A Closer Look at “Cell Dogs” and Horse Programs in Correctional Institutions

Humanizing Prisons with Animals: A Closer Look at “Cell Dogs” and Horse Programs in Correctional Institutions

Deaton, Christiane


If correctional education aims to transform individuals and bring about change, we need to consider the whole person who comes with human needs, emotions and attitudes. In order to expand our approach, alternative programs should be explored. A somewhat unusual but very promising approach to address offenders’ human needs is the use of animals in institutions. The majority of these programs have a vocational skills component: Inmates train dogs to become service dogs for the disabled, or they work with horses, either wild mustangs or retired race horses in need of rehabilitation. Although vocational training is certainly a major consideration, these programs are also highly therapeutic and rehabilitative. Suggested outcomes can benefit many: The inmate, the institution, other agencies, and the community. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of selected animal-assisted programs in correctional institutions and their reported benefits.


Traditionally, educational programs in correctional institutions which intend to rehabilitate (or habilitate) adult and juvenile offenders stay within proven, safe parameters considered appropriate for this setting. Most address specific “deficits” of the offender, such as lack of vocational skills, basic education needs/GED, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.). The delivery of these programs is based on the underlying rational assumption: “This is what you need to succeed in society. You don’t have it. Here’s the solution if you want to turn your life around.” While this approach is helpful in increasing the offender’s knowledge or skills and might work for some, it is limited. If correctional education aims to transform individuals and bring about change, it is necessary to consider the whole person inside the uniform, who always comes with human needs, emotions and attitudes.

Depending on one’s perspective, correctional education can be defined in different ways: Program-based (where correctional education is an institutional program), situational (education taking place inside correctional institutions) or inherent (emphasizing the correctional dimension and the teaching of confined offenders who have human needs) (Gehring, 2004). While the inherent definition is the most comprehensive, it is also the most challenging: It is conceivable to provide educational programs in prison, or to deliver education in a correctional setting, but how do we address human needs of incarcerated individuals? Taking this concept one step further, Zollman (1993) stated: “Education that remains merely on the surface of human life, that fails to go to the heart of being, will inevitably fail in being correctional or, in other words, formative, reformative, and transformative” (p. 93). How, then, can correctional educators address human needs, emotions or attitudes? After all, incarceration is not a therapeutic endeavor – we are not supposed to make prisoners “feel good” in correctional institutions which are punitive by nature. Based on what could be called a “dilemma” at best and “mission impossible” at worst, it is helpful to look outside the proverbial box toward alternative approaches. One such approach that provides opportunities to meet basic human needs such as love, acceptance, respect, trust, self-worth and usefulness involves incarcerated individuals caring for other living things, especially animals. Utilizing animals in institutional programs opens important dimensions; where human caregivers and teachers step on treacherous ground, we are likely to encounter less opposition to the idea of using animals to promote healing and change.

Animal-assisted programs in correctional institutions have gained increased media attention, especially after the cable channel Animal Planet aired several episodes of its “Cell Dogs” documentary. It features a number of programs in correctional facilities across the country where inmates train dogs either for service to the disabled, or to be adoptable by the public. Other institutions offer programs where inmates train and work with horses, either by rehabilitating retired racehorses or gentling wild mustangs. At first, it appears that the majority of these programs provide vocational skills, work experience, or a service to the community. Upon taking a closer look, it becomes evident they are also highly therapeutic. Working with animals provides meaningful experiences for incarcerated individuals during which many important life lessons are learned.

The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of selected animal-assisted programs and their reported benefits in correctional institutions. Although much of what we know is based on observation, anecdotal evidence and self-report, these programs are certainly more than “the latest fad” or “media darlings.” As with any developing field, there is more literature available on practice than on research. This article is therefore intended to introduce a larger number of correctional education professionals to animal-assisted activities and encourage them to explore this promising approach.

