Dogs in prison affect profound changes in their trainer

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.

100_3169 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.

Courtesy of Liz Kaye Photography

Courtesy of Liz Kaye Photography

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.

Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. has been working with dogs for over 30 years, as an ethologist with the University of Geneva (Switzerland), a trainer and a behaviorist (in both Europe and the US). As Director of Training for a service dog organization in the U.S, she supervised and taught offenders in the training of service dogs. Today she's the owner of Medical Mutts (, a company dedicated in the training of rescue dogs as service dogs for conditions such as diabetes, seizures, PTSD, autism, etc. She's also part of a research team working on understanding the ability of dogs to detect changes in blood glucose levels through scent. Jennifer also works with Smart Animal Training System on the promotion of reward based training and the development of technology to support it (

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Posted in Dog behavior, Dog training, Educational, Positive Animal Training
7 comments on “Dogs in prison affect profound changes in their trainer
  1. Bob says:

    WOW! Powerful video. Worth the wait for the first minute or two.

  2. linda stout says:

    Great program—however, I strongly object to breeding dogs for this purpose when millions of worthy dogs are dying in shelters. Why not use dogs “incarcerated” in shelters? The message sent is infinitely stronger and more meaningful.

    • charlie says:

      You dont mix the objectives/goals of two incompatible programs when they lack synergy. Saving a dog from euthanasia because he is in a shelter provides no synergy with protecting a child from ever getting hurt by a dog and maximizing the potential to bring in a pup that has a very high percentage chance of passing the rigorous training that service dogs go through..especially in prisons. Children with special needs and their families are not the right candidates for shelter dogs. Nor are many of the other families that take a shelter dog out of a shelter based on emotion only. If you need science to prove it call PAWS For a Cause one of the biggest service dog organizations in the country and ask for their longitudinal study on the use of Shelter dogs in service dog programs. Let shelters and humane societies stick to what they do best and let service dog programs stick to what they do best, including using responsible breeders that produce dogs that are hundreds of times more likely to pass the training then a shelter dog who comes from unknown genetics and an environment where little is known about its exposure during the critical development period.

      Charlie Petrizzo
      President and Founder
      Project 2 Heal

  3. Angie says:

    I too wish that dogs in shelters could also be trained to do things that the ICAN dogs do, but this is the way things are. Thankfully there are trainers out there, one being a friend of mine, who does take shelter dogs with strong drives and trains them to be bomb, narcotic, military, and border dogs. Granted, they are not service dogs, but they are getting a second chance.

    • I agree with you, there are great dogs in shelters. I now work exclusively with shelter dogs that we train for diabetes alert and seizures, so they can definitely be service dogs too.

  4. nicole says:

    i think this is brilliant- would love to get involved in something like this in Australia…

  5. lee williams says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. When I read about any training program, I’m waiting to discover the type of training used, and this time it brought joy to my heart to read it is clicker training. I truly believe teaching people (most who do not know) that 1- dogs do not need and can be damaged from coercive training, and that 2- reward based training can produce infinitely better results, AND 3- R+ training has the capability of changing someone’s attitude and behavior towards dogs, other animals, and people.

    This is what is important! Changing attitudes, instilling compassion and empathy, and educating about how best to teach dogs. And it is not always easy, especially the attitude and sympathy parts.

    It pains me when service, including military and police, dogs are trained with coercive methods. It isn’t necessary, can create fallout, and is unfair and cruel to the dogs.

    Years ago, I attended an APDT conference, and my strongest memory is seeing a woman in a wheelchair chatting with some people, her sweet service dog beside her, gently engaging with a dog standing close by. The woman harshly jerked on her service dog, as if to say, “YOU are not allowed to socialize! YOU are here to serve me and me only. You cannot have a doggy life of your own!”

    Yes, I know there are “rules” for service dogs, but this interchange between the woman and her service dog broke my heart. He didn’t ask for that life. He had no choice in it.

    During the same time, I was teaching puppy classes and at the first class without puppies, explaining clicker training and rules: no choke, prong, or shock collars allowed and bring lots of great treats. After class a student told me she couldn’t return because she was training a service dog and not only was clicker training not allowed, but also no treats for training were permitted. I went home and cried for this puppy and was haunted by it for years.

    These and other situations produced in me an attitude that dogs shouldn’t be placed in a position to work, especially if they are to be treated as tools and not allowed to be a dog in benign situations. And in regard to military and police dogs, put in harm’s way to be shot, stabbed, and murdered.

    However, as stated, I do believe that fully engaging in the teaching philosophy of reward based, no punishment training can change a person. And it’s not just people in prison. No, it is the general public who lives in a punitive society, are often not taught compassion and empathy for others and for animals, and are bombarded with false information about canine “dominance” and to (attempt to) change behavior with more dominance–with force, intimidation, and pain.

    I am so thankful for this wonderful program. Perhaps it could have been beneficial for Michael Vick to have been involved with something similar, rather than just locked up. How does incarceration teach empathy and compassion? We know that punishment does not teach the correct behavior. Rehabilitation, especially when cruelty to animals is the offense, should involve more than jail time.

    And a thought on the other subject running through the comment section. Using rescue dogs is a great thing, but there are responsible breeders, and some people would prefer to have a dog that has known genetics for temperament and conformation. Although, not a guarantee, it can produce more probability of a good temperament and good health. People should not be chastised or condemned for choosing a puppy from a reputable breeder.

    I imagine possible responses now: how dare you say that 1- there should be no working dogs, 2- rescues shouldn’t always be chosen over bred dogs, and 3- Michael Vick should have had rehab, along with incarceration. But that’s okay. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and those opinions should be respected, unless it is causing harm to another living creatures. And that’s my hope…”all creatures great and small” to be respected and live cruelty-free lives, but I know in order for that to happen, many humans need attitude and cognitive changes.

    Thanks again for sharing this great story of training without force and of redemption!


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