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Puppies in Prison FAQ


How did the idea of puppies in prison come about?

In 2005, shortly following Barry Matthews appointment to the role of Corrections CE has was sent an article about a programme in Chicago called New Leash on Life. The programme involved rescuing homeless dogs and prisoners’ training them for re-homing. The following year Barry visited Canada for a conference and visited a similar programme being run in the Fraser Valley Institution. Although neither of these programmes involved dogs being trained for a particular service – they had prisoner carers for the dogs in common. Staff working with prisoners that cared for the dogs reported that the programme had big benefits for the prisoners involved, including developing pro-social behaviours, building a sense of self esteem, and instilling in them responsibility through the absolute care of the animal. Following the Canadian visit, Barry received a letter from a Senior Corrections Officer informing him of an article in a New South Wales Corrective Service magazine about dog training. He suggested that the Department do something similar. Barry tasked staff to investigate, and as a result contact was made with the Mobility Assistance Dogs Trust and a proposal to discuss prisoners training dogs for the Trust was developed. Bradley Mark – past CEO of the Trust had also spent time visiting the United Kingdom and America to look at dog training programmes in prisons and was enthusiastic about the establishment of a partnership with the Department. After discussions with the Trust, and research into how the Department could best facilitate such a partnership, The Puppies in Prison Programme was born at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility.


How are prisoners chosen to participate?

All of the prisoners are selected using a robust and impartial selection process. Advertisements are placed around the prisons to allow prisoners who met the selection criteria the opportunity to apply. Selection criteria included the prisoner having a low security classification, being drug and incident free, showing the discipline required to train dogs and previous interest in animals. Applications are accepted by the prisoner submitting their curriculum vitae following an interview process. This had the additional benefit of providing applicants with the valuable skills of CV preparation and interview experience.


How many prisoners are there on the programme?

When the programme was first piloted four women were chosen as dog trainers. There are now up to eight prisoners in Wiri and up to fifteen in Spring Hill.


What is the cost to the taxpayer for this initiative?

Who pays for the dogs’ food and other expenses? There were some initial costs incurred in setting up the programme at the prison – primarily associated with the modification of a Self Care hut to make it suitable for dogs. An exterior fence was built at the back of the selected hut to allow a space for dogs to run around off their leashes and remain enclosed. MARS New Zealand sponsors the dog food at the prison programmes at Wiri and Spring Hill with their Nutro Natural Choice product.  


Do the prisoners get paid to do this? If so how much?

Prisoners are paid a small incentive for their commitment to the dog training. This is between 20 and 60 cents per hour and is line with other work undertaken by prisoners, such as unit cleaning and working in the prison kitchen.


Why should prisoners get this privilege?

How does it help in prisoner rehabilitation? Prisoners involved internationally in these types of programmes have stated to researchers looking into the effects of caring for dogs in prisons that being part of the programme provided a purpose in their lives, taught them patience and responsibility, and instilled in them respect for others. Staff working with prisoners that cared for the dogs at Auckland Women’s and Spring Hill reported that the programme had big benefits for the prisoners involved, including developing pro-social behaviours, building a sense of self esteem, and instilling in them responsibility through the absolute care of the animal. There has also been a positive impact on prisoners not involved in the prison – seeing the work these women do motivates them to work towards a placement as a trainer later in their sentence. By caring for and training dogs that will eventually be partnered by people with disabilities the prisoners are in a way paying reparation to the communities that they have offended against. Having a dog may be a privilege – but it is also a huge amount of work considering the service that these dogs are being prepared for. The programme was evaluated after six months of running in the prison. A positive change in the prisoners was been reported by custodial staff and the prisoners themselves. Corrections Officers who were interviewed during the evaluation all reported improvement in the communication skills and attitudes of the women involved – with one stating "I believe that the puppies have brought out something in the prisoners, given them self-confidence and a feeling that someone cares for them." One prisoner stated that the programme had increased her level of responsibility toward her own children, saying “I now feel more responsible for my children and I let them know that I may be incarcerated but I am still here for them.” This prisoner evidenced her change by describing how she used to spend her money on cigarettes, but said that she is now buying phone cards to remain in contact with her family. Another prisoner said that she now makes an effort not to get into confrontations with anyone because “I am responsible for my puppy and I really want this to work out.” Similarly, another prisoner communicated that it was “an honour to have a puppy and I don’t want to let myself down, the prison, my puppy or Mobility Dogs.”


