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Examining Dog-Training Programs in Prison: Success Found Among Confounding Factors

Kevin Earl University of New Haven

Dogs have great therapeutic power. It is easy to think of anecdotal evidence of this being true. In day-to-day life, dog owners are able to decompress after a long day at work or are simply able to feel unconditional love from them. Dogs are able to provide services for disabled individuals. Dogs can become certified specifically to help individuals cope with loss or depression. Dogs can even predict ill health and help individuals recover from ill health (Sachs-Ericsson, Hansen, and Fitzgerald; Wells, 2007). In consideration of all the benefits of having a dog in one’s life, the question one must ask is: can prisoners benefit from dogs as well?

This paper examines dog-training programs in the prison setting with regard to their ability to achieve their goals and objectives related to recidivism. Dog-training programs (DTPs) are the most common type of prison-based animal program, with 290 facilities across all 50 states having implemented them (Cooke and Farrington, 2016). The goals and objectives of DTPs vary slightly from program-to-program; however, the main focuses are recidivism and behavior in prison. DTPs teach prisoners to be dog trainers as a means of providing a source of rehabilitation to combat recidivism. Through this examination, the author concludes that DTPs are successful in that they achieve desired results. Criminological theories as well as limitations of evaluations performed on these programs that explain this success are discussed.

Dog Training Programs in Practice

Dog-training programs (DTPs) are the most common type of prison-based animal programs (Furst, 2006). The first successful prison-based animal program in the United States unintentionally began in 1975 at the Lima State Hospital in Ohio, when an inmate adopted an injured bird (Strimple, 2003). The staff noticed a change in the behavior of inmates on the ward, which led them to allow an animal therapy program. It was found that inmates in the ward with animals needed 50% less medication, fewer attempted suicides, and there was less violence compared to a control group of inmates that did not have access to animals (Britton and Button, 2005; Harkrader, Burke, and Owen, 2004).

There have been 290 facilities across the 50 states in America that have implemented DTPs. DTPs have been around since 1981 when the first program was implemented at the Washington State Corrections Center for Women, because the program’s founder, Sister Pauline Quinn, recognized the therapeutic power of dogs when a dog helped her recover from psychiatric issues herself (Kohl and Wenner, 2012). The specific goals and objectives of each program may vary. However, the overall goals are to reduce recidivism and improve behavior among participants. Improving the behavior of participants can ultimately contribute to the rehabilitation effectiveness. Unfortunately, few studies have evaluated the effects of DTPs on inmate behavior (Cooke and Farrington, 2016). DTPs try to achieve this goal by teaching prisoners how to train dogs with the hopes that this process will provide rehabilitation through teaching them pro-social skills, increasing their pro-social bonds, and providing them with positive social connections, life skills, empathy, responsibilities, and many other desirable traits or qualities, as well as removing the stigma and label of being a “prisoner.”

Programs vary in number of participants, criteria for participation, length of participation, and even amount of time per day participants spend with the dogs. Programs typically will have a small number of participants; for example, the DTP at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI)-Framingham facility has 8-10 participants at any given time (Drew et al., 2013). Due to the range of specific DTP designs, a description of the DTP based on the partnership between MCI-Framingham (MCI/F) and the New England Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) will be used to illustrate this approach.

The NEADS program at MCI/F pairs an eight-week old puppy with a prisoner trainer for 12-18 months. The prisoner trainers have to meet the criteria (mainly good behavior/no discipline reports prior to and during the duration of their involvement in the program, and the ability to commit to the 12-18 month training period), apply to become a trainer, and pass the screening process conducted by the mental health staff. After a prisoner has been identified as a viable applicant for the DTP, NEADS will have NEADS professional trainers interview the candidates to determine if they are truly a good fit to be involved in the program (Drew et al., 2013). For research purposes, it is clear that biased selection occurs through this process, and implications of this confounding factor will be discussed shortly.

Once selected, prisoner trainers receive a puppy for which they are responsible for training to become a service dog. The puppy and the prisoner trainer spend 24 hours, days a week with each other during the 12-18 month duration, except for when the puppy has a weekend furlough. During the weekend furloughs, weekend trainers on the outside take the puppy for 2-3 weekends per month to provide the puppy with experiences outside of the prison. The puppy goes everywhere with the trainer; they even sleep in the same cell, in which the trainer is provided with a dog crate, food, and training equipment. The prisoner trainer also may have a cellmate who is not involved in the DTP) (Drew et al., 2013).

Prisoner trainers and their puppies work with a NEADS professional trainer in one session per week. During the session, the NEADS trainer tends to any medical needs of the puppy, teaches the prisoner trainer how to train the puppy, monitors the progress of the puppy, and makes sure that the prisoner is a good match for the program. The 8-10 prisoner trainers at MCI/F typically live in the same wing, in which they are able to use the public space in the unit as well as designated areas in the prison yard for dog-training purposes. Upon successful completion (the placement of the fully trained puppy with an individual in need of a service dog), a graduation ceremony is held. Prisoner trainers, Department of Corrections workers involved, NEADS trainers, the weekend trainers, the puppy-turned-service-dog, and those that receive the service dog are invited to attend. This gives all those involved, especially the prisoner trainers, an opportunity to see and appreciate the effort of preparing the puppies to become service dogs to benefit those in need.

