Putting Dogs Behind Bars

Surrounded by barbed wire and filled to the brim with criminals, prison has the perfect amount of consistency and structure for a puppy’s training. In fact, programs have been sweeping the nation that connects dogs in need of training with prisoners who are more than willing to train them. Currently, the majority of organizations running such programs are independent nonprofits that collaborate with local correctional facilities, with government involvement being nonexistent or extremely limited. Increased government participation and funding could help broaden the reach of existing programs and kickstart the formation of several new ones.

Inmate dog training programs are quite diverse in their reach and include rescue dogs from kill shelters, retired race dogs, service dogs, and detection dogs that sniff out explosives, narcotics, and other threats. In order to participate in such programs, inmates are initially screened. In several programs, there is a prerequisite that training program applicants must have no infractions for an entire year to incentivize good behavior. Participation is entirely optional, but with waitlists up to two years long, prisoner responses to the dog training initiatives have evidently been more than enthusiastic.

Financially, sending dogs to prison is incredibly cost-effective. In addition to decreased infrastructure and labor costs, dogs trained in prison have significantly higher success rates than those raised by public volunteers. For example, San Diego’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility runs a program, Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles and Creating Hope, which reports a “75-percent success rate for placing service dogs with the wounded or disabled veterans and children with autism … compared to community trained dogs which have a success rate of 30 to 40 percent.” Since it costs an estimated $10,000 per year for each dog’s training, higher success rates mean significantly lower costs and an increase in the number of families able to get a service dog they truly need.

When it comes to benefits for inmates, these programs receive resoundingly positive reviews. In terms of mental health, there is ample research that “dogs can trigger feelings of safety in humans, which will allow them to … open up and communicate more.” These effects have resulted in a decrease in the frequency of violent altercations at participating correctional institutions. The dramatic decrease in recidivism rates by program participants is particularly noteworthy. While 77 percent of released prisoners are back in prison within five years of their release, programs such as Leader Dogs for the Blind has seen a recidivism rate of 11 to 13 percent among its inmate volunteers. Such a large discrepancy cannot be solely attributed to selection bias.  

More than just man’s best friend, dogs can be taught to help the blind or disabled, to sniff out threats such as explosives or illegal narcotics, and to give a prisoner the love and purpose they need so they can rehabilitate. Funding and government collaboration should certainly be expanded to increase the number of prisons with dog training opportunities if the criminal justice system is truly meant to rehabilitate prisoners and not just lock them up.