Theoretical Framework

The idea of using animals in institutions is certainly not new, nor is it based on a whim by animal lovers. Its origin can be traced to the concept of the humananimal bond (HAB), a term first conveyed by pioneers such as Konrad Lorenz and Boris Levinson whose work greatly influenced the scientific community in the 1970s and 1980s, predominantly in the field of veterinary medicine (Mines, 2003). Hines pointed out that while this emerging field attempted to be interdisciplinary early on, it gained credibility and recognition through presentations at national and international interdisciplinary conferences and their subsequent proceedings. In 1985, Karen Miller Alien published the first annotated bibliography on the human-animal bond. Today, HAB is widely recognized and accepted, largely as a result of the media coverage on community programs which utilized pets as therapeutic agents. The Delta Society, an international organization established in 1977 in Portland, Oregon, has become a leading resource for the human-animal bond and the important role of animals for people’s health and well-being. Professionals such as Phil Arkow of the Humane Society and Leo Bustad, a founder of the Delta Society, were among the first to take animals into nursing homes in the late 70s and 80s. Since then, these early activities have evolved. After being originally referred to as pet therapy or pet-facilitated therapy (PFT), they were defined by the Delta Society as “animal-assisted activities” (AAA) and “animal-assisted therapy” (AAT) (Hines, 2003).

According to the Delta Society’s definitions, animal-assisted activities (AAA) are “goal-directed activities that improve a client’s quality of life through the use of the human-animal bond” (Granger and Kogan, 2000, p. 214), whereas animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a “goal-directed intervention that utilizes the human-animal bond as an integral part of the treatment process” (p. 213). As with many other disciplines that are still in the early phases of professional development, there is no general agreement on how AAA or AAT is to be conducted. We find many variations, depending on setting and target population. A variety of animals are used, ranging from small animals such as birds, fish, rabbits, dogs and cats to larger animals such as horses and farm animals, even dolphins. Activities take place in a number of settings, including long-term care facilities, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, as well as institutional settings.

Cusack (1988) suggested in the early stages of the development of this field that “animals can be vitally important for the fringe groups of society; prisoners, the physically challenged, and the mentally ill” (p. 33). He further stressed that “perhaps most important, pets seem to bring out the best in us. If there is a capacity for affection, compassion, for empathy or tenderness overlooked by our human fellows, a pet has an uncanny ability to ferret it out” (p.33). Similarly, Beck and Katcher (1983) concluded that “when people face real adversity…affection from a pet takes on new meaning. Then the pet’s continuing affection is a sign that the essence of the person has not been damaged” (p. 31). These conclusions support the idea that animal-assisted activities in prison can allow incarcerated individuals to feel human again – a first step towards healing and change.

Historical Background & Early Programs

The first recorded use of AFT took place in 1792 at the York Retreat in England, an asylum run by a Quaker group, where common farm animals were used as part of the treatment and as an alternative to restraints and drugs (Beck, 2000). In 1867, Bethel was founded in Bielefeld, Germany, as a home for epileptics where animals were an integral part of treatment; today, Bethel has grown into a center of healing for the disadvantaged with more than 5,000 patients (Catanzaro, 2003). In the United States, the first well-documented use of animals for rehabilitative purposes took place in 1944 at the Army Air Force Convalescent Center in Pawling, New York, where dogs, horses and farm animals were used as a diversion from the intense therapeutic programs for airmen (Beck, 2000). In 1947, Green Chimneys, a 75-acre farm near Brewster, New York, was founded as a home for emotionally and mentally disabled children and adolescents by the Ross family. Still in operation today, Green Chimneys has expanded to over 160 acres and has become a social service agency which now serves children and adults from New York and surrounding regions. It is considered the strongest and most diverse of its kind involving farm, animal, plant and wildlife assisted activities where human-animal interactions have been an active component for over 50 years, despite many organizational changes (Mallon and Ross, 2000).

