate their antisocial attitudes and behaviour.”

Antisocial behaviour and attitudes increases the risk of prisoners re-offending when they are released from prison. Professor Rand says the responsibility for caring for and training the puppies gives the prisoners something worthwhile to do; they are motivated to do well, and so develop a good work ethic which will help them when they are back in civilian life.

She says labrador/retriever/golden retriever-cross dogs are very gentle, patient trainable animals, and are ideal as companion and assistance animals as they can sit still for long periods, but respond quickly if asked. They also give the humans lots of love.

The interaction between humans and companion animals has a profound impact on both participants. “For humans, a companion animal can result in improved physical and psychological well-being. Contact with animals has been associated with greater happiness, less stress, reduced blood pressure, lower coronary risk factors, lower rates of psychiatric disorders, particularly depression, and the enhancement of social activities,” she says.

“The dog also has a richer life, with more interaction with humans, which strengthens the human-animal bond. Close contact with people relieves the animal’s likelihood of boredom. Boredom is a huge problem for dogs.”

One of the psychological aspects that Eddie and Sakrzewski will be interested in evaluating is the development of parenting skills. Professor Rand says many of the prisoners were violent offenders who had had violent or abusive childhoods. “Training a puppy requires you to set boundaries and reinforce these with positive rewards, which is the best way to parent a child. We’re hoping that this experience of training the pups will develop positive parenting skills in the prisoners.”

For correctional staff taking part in the project, the expectation is for better relationships between staff and prisoners, and improved morale and job satisfaction. There is generally an attitude of “them against us” between prisoners and staff, Professor Rand says, but working together on caring for and training the pups should help to break that down and lead to mutual respect.

She would like to see the program expanded to include the retraining of other dogs that otherwise would be euthanased for undesirable behaviour. She would also like to see the program in operation in other prisons.

However, Professor Rand pointed out that the Centre for Companion Animal Health had received no funding from either the Department of Corrective Services or Assistance Dogs Australia for evaluating the Pups in Prison program, and was searching for funding to help evaluate the large amount of data being generated from the study.

The Centre runs programs aimed at improving the health and welfare of companion animals, enriching the human animal relationship, and reducing of the number of unwanted pets through improved socialisation, re-training, re-homing, neutering and community education (http://www.uq.edu.au/ccah/index).

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Researchers Georgia Sakrzewski (right) and Claire Eddie with one of the Darling Downs Correctional Centre puppies

©Sue Cartledge

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