Trusting that incarcerated men and women in medium to high security prisons could care for and train dogs at the highest level certainly may not seem, at first, like a wise thing to do. In the past 10 years, however, prison dog programs have quickly multiplied across the US, proving that it’s not only an effective, cheaper and safe way to train dogs, but that it also helps the prisoners on a practical and emotional level.
So far, this model has not been tried across the Atlantic, and as the Director of Training for ICAN, the MFEC invited me to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of such programs at their annual conference in Angers, France. The conference was focused on bringing forth the latest science on dog behavior and positive training methods and discussing the many ways dog and humans work and live together. As the manager and instructor of about 40 incarcerated trainers my objective was to present how through learning about dogs, people also learn about themselves.
ICAN (Indiana Canine Assistant Network), started by Dr Sally Irvin, psychologist, in 2002, has for a mission to provide dogs to people with disabilities while at the same time helping prisoners. All the dogs live full time in two different Indiana prisons and are trained exclusively by incarcerated men and women, while coming out on a regular basis with volunteers who expose them to everyday life situations. Wes Anderson, owner of Smart Animal Training Systems, is one of those dedicated volunteers and has greatly contributed to the success of many a dog.
In a prison where everything is focused on punishment, the inmates who sign up for the program are required to ignore the undesirable behaviors of the dogs. Instead of punishing the dogs, they look for ways to reward them. Little by little, the prisoners learn working skills that may help them find a job when they get out, but also how to better understand and relate to others while developing better communication and coping skills.
When training dogs at the level to which they can work with a person with disabilities, especially when using clicker training, trainers need to develop a deep understanding of dog behavior, psychology and theories of learning. In the process, they also learn how their own mind reacts, how their own thinking can lead them to making assumptions that can get them into trouble.
When training dogs, qualities such as patience, understanding and an overall calm attitude are critical. Many prisoners got in trouble for their short temper and poor reactions when faced with frustration. With a dog, the trainer/offenders are motivated to work on their emotions, to give the dog to someone else so they can cool down when frustrated, to notice when they become a little too pushy and to pay attention to their body language. If their tone of voice is too strong, the dog may shut down, be less responsive and show signs of stress. The dog provides them with direct feedback on their behavior and forces them to adjust in order to establish a more positive and successful relationship with the animal. Unlike people, the non-judgmental mind of the dog allows the trainer to reflect on his own actions instead of reacting defensively to perceived attacks.
There are few things in life more moving than watching another being gain such profound understandings of their own behavior – understandings that may affect how they relate to others and therefore how happy and productive they can be.
Trainers and veterinarians at the conference showed a great deal of interest in the subject and a few were considering exploring ways to start such programs in European prisons. Many asked questions about the selection of the prisoners, their work organization and the reaction of other inmates to the dogs. It will take time, but we could one day see dogs and prisoners work together in many parts of the world. After all, everybody benefits: the prisoners, those dealing with disabilities and the society in general…
More to come on this subject …
Jennifer Cattet, PhD
Here’s a short video about how much a dog can make a change, in this case, both in the offender and in the victim’s mother… It’s a very emotional video, so be prepared.