In 1975, David Lee pioneered the first successful animal therapy program in a U.S. prison at the Oakwood Forensic Center (formerly the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane) in Lima, Ohio. Lee (1987) noticed an improvement in some men after they found an injured bird and smuggled it into the institution where they fed and cared for it in an attempt to save its life. Lee consequently initiated a 90-day experiment which exceeded all expectations. A study conducted at Lima in 1981 compared patients on a ward with pets to patients on a ward without pets. Lee reported that “the patients with pets needed half as much medication, had drastically reduced incidents of violence and had no suicide attempts during the year-long comparison” (p. 232). The “ward without pets had eight documented suicide attempts during the same year” (p. 232). At Lima, long-term patients keep their pets such as birds, hamsters, fish or other small animals living in their cells. Patients who stay for short terms before being returned to prison visit and work with farm animals such as deer, goats, ducks, geese and rabbits. Eight years after its inception, the program was using more than 170 pets and was considered highly successful. Lee concluded that an institution can receive the following benefits from a therapeutic pet program: “1. A comfortable atmosphere. 2. An improved sense of patient self-worth. 3. A necessary diversion. 4. Providing companionship” (p. 235). The underlying philosophy is to help patients help themselves. Lima began to train dogs for the Pilot Dog program (which provides free guide dogs for the blind) in 1996.

What began as a dream for Kathy Quinn, now known as Sister Pauline, laid the foundation for starting over 17 dog training programs in different correctional facilities. Quinn got together with Dr. Leo Bustad, another pioneer in the field of AAT, and they began a dog training program at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor. The reported benefits of this program are numerous: The incarcerated women developed a marketable skill, experienced an increase in self-esteem, and earned college credit. In addition, dogs from the humane society that would otherwise have been killed were trained to become service dogs for people with special needs (Strimple, 2003).

Another pioneer in the field of AAT is Dr. Ron Zaidlicz who began a horse training program at the state penitentiary in Canon City, Colorado, in the late 1970s. The penitentiary had bought three wild mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management but was unable to train them. Zaidlicz’s program, even though it had not been intended to teach vocational skills, allowed inmates to learn equine husbandry, from gentling wild horses to treating injuries and illnesses, with some men becoming ferriers. Inmates also learned how to care and trust. As an added benefit, the Department of Corrections made money to support the prison (Strimple, 2003).

A similar initiative, the Wild Mustang Program, operated at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility from 1988 to 1992. It began in response to a need to tame and train wild horses in danger of starvation. After the Bureau of Land Management began to remove wild horses from overcrowded public land, it created a partnership with the New Mexico Department of Corrections. Inmates would halter break the mustangs and prepare them to be sold to the general public. Granger and Kogan (2000) concluded that “this program was a win-win situation. The horses were handled humanely, the NMBLM was able to improve its public image, and the correctional facility was able to offer work to its inmates that did not threaten any private industry” (p. 224). In 1992, Gushing and Williams (1995) prepared a comprehensive research study of the Wild Mustang Program which included qualitative and quantitative evidence. The results of this study can be summarized as follows: Subjective assessments revealed that inmates assumed a nurturing role by caring for the mustangs. As a staff member commented:

This program gave them the opportunity to know themselves. They didn’t know that they could give affection, and be gentle. They had to be able to give peace to the horse. They had a responsibility to the horse and had to pull these attitudes out of themselves in order to do the job. (p. 101)

In addition, inmates experienced a sense of autonomy by being in charge of their project and accomplishing a common goal. While the corrals were built just outside the facility, not one inmate tried to escape. Another perceived benefit was that inmates worked through and overcame the danger of being near these wild horses: “The inmates would be ‘taking the fear out’ of themselves at the same time they were ‘taking the fear out’ of the mustang” (p.102). The local administration stated that inmates developed increased self-esteem and self-confidence. This sense of accomplishment was shared by corrections staff who viewed the program as providing meaningful and productive work.

