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How abandoned dogs are creating wellness for inmates and veterans across the US.

How abandoned dogs are creating wellness for inmates and veterans across the US.

At-risk shelter dogs have been getting a second chance on life throughout the United States since the 1970's. Thanks to regional programs working alongside the institutions, these dogs are scooped up and hauled off to literally - once in a lifetime opportunities. They are to be rehabilitated through the love and attention of a 24 hour personal trainer, that lives eats sleeps and shares their cell. Yes, that is correct, their cell, well maybe we should rephrase that...their trainer's cell.

Today there are over 200 prison dog programs in the US. The first successful animal therapy program in a US prison dates back to the early 1970's. At the Oakwood Forensic Center in Lima, Ohio, a psychiatric social worker initiated a therapy program after he witnessed mental and behavioral improvements in some of the inmates who had cared for an injured bird.  

"The hospital conducted a year-long comparison study between two identical wards, except one had pets and the other did not. The ward with the pets required half the amount of medication, had reduced violence, and there were no suicide attempts. The other ward had eight suicides attempted during that period" (Lee, 1983, pp. 23-24)

In 1981, the first ever Prison Pet Partnership was launched out of the Washington Corrections Center for Women. Spearheaded by Sister Pauline, who gives credit to Joni, a German shepherd that helped save her from a life on the streets. While she was living on the street, Sister Pauline would visit dog kennels as a way to cope with her failing mental wellbeing. When she adopted Joni, her entire world turned around. 

“That became the start of a different life because I learned I had power within me at that time. She gave me the power,” Quinn says.

Her personal success inspired the WCCW program that paired homeless dogs with inmates who trained them as service animals to help veterans and others suffering from trauma. The benefits of animal programs are a three-way win; the dogs get a new lease on life, the inmates get job-training and professional skills that help them find employment upon release, and lastly the community benefits by lower health costs and a lower return rate for released inmates.

Dogs that would have otherwise been euthanized, are trained to assist people with special needs. Prisoners partake in a mental and behavioral rehabilitation program that helps them transition back to civilian life and facilitate job placement. 

Project Pooch, launched in the early 1990's was the first juvenile program that brought together incarcerated juveniles and abandoned and abused dogs. Students are taught dog grooming, animal health and wellness and discipline training. Project Pooch founder Joan Dalton had the program evaluated for the effects on the youth. For her dissertation, Sandra Merriam-Aduini studied the impact of the program on participants:

"The findings indicate that there is zero recidivism of POOCH participants, that the program assists to meet judicial orders and educational expectations with high percentages. Based on survey responses from the adults there appears to be a marked behavior improvement in areas of respect for authority, social interaction and leadership. The youth provided descriptors of change and growth in areas of honesty, empathy, nurturing, social growth, understanding, confidence level and pride of accomplishment." (Merriam-Arduini, 2000) 

Less than 5% of the world's population is in the United States, but 20% of the world's prisoners are right here. Prisons are becoming more expensive to operate and there has been little change in the high rate of recidivism, successful alternate rehabilitation programs should be studied more seriously. State and local funds are needed for over 40 years of successful animal programs to get legit. We need to conduct proper psychoanalytical research, document the findings and develop a national program that promotes wellness and healing for abandoned animals, our currently high incarcerated population and our larger communities.

Here are some links to help us all know a bit more:


See How Service Dogs In Training Can Help Inmates Give Back To Society

Shelter Dogs Give Support to Veterans Thru Collaborative Program

Man’s Best Friend: How Dog Training is Affecting Prison Rehabilitation

How Puppies Can Help Inmates With Behavioral Health



Lee, D. R. (1983). Pet therapy: Helping patients through troubled times. California Veterinarian, 5, 24-25.

Merriam-Arduini, S. (2000). Evaluation of an experimental program designed to have a positive effect on adjudicated violent, incarcerated male juveniles age 12-25 in the state of Oregon. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Pepperdine University