To err is human. To forgive, canine.
President Harry Truman once said, “If you live in Washington and want a friend, get a dog.” How right he was. Just ask Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, noted more than a century ago that pets ease the suffering of long-term hospital patients. Contact with small companion animals has numerous positive medical effects, such as lowered heart rate, blood pressure and stress. That is why long-term residential facilities use Animal Assisted Therapy.
Some prisons do this as well. Correctional facilities in this nation, Australia, Canada, England, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland and South Africa have small-scale “prisoner-dog training programs.” Program prisoners raise dogs for a year or less and give them some basic training. Afterwards, the dogs go on for further training to become service dogs or become companion animals.
In the U.S., these programs have clever names such as: Pawsitive Partners Prison Program, Prisoners Assisting With Support Dogs (PAWS), and Prisoners Overcoming Obstacles and Creating Hope (POOCH).
Those programs have benefited everyone involved. Dogs sitting on “death row” at a local shelter have their sentence commuted to “life” with someone at their “forever home.” Prisoners learn dog-caring skills (e.g., handling, training, walking and sitting) that they can use in a post-release environment.
For some prisoners, it is the first time in their lives that a living creature loves them and they love in return. That intensely personal and immeasurable reward teaches prisoners respect, self-control and responsibility. As one observer put it, those programs help inmates become “more attentive and responsible citizens of the world, more aware of the needs of others, and more responsible for their own behavior, which is just this side of a miracle.”
Trainers and their dogs are not the only ones who benefit. Other prisoners see a reduction in the fear of violence that permeate our prisons in the same way that water fills the seas. The people who receive a trained dog have a lifelong companion. Because most offenders eventually return to the community, neighborhoods receive former inmates with a reduced risk of recidivism. The result is a “win times five.”
It appears as though dogs are not half-bad at rehabilitating some prisoners. Unfortunately, there are no scientifically rigorous studies proving the rehabilitative effect of those programs. The gold standard is the random assignment, double-blind study that pharmaceutical companies use to test the safety and effectiveness of new drugs. That approach will not work here.
Wardens cannot randomly assign dogs to prisoners because no one wants to see a headline like “Serial killer wolfs down Fido with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” Not every prison gives prisoners and their wards outdoor access on a regular basis. There is also a limit to the amount of money that taxpayers are willing to give up to underwrite those programs. Finally, politicians are likely to garner far more votes by saying “I increased the sentences imposed on criminals” than by saying “I gave every prisoner a puppy.”
Nonetheless, the available literature indicates that correctional officials and outside observers have found these programs effective rehabilitation opportunities. We should look into their continued and expanded use.
Congress could direct the Government Accountability Office to determine whether these programs show sufficient promise to justify expansion at additional federal facilities. Congress could also instruct the attorney general to create additional projects at minimum security facilities and use inmates with no history of animal abuse or violence. The results might provide sufficient evidence of a program’s effectiveness to justify creating programs at additional facilities.
The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Dogs, inmates and both the prison and outside communities may benefit from imperfectly justified programs. After all, each one is imperfect as well.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Times