Overall, the qualitative evidence suggested the Wild Mustang Program contributed to better emotional and psychological states of the inmates and staff. Furthermore, the study’s data analysis revealed that of the 56 men who had participated in the WMP and been released, only 14 had been reincarcerated in New Mexico for an estimated recidivism rate of 25% percent. This figure was considerably lower than the average recidivism rate for New Mexico (38.12%) although the authors warned that evidence regarding recidivism is inconclusive. Their data did support, on the other hand, that “participation in the WMP is clearly associated with a reduction in the overall number of disciplinary reports and the severity of reports swung away from major to minor” (p. 106). Interestingly, the study revealed that if WMP participants also received substance abuse counseling, disciplinary reports decreased by 55%. The authors concluded their study by stating that their efforts “reveal strong subjective assessments of positive benefits of the program….it seems advisable to continue the Wild Mustang effort with more attention to the evaluation research needed…” (p.110).

Examples of Recent Programs

Animal training programs in correctional facilities have increased since their first appearance in a few facilities. The following is a brief description of recent programs that focus on training dogs or horses. By including a training component, these programs offer measurable benefits, such as vocational skills, and provide a service to the community by training animals which otherwise would be of little use. Programs that go beyond strictly therapeutic goals prevail, perhaps because they are less likely to encounter resistance by the correctional system or the general public. The lack of journal articles on the subject led to a preliminary search of general news media. It returned 16 newspaper articles published during the past five years that feature dog and horse programs in correctional facilities. While these articles cannot provide any research-based evidence of the effectiveness of the programs, they inform the reader of current practices and reported benefits which might stimulate further interest. The programs are grouped by type of animal used and listed in chronological order of the article’s publication date (please note that, with the exception of the Walkill and Hickey program, no attempt was made to verify that the programs are still operating).

Dog Training Programs

At the Washington State Correctional Center for Women, a maximum security facility, inmates are training dogs to be service animals for the disabled. They must first pass a 12-week training course which teaches them the basics of dog care, grooming and training. Part of their day is spent at the prison kennel where dozens of dogs and a few cats are boarded by private owners. Fees for these services, together with donations and grants, fund the non-profit program. As a result of limited funding, only about 10 women can take part in the program at a time. Since it started, over 75 women had participated. This program is considered a

…win-win-win situation: It’s good for the dogs, often adopted from shelters where they’d otherwise be killed. It’s good for the disabled, who experience a new world of freedom with the dogs at their side. And it can forever change the lives of the inmates. (“Inmates Learning,” 2000, p. A2)

The article cites the following inmate testimony: “I’ve learned responsibility. I know now it depends on me to change my life…Doing this has given me some self-esteem. This is something I can do” (p. A2). According to this source, the program participants’ recidivism rate over three years was zero (although no reference was made how the data was obtained).

A similar dog training program was launched at the Downeast Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Maine, in 1999. Puppies donated by breeders spend about a year in training performed by male inmates. After graduation, they are placed with a disabled person in the community by the National Education for Assistance Dogs Services. The program is run by Clara Grover, a full-time guard with a background in training show dogs, who takes the dogs, accompanied by their inmate trainers, into town daily to become accustomed to crowds and noises in the real world. This socialization effect benefits not only the dogs but also the inmates. Cold (2000) suggested that “a year into the program at the Maine prison, there have been two clear results: a decrease in prison tension that surprised even corrections officials and some extraordinary well-trained dogs” (p. B12). She cited the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, Martin Magnusson, to support her findings: “The bonding that the prisoners have with these dogs by caring for them is visible throughout the prison environment. For some inmates, this is their first encounter as a positive role model for the community” (p. B12). The impact of this program on participants appears considerable: “I think totally differently. I have a more positive outlook, and I daily learn to be more patient” (p. B12). In 2000, the program also planned to add dog training and grooming to the vocational classes offered by the institution.

