Of Canines and Convicts

A one-woman army and a handful of unwanted dogs may be the best hope of rehabilitation for Colorado's ever-growing prison population.

April 2008

What do animals offer people that other humans cannot? The Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, near Longmont, is one of countless programs that use equine therapy with developmentally disabled clients; riding lessons can build confidence and teach motor skills needed to control conditions like cerebral palsy. And libraries across the country use dogs to teach children with speech impediments and learning disabilities to read aloud with confidence. Even simple approaches, like taking dogs from local shelters to visit residents in nursing homes, have been shown to improve mood and key measures of health, like blood pressure, among people the dogs visit.

These programs are an outgrowth of a relatively new field called anthrozoology, which studies relationships between humans and animals. It's an interdisciplinary field of research, crossing psychology, sociology, and countless other disciplines to study everything from the link between cruelty to animals and violence toward other people to zoonoses—infectious diseases that transfer from animals to humans. But perhaps the biggest area of study is investigating the connection between animals and human health, particularly the field of animal-assisted therapy.

"We've seen all kinds of research with all kinds of disabilities—emotional, physical, psychological—that therapy with animals, particularly dogs, is very effective," says Leslie Irvine, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado and author of If You Tame Me, a book about the human-animal bond. "It can be a very important foundation for steps like building confidence, building trust, and accepting new responsibilities." Dogs are particularly adept at this, she theorizes, because we've domesticated them for 14,000 years: The way they interact with us has predisposed them to be the perfect companion.

Stories of animals in prisons have a shorter historical arc, if just as illustrious, including German POWs in New Hampshire who adopted wild animals they found while working outside the prison—rabbits, a crow, and even a bear cub. The most famous example of a prisoner and his animal is Robert Stroud, the famed "Birdman of Alcatraz," who wrote two widely praised academic texts on birds and bred canaries during his time at Leavenworth.

Dogs weren't used in prisons—other than as guards—until 1981, when Sister Pauline Quinn, a former runaway and onetime prisoner who became a Catholic nun, pioneered what is thought to be the world's first prison dog-training program at the Washington Correctional Center for Women in Gig Harbor. Today, there are at least 47 prison-trained dog programs in 36 states. Australia and Scotland also have programs. As it happened, the Gig Harbor program became a model for Stevens, who visited it in 2002 to learn how to start her program in Colorado. Initially, CCI wanted a socialization program with purebreds, but she had a better idea: Why not train rescues? Just as prisons are home to society's discarded people, shelters are full of throwaway animals. If the dogs were supposed to help the people, why not help the dogs, too?

Despite widespread research on animal-assisted therapy, there's a lack of studies examining the therapeutic potential of prison-animal programs. One partial study, published in 2005, found that inmates reported a powerful motivation in that their dog program was the chance to right their social wrongs, citing, "Programs like these may in fact be one of the only ways for the inmates to feel that they can somehow redress the harms caused by their actions."

But without any real scientific understanding of how prison-animal programs work, it's remarkable that prisons are willing to implement them so widely—according to CCI's Smith, the DOC just asked for a proposal on expanding the program to every eligible prison in the system. But however they work, they seem to do it well. The five-year recidivism rate among working (assigned) offenders in the Colorado Department of Corrections is about 25 percent, half that of the general population. The reoffending rate in the dog program is less than half that again.

The key to its success? Dr. Irvine, the CU sociologist, suggests there are unique qualities to a relationship with a dog that aren't found in human relationships at all. Prisoners will always be judged by other people, says Irvine. "Very few people trust them, even in prison. The dog doesn't know their record; it doesn't care." And while the dogs show unconditional love, they can also solicit it, perhaps the most therapeutic behavior possible in prison, and a power they alone possess. "Prison is a negative place," says Stevens, where affection is normally a kind of weakness. If you can't show affection for 10 years, what does that do to you? A dog makes an honest display of love socially acceptable.

Sometimes, a dog makes it necessary, like Libby, one of Robert Gerle's dogs. She was a rescue, a five-month-old Aussie mix who came into the program with kennel cough, an oral bacterial infection, and some sort of parasite festering under her skin. "She was just a really sick, beat-up little girl," he says. "No one ever gave a damn about her." He instantly set to rehabilitating her. She was on four different medications, five times a day. He even misted her mouth with a squirt bottle for days on end to keep her hydrated; she wouldn't drink on her own.

Gradually Libby improved, and after about a month was romping around the yard playing with the other dogs. One day, she sidled up to Gerle while he was seated on the floor and searched his gaze carefully. She put her front paws in his lap, and stopped to look up again. She eased a little closer and checked again—is this OK? Finally, completely in his lap, she curled up and went to sleep. As on other occasions—like every time he released a dog to new owners—he nearly teared up.

"When I would snuggle with one of my dogs or wrestle with one or throw a ball, or even if they'd just come and put their head on my shoulder, they always looked at me and I could tell they were thinking 'I love you'," he says. "You can't get that anywhere else. Not in prison, anyway."

Today, Stevens says that she wasn't sure about Gerle, just as she wasn't sure about Maynard. Neither had exactly been model inmates during their early time inside, and both were down for serious crimes. It took Maynard three interviews to get accepted to the program. But Stevens' experience with the program has taught her to follow her gut. "Of the times when I was not sure about an offender but let them in the program," she says, "more often than not they stick. Some don't make it, but most of them do, and a few of them really surprise me." Stevens knows a thing or two about second chances, maybe because so many of the dogs that she saves are last-chancers themselves.