By being on the programme do the prisoners involved get rewards, such as earlier release etc?

No, the prisoners involved in the programme have the same opportunities and privileges as other prisoners, and also have the same access to rehabilitation programmes etc.


Has a prisoner ever harmed a dog during this project?



Is this dangerous, e.g. can a dog be used as a weapon? What if a prisoner trains it to attack prison officers, or takes the dog hostage?

The prisoners are closely supervised by staff and also the trainers from Mobility Dogs. Any signs of aggression shown are carefully monitored and prisoners would be exited from the programme is this was shown to be happening. The prison has sound processes in place for dealing with all incidents in a prison, including a potential hostage situation.


Won't the prisoners get attached and perhaps lash out when the training is over and the dog is taken from them. How do they react to having the dog taken away?

Before a new dog enters the prison environment, and throughout the programme it is heavily emphasised to the prisoners involved that there will come a point when the dog has to leave prison. Prisoners can become attached to the dogs, and are obviously sad when they leave. For some prisoners this sadness is mitigated by knowing that the dog is going into a life of service for a person with a disability. Prisoners share these experiences together and there is no shortage of puppies to be babysat short-term, groomed or toilet trained – providing distraction for the prisoners and also the experience of dogs regularly entering and exiting the prison.


What are the dogs being trained for?

Mobility dogs are trained to aid and assist a human partner 24 hours a day, seven days a week, inside the home and out in the community. Mobility dog recipients enjoy increased access to education, places of work and recreational opportunities. Fully trained mobility dogs can perform up to 60 different tasks, in order to improve the quality of life of their disabled owners.


Where do the dogs come from?

Puppies enter the programme from breeders and by donation. Because of the nature of Mobility Dog tasks, medium to large breeds like Labrador and Golden Retrievers are favoured.


Are mobility assistance dogs like guide dogs?

In some ways. Guide Dogs assist people with visual impairment. Mobility Dogs assist with a physical impairment. Fully trained Mobility Dogs can perform up to 60 different tasks, to improve the quality of life of their disabled owners. They are identified with black vests and carry ID cards. Mobility dogs have legal public access rights under the Dog Control Amendment Act 2006.


How long do the prisoners have the dogs?

Puppies can be fully trained at around 18 months to 2 years old. They remain in prison for 14 months to ensure that they arephysically mature before undertaking advanced training. Sometimes a dog will be put into the prison at 1 year old – and placed with an experienced handler with the aim being that they are able to begin the process of advanced training with the dog.



Where are they housed in the prison?

The dogs live with their handlers in a Self Care Unit (SCU) at the prison. SCU’s provide an intermediate step between the prison environment and life in the community by placing individual prisoners in a flatting type situation with three of their peers. This assists prisoners to take responsibility for their living arrangements by enabling them to control their day-to-day living needs – including housekeeping, cooking, budgeting and purchasing of food and household requirements.


Has the Department had any feedback from Mobility Dogs about how the programme is running?

The Department has been encouraged by the feedback received that the programme has exceeded expectations and the puppies are responding to training more quickly than their counterparts in the community. The puppies to date have become proficient in voice commands. This has been attributed to the quieter environment in the prison and the nature of the puppies, but also the commitment, consistency, and passion of the prisoner handlers. The Department has also received a large amount of feedback from the public, especially following a piece in the show 20/20 about the programme.


Is the programme likely to be expanded to other prisons?

Any expansion would be dependant on the Trust’s ability to obtain sufficient funding  and the availability of trainers outside the Auckland region.


What’s in it for Mobility Dogs?

For the Trust it is as simple as getting more dogs into the disabled community. This programme is an effective way to do this – the dogs are coming out of the prison with a higher level of training then less time can be spent on advanced training and they can be placed with recipients earlier.

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