The Prison Pup Program at Bland Correctional Center in Virginia, a medium-security facility, also trains puppies to be used as service dogs. After a year of training, they are turned over to the St. Francis of Assisi Service Dog Foundation in Roanoke for placement. After Hough, the training director at Francis who supervises the program, gave the inmates dog training manuals, she was impressed that all of the inmates had read them cover to cover, twice (Hammack, 2002, p.B16). She pointed out that “puppies raised by inmates seem to learn faster. Not only do the inmates have lots of spare time, but they also crave the companionship a dog can provide behind bars” (p. B16). The article also quotes Marie Suthers-McCabe, a veterinary professor specializing in human-animal interaction who studied the program: “It’s a really good character-building exercise because it’s an opportunity to give back to society” (p. B16). One of the inmates agreed with her: “It’s not about me, really…it’s about the dogs and the program and the handicapped people….You feel like you’re doing something productive instead of just wasting away.” Another inmate stated that “it puts you back in touch with what it means to be a human being” (p. B16).

The Pen Pals program at the James River Correctional Center in Virginia began in 2001 and is designed to save unwanted dogs at public shelters from euthanasia by turning them into adoptable pets. Its training program is funded and operated by Save Our Shelters, an animal protection group. The cable channel “Animal Planet” aired a one-hour episode of its “Cell Dogs” program earlier this year which documented this program’s success. Out of 60 dogs trained, all but one completed the program (Baskervill, 2003). However, the dogs are certainly not the only ones who benefit. The article quotes Warden Sam Pruett as he expressed the program’s influence on prison life: “As an animal lover myself, I think having animals in the institution…contributes to the overall morale of inmates and staff” (Baskervill, p. C3).

In 2003, the Second Chance Prison Canine Program, founded by Gayle Woods, started a prison program to train service dogs at the medium-security Florence Correctional Center in Arizona, a private prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Woods, who is a retired nurse and has multiple sclerosis, concluded that “not only do these men transform the lives of these dogs, they transform their own lives” (Matas, 2003, p. B1). Even though Florence Correctional Center already offered vocational and life skills classes, they decided to add dog training after they learned about the successful program at another Corrections Corporation facility, Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colorado. Its warden, Hoyt Brill, stated that during the 18 months the dog program was running, the prison atmosphere changed: “It brings a quietness, a gentleness….It gives our inmates a chance to give back to the community. Most of them have never been involved in something where they had to give. They’re takers” (Matas, p. B1). A 29-year old inmate who is serving time for murder concluded: “I spent a lot of time being coldhearted, or trying to be anyway, and coming back to your true self is love and being loved, and these dogs need love” (p. B1). Additional information about the second Chance Prison Canine Program and excellent links to other sources can be found at their website: www.secondchanceprisoncanine.org.

Another dog training program featured in an episode of “Cell Dogs” is located at the Branchville Correctional Center in Indiana. After completing 12-15 months of training, the dogs become service dogs to children and teens with physical, mental or emotional disabilities. This program is also supported through donations of food, equipment and medical care; volunteers take the dogs on trips outside the prison to get them used to different environments (Hayden, 2004). Branchville’s superintendent had heard about another successful program in Indiana, and after further investigation decided to start a program himself, despite the prison staff’s reservations about bringing pets into prison as sort of a privilege. This concern was soon eliminated when everyone realized the rigorous training schedule and hard work required by the trainers.

While the programs previously described all are implemented at adult facilities, Project Pooch matches unwanted dogs with incarcerated youths who provide obedience training to prepare them for adoption as family pets. Founded in 1993, Project Pooch was implemented at the Oregon Youth Authority’s McLaren Juvenile Correctional Facility. It is one of the few programs where results were documented in a three-year study by Sandra Merriam-Arduini, Ph. D., Pepperdine University, California. Her research results include considerable behavior improvement by students in the areas of respect for authority, social interaction and leadership. Students who completed the program reported improvement in the areas of honesty, empathy, nurturing, social growth, self-confidence and pride of accomplishment. A zero recidivism rate was also reported (Strimple, 2003).

