It's a fur cop: dogs lend paw to rehabilitation

29th July 2011 at 01:00
A dog-training scheme aims to help young offenders gain skills and confidence

A new scheme aims to boost young offenders' chances of securing education, employment or training by allowing them to look after and train dogs.

Paws for Progress, the first prison-based dog training rehabilitation programme in the UK, is this week being launched at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, home to 700 inmates.

Young male inmates will be paired with dogs with behavioural problems which need to be trained so they can be rehomed. The pilot programme seeks to reduce reconviction rates by equipping inmates with transferable skills and giving them a chance to address their own behavioural problems.

Developed by Stirling University in partnership with the Scottish Prison Service and Dogs Trust, it will be the subject of a three-year research assessment led by Stirling University PhD student Rebecca Leonardi.

"By helping the dogs, the young offenders are helping themselves at the same time," Ms Leonardi said.

The project was designed to be a vocational course which she hopes will engage the young offenders in education. "There are quite strong anti- education factors involved in working with young offenders," she said. "But if they are given something they feel a real enthusiasm for, then you can develop that."

The pilot will start with two groups of six inmates who will develop "canine CVs" for the dogs and keep a log book of each training session - activities intended to boost employment skills.

"From early visits and meetings with the boys, you can see the amount of engagement there is when there is a dog present," she said.

There are strong "parallels" between the inmates and the dogs, Ms Leonardi feels. "The dogs have been discarded and the boys often feel that they have been too."

A professional dog trainer, Ms Leonardi was inspired by the success of similar projects in the US and Australia.

She hopes the evaluation of the project will produce evidence that could contribute to long-term strategies for rehabilitating offenders in Scotland, and ultimately would like it to become an accredited course in animal care.

Pointers from the US

Since it was founded in 1993, not-for-profit organisation Project POOCH has paired inmates at Woodburn, Oregon, with homeless shelter dogs.

The young offenders learn to train the dogs, groom them and find them new permanent homes. Following a survey of staff and participants in the programme, Dr Sandra Merriam, of Pepperdine University in Malibu, reported marked improvements in inmates' respect for authority, social interaction and leadership.

"They felt they had changed and improved in the areas of honesty, empathy, nurturing, social growth, understanding, self-confidence and pride of accomplishment," she said. There has been a zero per cent reoffending rate among programme participants.

Original headline: It's a fur cop: dogs lend a paw to rehabilitation

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