Summary of the Problem

The main problem that dog-training programs (DTPs) address is the problem of recidivism. In a longitudinal study of inmates released in 2005, Durose, Cooper, and Snyder (2014) found that 56.7% of all 404,638 state prisoners released in 30 states were arrested within the first year of release, 67.8% were arrested within 3 years, and 76.6% were arrested within 5 years. Specific objectives vary from program-to-program; however, they typically try to reduce recidivism through relatively basic methods. These methods include increasing social-bonds through the intensity of the training program; increasing social skills by having the prisoner trainers work with others; teaching them skills and responsibility that increase their employability through learning and committing to training their puppies; and by providing the prisoners with a source of unconditional love that they may have never experienced. These objectives are achieved during the training process of the puppies, typically a 12-18 month duration. They are driven by both theory and existing research. Existing research shows that dogs have the ability to have great physical and emotional impacts on their people (Wells, 2007). There are various criminological theories and concepts behind the reasons DTPs are implemented.

Criminological Theory of DTPs

There are numerous crime theories that fit dog-training programs (DTPs). One of the most prominent or evident is social bond theory. For example, this is one of the major theories that guides the NEADS program at MCI/F (Drew et al., 2013). The idea behind social bond theory in DTPs is that people will adhere to pro-social behavior when they have something to lose: for example, participants must remain free from discipline reports both before and during their participation in the program. There are anecdotal accounts of prisoners reporting that the only reason why they maintain good behavior is so that they can keep their dogs. This suggests that DTPs may be successful in achieving their goal of creating better behavior among prisoners, at least anecdotally.

The four major tenets of social bond theory are commitment, belief, involvement, and attachment. In DTPs, the idea is that participants will commit to the idea of dog training, and in the case of the NEADS program at MCI/F, they are committed to the idea of dog training for the disabled. The participants believe in the goodness of the mission, to either improve the lives of the dog (in programs that they work with shelter dogs to get them ready for a forever home) or improve the lives of both the dogs and the individuals who receive the dogs (for when they are preparing a puppy to be a service dog). The participants are involved in dog training. It is evident that participants have to be highly involved in these programs; it is 24/7, so they have to meet once a week, work with professional trainers, and sometimes work with each other to train the dogs. The participants have to be attached to a positive peer group of fellow prisoner dog trainers, professional trainers, and DOC staff, and in the case of the NEADS program in MCI/F, they create a relationship with the weekend trainers who take the puppies on their weekend furloughs. There are accounts of the weekend trainers sending the prisoner trainers pictures and notes about what the puppy did over the weekend (Drew et al., 2013).

Labeling theory posits that labels have strong impacts on the way people behave. For example, if a juvenile is labeled as a “bad kid” in school, they are more likely to act out (Adams and Evans, 1996). This is similar for prisoners. The prisoners internalize the label of being a “prisoner” and have a difficult time moving past that stigma (Bachi, 2013; Furst, 2007; Maruna et al., 2004). DTPs allow the prisoner dog trainers to move past the shame and demotion of becoming a “prisoner” or “inmate” and allow them to show that they can do something meaningful, such as train a dog to help an individual with disabilities. DTPs also provide the prisoners an opportunity to give back to the community they wronged. The prisoners are allowed to embrace the wrong they have done and the fact that they are a prisoner, but move beyond that label, give back to the community, and show they are worthy of being allowed back in upon reentry through reintegrative shaming techniques imposed through participation in the DTPs (Drew et al., 2013).

Effectiveness of DTPs

Overall, dog-training programs (DTPs) appear successful in reducing recidivism and achieving desired results among participants (Cooke and Farrington, 2016). The evidence shows that these programs are effective in the sense that they do reduce recidivism. In private communication, Superintendent Robert Kent of the Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center in Oneida, Wisconsin, told Strimple (2003) that of the 68 released prisoners who participated in the DTP since 1997, none had recidivated. Moreover, there has been an improvement in relationships among staff and prisoners, as well as among prisoners and their peers that are involved in the program. Social bonding and social skills are also increased among participants of DTPs (Cooke and Farrington, 2016).

Due to the criteria of maintaining good behavior, DTPs facilitate better behavior of their participants while they are in prison as well. This suggests that their goal of improving behavior in prisons is being met. Via qualitative methods, Currie (2008) found that participants behaved well so that they could get a dog, but then 80% reported an increase in willingness and ability to take responsibility for their actions, and 37% noted an increase in their patience.