Horse Programs

Using horses in animal programs at correctional institutions is obviously only feasible where appropriate facilities can be set up nearby. In addition, safety is a legitimate concern when handling these large animals. Yet, working with horses can provide a powerful, unique experience. Currently, horses are used in correctional facilities for two basic purposes: To gentle and train wild mustangs for sale to the public, or to rehabilitate retired racehorses. Both approaches show very encouraging results.

At Colorado’s largest prison complex in Canon City, inmates train wild mustangs in a program administered by the Bureau of Land Management that began in 1987. The horses are gathered from rangelands to balance wild horse population. After trainingz, they are sold at prison auctions. Lloyd (1997) suggested “this unusual program is a significant footnote to an era when society is meting out stiffer sentences, prison populations are soaring, and rehabilitation is often discouraged” (pg. 1). She addressed potential skepticism as follows:

Still, the idea of melding prisoners with mustangs – which to many epitomize freedom – is an odd antithesis. Yet, for the 30 or so inmates …the decade-old program isn’t just about tasting freedom from the back of a magnificent animal. It is an arduous exercise in discipline, patience, and courage. Prisoners often find their limits tested, (p.1)

The article also cites inmates’ responses to the program: “It teaches that you have to use something other than violence to deal with [the challenge]….you have to learn to finesse your way through it” (p. 1). Another inmate pointed out: “You gain life skills from this….They are all different, so you have to be flexible…You have to be patient. You have to get over a lot of humps as far as fear is concerned” (p. 1). Prison officials also believe that giving inmates an opportunity to bond with the horses helps them prepare for life outside prison. They report that the participants’ recidivism rate is much lower than the national average – 45% vs. 75%. In addition to their hands-on training, inmates participate in 160 hours of classroom education, including basic horse care and veterinary medicine, and learn business-management skills which may lead to a job after their release. The program generates a considerable profit from the sale of the horses – $50,000 in 1996 – since horses are sold typically between $700 and $800 (less the $150 adoption fee which goes back to the BLM) (Lloyd, 1997).

A similar operation began in 1987 at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, a minimum security facility. While this facility offers many vocational training options, the certified 90-day horse gentling program is one of the most popular (Snyder, 1998). The corrals are located on Corrections property but outside the barbed wire of the prison. By using the resistance-free method, inmates and horses learn how to trust and respect each other. One inmate cited in the article summarized the program’s multiple benefits:

This is probably the best program the CDC puts out….You get out from behind the wall, work with horses and learn a lot, about horses and life. The horses come in wild and go out to the public gentle. And it’s the same for the inmates. Out here we are all equal….We don’t play the race card, and you learn you can go as far as you really want to. (p. Z1)

For many inmates participating in this program, the most rewarding part comes when they show “their” horses to the public for adoption, as expressed in the words of this inmate:

I know everyone considers us vermin and convicts, and sure, we screwed up….But the last time they held an adoption, the outside people gave us all a round of applause, and for the first time in a long time, we felt like real human beings, (p. Z1)

The Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton began its wild horse training program in 1989 at this minimum security State prison. They offer partially trained horses to the public in a cooperative effort with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Ron Hall, BLM wild horse and burro manager in Rock Springs, considers it “…the most successful cooperative arrangement in the country….It helps the horse, the BLM, the inmate and the adopter” (Svan, 2000, p. A36). Svan suggested that the program is a success story because it turns out two products that are a benefit to society – trained horses and inmates who are better prepared for life outside confinement, having learned such life skills as respect, facing their fears and admitting their shortcomings.

