Dogs leading prisoners on the straight and narrow

Published 14 November 2017

Dogs are our best friend, the saying goes, and it appears to be especially true for those behind bars.

Dogs may have an important role to play in reducing crime, according to UNE graduate Lauren Humby, who says that the process of learning how to read emotion in dogs also improves how prisoners relate to people.

Lauren’s PhD research has, for the first time, cast light on the prison dog programs (PDPs) operating across Australia. The work suggests that PDPs are improving prison culture and may help to reduce recidivism.

Under these programs, animal welfare or training organisations typically pair a dog with one or more specially selected inmates.

The prisoners are responsible for training and socialising the dog until it is ready to be rehomed or moves on to more advanced training as an assistance or service dog.

“With the prison population steadily increasing in Australia and over half of prisoners reoffending, we have to find better ways to deter and rehabilitate offenders,” Lauren said.

“Prison dog programs are one way we can do that. They give inmates the opportunity to develop social, emotional, and vocational skills, and a chance to give back to the community.”

Based on the experiences of inmates, corrections staff and animal welfare representatives participating in PDPs in six states, Lauren found that PDPs not only benefit the participating inmates but also other inmates and prison staff.

In the hostile prison environment, where violence is commonplace, improved relationships among inmates and between inmates and prison staff can improve the prison culture.

“Even those not participating in the program benefit,” Lauren said.

“Dogs have a calming effect and just having them in prisons can be enough. PDPs provide inmates with a chance to make a positive contribution to society and to make recompense for past crimes.”

On a more personal level, Lauren found that the dogs taught inmates important life skills like communication, teamwork, patience and discipline.

“Taking responsibility for the animal and its training helped prisoners to develop a work ethic, but also gave them something to love,” she said.

“Some told me that they thought they could become better parents as a result.

“PDPs can lead to personal transformation – but we now need longitudinal studies to better understand how they impact on the severity and frequency of reoffending.”

With low emotional intelligence previously linked to criminal behaviour, Lauren also tested whether dogs can help prisoners to better read emotional cues – in dogs and possibly humans.

“With research suggesting humans process dog and human facial affect in similar ways, it is reasonable to hypothesise that participating in PDPs and learning to read the behavioural cues of dogs could lead to an increased ability recognise and process emotions in others,” she said.

Prisoners were shown photographs of dogs exhibiting different behaviours and asked to describe the dog’s emotion (happiness, sadness, fear or anger), with the results compared to dog owners in the broader community.

The inmates identified the emotions of happiness, sadness and fear at a rate similar to that of the sample population but were better at identifying anger.

It is possible that imprisonment heightens prisoners’ ability to identify anger in others due to the hostile nature of the environment and the need to identify angry individuals in order to avoid confrontations, institutional infractions and additional prison time.

“Participation in PDPs has the potential to positively impact on how inmates interpret and respond to their own emotions and the emotions of others,” Lauren said.

“It could reduce confrontations with inmates, staff, family and friends both in and outside of jail, and contribute to desistance and reduce recidivism rates.

An avid dog lover, who is now considering swapping criminology for dog training and therapy, Lauren said she has always been passionate about helping the underdog.

As part of her research, she has developed a model to improve the future implementation and evaluation of PDPs.

“I am a big believer that everyone has potential; often our paths come down to life circumstances,” she said.

“Prisoners just need a helping hand and dog programs are one way we can do that.”

Lauren said she found interviewing the prisoners fascinating.

“They were teaching me how to train dogs, and doing things that some dog trainers can’t do,” she said.

“The program made them feel worthy, like they had something to offer.

“It may not work for everybody, but for some a dog program can change their life.”

Photo: Lauren Humby and her dog Presley.