There is also evidence that DTPs increase participants’ self-control, anger management, and patience. Cooke and Farrington (2016) report that prisoner dog trainers are more willing to adhere to correctional facility policies and exhibit increased patience with the demands associated with incarceration. Button (2007) mentions how a participant reported becoming frustrated with their dog, but this individual sat down and counted to ten instead of showing their anger towards the dog, because of wanting to be loving towards the dog. This goes along with the concept of having dogs show prisoners unconditional love, and in turn, potentially teaching empathy. This also goes along with the finding that participants of DTPs obtain better emotional intelligence and coping skills (Cooke and Farrington, 2016). Ormerod (2008) mentions how both the prisoner and the dog (in a program in which prisoners are given shelter dogs) are unwanted by society, and this creates a means for which the prisoner can develop empathy towards the dog. When the prisoners saw improvements in the dogs’ behavior, this motivated them to change their own behavior, because they started to internalize the concept that if the dog could change, so could they. All of the desired findings discussed come with limitations.

These limitations should affect the way the findings regarding the effectiveness of DTPs are considered. For example, the selection bias that occurs in recruiting participants is a major limitation because the individuals being recruited are those that are the best behaved/model prisoners already. They are the ones that would be most likely to be susceptible to change. This should cause question of whether the DTPs caused the reduced recidivism or better behavior or if that change was going to occur anyway. There are no true experimental designs with a test and control group that directly examine DTPs. Future research should consider this and aim to produce such an ethical study that could utilize a control group to better assess recidivism and behavior. Another limitation is that the DTPs themselves serve few prisoners at a time.


It can be concluded that dog-training programs (DTPs) appear to be a success. There are few studies, however, that examine the effect of DTPs (Cooke and Farrington, 2016; Mulcahy and McLaughlin, 2013). There is evidence that shows DTPs have recidivism reduction power. They also have been shown to improve mental health, pro-social bonds, and behaviors; reduce violence and suicide attempts; and even boost morale and improve the climate of the prison itself. These programs even have positively impacted prison staff members. All of these great and desired findings regarding DTP effects come with some overwhelming limitations.

Primarily, the limitation or confounding factor of biased selection in the evaluations of DTPs is of concern. Specifically, there can be concern that systematic bias in client selection procedures, also known as “creaming,” could be the driving force behind the successful results, rather than the program itself. As previously mentioned, DTPs only accept “model” prisoners who exhibit the best behavior (Welsh and Harris, 2013). These prisoners are those that are most likely to show a favorable outcome anyway. Choosing model prisoners is necessary, however, in order to ensure the most appropriate placement of the puppies, for both their safety and likelihood of being trained properly. Another limitation of DTPs is their inability to include a large number of participants per facility. This means that a relatively small number of prisoners are receiving direct benefits of being involved in the program, and this is something that should be considered when assessing the cost-benefit of running DTPs. Cooke and Farrington (2016) argue that a large-scale, systematic, randomized controlled trial would be the best method for increasing the validity and reliability of the evaluations of DTPs.

We should consider DTPs as successful, in that they help those who are susceptible and willing to change, and reduce their likelihood of recidivism by helping them attain pro-social bonds, skills, empathy, responsibility, etc. We must also consider their value as a viable, less expensive alternative to providing service dogs to those in need. Due to the indication that DTPs are promising in nature in facilitating better behavior and reducing recidivism among participants, future research should aim at truly testing the effectiveness of DTPs while utilizing an experimental design in which a randomized control group is utilized.


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  • Cooke, B. J., & Farrington, D. P. (2016). The effectiveness of dog-training programs in prison: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature. The Prison Journal96(6), 854-876.
  • Currie, N. (2008). A case study of incarcerated males participating in a canine training program  (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Kansas State University, Manhattan.
  • Drew, J. D., Dearborn, C., Evans, M., Gagne, A., McBean, D., Saville, F., & Sillman, T. (2013). The power of prison pups: The impact of the NEADS program on inmate dog trainers, MCI/Framingham, and the community. Laselle College, 1-51.
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  • Furst, G. (2007a). Prison-based animal programs: Self-reported effects of participation and implications for desistance. Prison Service Journal, 172, 38–44.
  • Harkrader, T., Burke, T.W., & Owen, S.S. (2004). Pound puppies: The rehabilitative uses of dogs in a correctional facility. Corrections Today 66(2), 74-79.
  • Kohl, R., & Wenner, A. (2012). Prison animal programs: A brief review of the literature. Massachusetts Department of Correction Office of Strategic Planning and Research.
  • Maruna, S., Lebel, T. P., Mitchell, N., & Naples, M. (2004). Pygmalion in the reintegration process: Desistance from crime through the looking glass. Psychology, Crime & Law, 10, 271–281.
  • Mulcahy, C., & McLaughlin, D. (2013). Is the tail wagging the dog? A review of the evidence for prison animal programs. Australian Psychologist, 48, 369-378.
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  • Sachs-Ericsson, N., Hansen, N. K., & Fitzgerald, S. (2002). Benefits of assistance dogs: A review. Rehabilitation Psychology, 47(3), 251-277.
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