Several other horse programs at correctional facilities began with a quite different purpose: To rehabilitate retired race horses. When the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation was looking for properties to house their horses, they discovered an opportunity to utilize a 110-acre parcel of abandoned dairy acreage at the Walkill Correctional Facility in New York (Crist, 1989). An agreement with the New York State Department of Correctional Services was reached, and they began a program where low-risk prisoners would learn how to take care of retired racehorses. From its beginning in 1984, it has been evident that this program is rehabilitating humans as well as horses. It is considered an “extraordinary vocational-training program…that is providing renewed hope and a second chance for…inmates and …retired race horses” (Crist, p. 7). Many of the race horses had been discarded or neglected, heading for the meat auction after they no longer had economic value at the end of their racing careers. After they arrive at the facility, inmates care for the horses and nurse them back to physical and emotional health; this healing process affects not only the horses, but the inmates as well.

In what can be considered a mutually benefiting relationship, horses and inmates help each other. Jim Tremper, head of the vocational training program, said he had seen the horses change the prisoners’ lives as much as they changed the horses’. “Especially the more violent guys….a lot of them have intimidated people with their size in their lives, and they seem to respect the power and strength of the animal. It humbles many of them” (Wise, 2003, p. 1). At the same time, the program offers much more than rehabilitative therapy.

While half of the students’ time is spent working with horses, the other half takes place in the classroom where inmates complete a one-year course based on a State accredited curriculum developed by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (Crist, p. 7). The program also attempts to place graduates in racetrack or farm jobs after they are released. The Department of Correctional Services has been working with officials to license these men on a case-by-case basis. Crist concluded that “the Walkill program will provide a supply of unusually skilled and motivated candidates for those [race-track or farm] jobs, if the state will license them and the trainers will give them a chance” (p. 7).

Another program of this kind operates at the Charles Mickey School in Baltimore, Maryland, a juvenile detention center. Andre Wheeler, who manages the farm on behalf of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, expresses how the emotional connections juveniles make by caring for the horses help to turn their lives around. “What they [the horses] are giving back to these kids is an unconditional love that they don’t have” (Pedulla, 2001, p. C3). The program’s effect on the lives of incarcerated juveniles, while difficult to measure and largely based on personal experience, is profound. “I needed a change in my life, and without something dramatic happening, I don’t think I would have changed” (p. C3). These words came from a 17-year old who looked forward to graduating and continuing his education in college; he said the horse program and farm experience at Mickey “helped him cope with the feeling of losing his freedom for the first time” (p. 3C). Betty Jo Bock, a vocational trainer in the Florida Department of Corrections cited in this article, attributes the dramatic results of the combination of inmates and horses to the following: “Many inmates lack social upbringing and rely on power and control. To work with a horse, you have to have effective communication” (p. C3). Pedulla concluded that “in working to create that safe and comfortable environment for the horses, many inmates must depart from the conduct that cost them their freedom” (p. C3).

Other programs operated by the Thoroughbred Retirement foundations are located at the Blackburn correctional facility in Kentucky, the James Crabtree Correctional Facility in Oklahoma, and the Marion Correctional Institute in Ocala, Florida. Since 1999, the Blackburn farm has been operating next to the prison on 100 acres donated by the State of Kentucky. Even though the pastures extend to the interstate freeway and it would be easy to escape, no one has attempted it; inmates say that “they count themselves lucky to be doing something worthwhile” (Simon, 2001, p. A5). This arrangement seems to work for all parties involved: “The prison gets a job-training program. The foundation gets free labor. The horses get devoted care. And the men get a chance to feel good about themselves” (p. A5). At Crabtree, inmates take care of burros, mustangs, riding horses, quarter horses and thoroughbreds at its Vo-Tech Equine Center. This five-acre facility also contracts with the Bureau of Land Management to train mustangs in Oklahoma’s only open bay correctional facility. Of the men that graduated from the horse program, 70% have found work with race horses or the agricultural industry (Ferguson, 2003). Apparently, not only the retired race horses get a second chance through this program of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) (which is funded entirely by donations). The TRF has spent about 20 years trying to save these horses; in 2001, it was sheltering 335 horses, including 134 on prison facilities that were taken care of by about five dozen inmates (Simon, 2001). More information can be obtained at their website: www.trfinc.org.


