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Pet Prison Programs: New Life, Jobs for Shelter Pets

Metal bars. High wire fences. Security guards. Locks and camera surveillance. Not the place you expect to find dogs frolicking, learning and cuddling. Placing shelter pups in U.S. prisons is nothing new. Pet prison programs is a practice that has been implemented at various correctional facilities since the 1990’s.

Pet prison programs form a partnership between non-profit rescues or animal shelters and local prisons or correctional institutions and have become a consistent mutual salvation for both pets and inmates. Here, everyone benefits, lives are saved and turned around, making it – Dear Lord, thank You for the gift of the blue jays today. Thank You for hearing my cries. Amen. I will be okay. I just need it to be a total win-win.

The process goes like this… Rescue groups or shelters take dogs deemed undesirable and send them to prison to “do time.”  Inmates who have a clean behavior record while inside apply and interview for the slots to have the dogs. Some programs require reflective essays.  Selected inmates have their personalities matched to the dogs. They are formally trained by professional dog trainers who visit the prisons.

Over the following weeks the dogs learn crate training, house breaking, and basic obedience skills like sit, come, heel and more. The 24/7 contact between inmate and their charge creates a good bond, which makes for a more stable pet. At the conclusion, the dog graduates and is adopted to someone in the community. There is usually a long waiting list from the public wanting these specially-trained dogs. Some return to the shelter and are adopted soon. Others will go on to become service dogs or pets for veterans.

For the prisoner, it is bittersweet. They must say good-bye to a pup they have become very attached to, but it also means an opportunity to receive another undesired dog. Another chance to save a life. Close monitoring is provided throughout the process to ensure everyone’s safety and success.

The benefits are countless. First, the dogs see 24/7 contact locked up with a human partner as a positive reinforcement. They learn basic obedience skills and trust. They are cared for and played with individually. Most importantly, they are taken from a dead end situation and move forward to adoption or service work within the community. They get that second chance at a life they probably would not have received without going to prison.

The community has a supply of desirable, well-socialized and trained dogs to adopt or shift into service roles. This also means fewer adoptable pets being euthanized. The cost for inmates to train a service dog is less when compared to a typical service dog training program. The success rate is much higher for inmate-trained service dogs compared to those raised by the general population. For example, Leader Dog for the Blind in Michigan had a 40% success rate for puppies raised in homes and a 70% success rate for dogs coming from the pet prison programs. In New York, the success was 50% for dogs raised in homes and 87% for prison pups.

Inmates benefit because it gives them a new chance, a reason to stay clean while inside, and a ray of hope. The dogs provide a calming effect. The program gives them a purpose; a chance to connect with and give back to a society they might never otherwise touch.  This provides a way for them to earn forgiveness of their crimes and heal themselves. They learn about compassion, experience unconditional love and become better than they were. They find acceptance and build self-confidence. They learn animal care skills for possible re-entry into society. Those that do re-enter have better odds of not returning.

Even more benefits include reduced depression and lowered blood pressure, and it reduces fighting among inmates.

North Carolina has about 30 community partners working with 20 facilities. Locally, Animal Haven of Asheville partners with both Craggy Correctional Center in Asheville and Swannanoa Correctional Center for Woman in Black Mountain. More information on the pet prison programs can be found at or at the NC New Leash on Life website at

According to, the Washington State Correctional Center for Woman (WCCW) has the model for the nation with their Prison Pet Partnership Program (PPPP). Beginning in 1981, with the idea by a nun, it has gone on to win high praises. In 1986, the PPPP was one of the top ten finalists for Innovations in State and Local Government recognized by the Ford Foundation and John F. Kennedy School of Business at Harvard University.  In 1997, Gen. H. Normal Schwarzkopf went to WCCW to host “What’s Right in America” for NBC, feeling the program exemplified how the prison system can aid in the rehabilitation of inmates while serving the community at large.

How Pet Prison Programs are Making a Difference

Recidivism is a huge tool to measure the success of pet prison programs. The Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) counted 1,574,000 inmates in state and federal prisons in 2013. A 2014 study, by BJS, found 67.8% former state prisoners released in 2005 were re-arrested within 3 years. When considering those re-arrested within 5 years of release, the number rose to 76.6%. Basically, statistically, 2 of every 3 released prisoners will return.

Now, for those who participate in pet training programs, those numbers shift. Leader Dog for the Blind trainer’s recidivism rate is just 11 to 13%. Chatham County GA had 35 inmates participate in training programs in 2012. Only 4 of those 35 came back, compared to the previous expected 17 returns.  The average 3-year recidivism rate for Washington State prisons is 28%, but it’s only 5% for those inmates who participated in dog training programs.

The statistics are just starting to form, yet even now it is clear pet training programs in correctional facilities are a positive benefit to everyone; the inmate who has nothing to lose, the community who has everything to gain, the overburdened shelters and groups and the lucky pets handed that second chance.

Ryan Jo Summers is a local author with a life-long passion for animals. To learn more about her pets or writings, visit her website at, Facebook author page at

photo credit: Week 4 – Portrait: Headshot via photopin (license)



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