Offenders Training Dogs

by Shirley Scott

Shirley Teaching Class

Many of us have heard about programs around the country where dogs are taken from local shelters and go into prisons to be trained. But where did it start?

Back in 1981 a Dominican nun, Sister Pauline Quinn, recognized how the over-crowded prison system was failing to help offenders contribute positively to society. She had an idea she hoped would help offenders feel they were not only part of society, but were actually giving back to their community.

She got several professional dog trainers together and launched the initial dog program at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women. This center takes homeless dogs and trains them to be service dogs for physically impaired people. Hundreds of dogs have come out of this program.

Please go to to learn more about this program and other programs Sister Pauline has started.

As of right now, there is no group or association that keeps track of how many dog programs are being run, but some estimate there are hundreds in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Italy. There are at least 20 states that have one or more programs going now just in the United States. There are also prisons caring for horses and other animals as well.

Most of the dog programs are run and maintained by individual non-profit organizations, so the cost is not a burden on the correctional institutions or tax payers.

The length of each program depends on what program the prison is doing. Each program is run a little differently but they all have the basic outcome – save dogs from being euthanized and save offenders from boredom.

There is some research starting to be compiled to see just how these programs affect both the offenders and the administrators in a prison. It appears in many cases barriers of fear and mistrust between staff and offenders are lessened. There is also some anecdotal evidence that recidivism and behavioral infractions might be reduced among the inmate population. However, there are no real studies existing to give us an accurate measure on this impact.

We do, however, know working and interacting with animals has been shown to have some therapeutic value in a wide variety of settings, and a prison is no exception. Many offenders feel isolated and unvalued in prison. Working with a dog can help promote a healthier mental state and reduce boredom and restlessness, which are big problems in many prisons.

Being an animal has its advantages in this program. When we go to pick out the dogs for the program, I communicate with them on a telepathic level, and ask them some very important questions. I am able to find out if they have been abused or just kicked out of their homes. Some have run away and some had to be given up because of a death. This helps me to pick the right offenders to train them.

The offenders know I am an animal communicator, and they have listened to me talk about telepathy and energy. I try to help them learn and understand the world of dogs, from a level many have never heard of or even thought about. It is so exciting when the offenders send their dogs telepathic messages and hear an answer. Many offenders think they are going nuts, but then, they will tell me about their experiences, and how the dog’s actions reassured what they heard from them. It is great.

A couple of the offenders will even ask the dogs if they like their names or if they would prefer to be called by something else. They are beginning to use telepathy to communicate with their dogs, and you can really tell it. The dogs are now being trained very quickly without anxiousness. It is a wonderful thing to watch both dog and trainer communicating on a much higher level. The offenders are always excited about what their dog does, and how they understand them.

In the last 28 years that these programs have been in place, thousands of homeless, unwanted dogs have been retrained, rehabilitated and relocated in either adoptive “forever” homes or with a physically or mentally impaired person or working in search and rescue. These programs have literally saved many dogs who might have found themselves on death row.

This second chance at life is one thing the offenders and dogs have in common and makes a very special bond between them. The offenders know they are giving these animals a second chance at life and in return they feel they have another chance too.

It is a sad fact most people will take an untrained shelter dog home and within weeks the dog will be back at the shelter because of behavior problems. Most people cannot afford the 10 weeks to 2 years of intense training that offenders in prison can offer. After all, it’s what they do everyday.  Not even professional trainers can offer that.

Many of these programs offer classes and courses for offenders to take; hopes are they will have a future working with animals when they are released. Several offenders have stated how this has changed their lives.   They say the program helps them feel like they can succeed at something.

Our program is a basic command program. Our dogs are taught to sit, stay, heel, come, lie down, not jump up, shake hands, leave it, and other basic commands. They are socialized in their pack of 6 dogs. After about two to three weeks of being with just their trainers and “doggie sitters” in the program, they can start to be socialized with the rest of the general population of the prison.

This program focuses on training the dogs to become good citizens. We give them the AKC Canine Good Citizenship test before they leave the prison and head to their new homes. This informs their new family they have passed several behavior issues and should be good citizens with other people and dogs.

Our program lasts about 10 weeks. The dogs live in the cells with their trainers during this time. There are two offenders to a cell.   One is the primary trainer and the other is the secondary trainer. We also have several “doggie sitters” if the two regular trainers are not available to be with the dog. These “doggie sitters” must meet the same criteria and go through all the training the primary trainers go through. The rules are the same for everyone in this program and it is working very nicely.

So, the next time you are looking for a dog, please look for a “prison dog program” in your area. There are programs in Oregon, Washington, California, Ohio, Montana, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Kansas, Maine, Virginia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Massachusetts, and Florida. Please forgive if I have missed anyone, but we really need a reporting agency to keep us up to date on new programs. And, a big thanks to all the volunteers who make these programs possible!