Despite lack of research on the overall effectiveness of these programs, there is reasonable evidence that they can be highly successful. In all of the programs discussed in this article, adult or juvenile offenders learn new skills while being engaged physically, mentally and most often emotionally. The animals can facilitate a change within the individual which cannot easily be matched by traditional methods. Others, such as the institution, its staff, and the community benefit as well. Animals that might otherwise be destroyed or of little value are also being helped. When properly implemented, these programs can provide a “win-win” approach.

Skeptics might argue that giving prisoners puppies or working with horses under blue sky sounds more like a vacation than punishment. Alternative approaches such as animal-assisted programs will certainly not appeal to institutions where the “get tough” approach replaces rehabilitative efforts. But for those of us in correctional education who want to transform individuals and prepare them for a successful life in the community after their release, animalassisted activities are a promising approach that can aid our efforts.

As in any developing field, there is a need for research studies that can support claims made by individuals in support of these programs. Research-based evidence of their effectiveness would certainly add validity to this field. It is difficult to increase general support and expand innovative ideas without evaluation of measurable data.

Careful consideration should be given to designing these studies. Any single program cannot be a “cure-all”; in most cases, a comprehensive approach is necessary to bring about true change. Establishing animal-assisted programs might initially require considerable persuasion. However, while the risks involved might have been considerable for the institutions that pioneered the programs, it should be easier today to become involved since the reported results are so positive. These programs certainly deserve a closer look.


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Gold, D. (2000, November 26). Wagging tails cool prison tempers. Maine inmates find calm in training dogs. Boston Globe, p. B12.

Granger, B. & Kogan, L. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy in specialized settings. In A. Fine (Ed.), Handbook on animal-assisted therapy (pp. 213-236). San Francisco: Academic Press.

Hammack, L. (2002, September 8). Program places puppies with prisoners; Virginia inmates help to train animals for work with the disabled. The Sun, p. B16.

Hayden, M. (2004, February 8). Yo, dog: Prisoners get collar. Southern Indiana pen teaches inmates to train canines for service work. Gazette, p. C5.

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Inmates learning from prison pets. (2000, June 14). Florida Times Union, p. A2.

Lee, D. (1987). Companion animals in institutions. In P. Arkow (ed.), The loving bond: companion animals in the helping professions (pp.229-236). Saratoga, CA: R & E Publishers.

Lloyd, J. (1997, September 9). Inmates bridled by wild horse equine rehab. Christian Science Monitor, p. 1.

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Matas, K. (2003, September 7). Prison program trains service dogs: Giving paws to inmates. The Arizona Daily Star, p. B1.

Pedulla, T. (2001, October 17). Inmates get a helping hoof. USA Today, p. C3.

Snyder, G. (1998, September 27). Convicts and mustangs; up in the high desert, at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, prisoners and wild horses come together in a program meant to change lives. San Francisco Chronicle, p. Z1.

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Simon, S. (2001, February 20). Program mends the spirits of broken men, broken horses; hope is abundant in prison barn. Los Angeles Times, p. A5.

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Zollman, M. A. (1993). Formative correctional education: a process of reformation and transformation through evocation of the heart of being. Journal of Correctional Education, 44(2), 92-99.

Biographical Sketch

CHRISTIANE DEATON has been teaching at a Court and Community School for the Riverside County Office of Education since 1997. She works with juvenile probationers and expelled youth. She is currently obtaining her Master’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with an Integrative Studies Option in Education. Her research interests include animal-assisted activities with an emphasis on equine-facilitated activities. She can be contacted at TiaDeaton@aol.com.

Copyright Correctional Education Association Mar 2005

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