Prisons and Puppies: 'The dogs don't judge us the way people do'
Therapy dogs are known to work in the outside world - but what about behind bars? Our reporter visited two prisons with pilot puppy programmes
Shelton Abbey is like no prison I ever imagined. In fact, pulling up outside, I think we have the wrong place. A former stately home with acres of manicured gardens and a wide-open gate, it certainly doesn't scream correctional facility.
When I heard "open" prison, I didn't take it quite so literally. When we park just outside the main building and are greeted by a group of men holding labradoodles on leashes, things become even more surreal.
The dogs are what I'm interested in, or more so the prisoners who look after and train them. For the past year-and-a-half, inmates at the facility have been caring for and training adolescent canines - keeping them in their rooms, walking and feeding them - all with the aim of eventually passing on a fully socialised and developed dog to work with a disabled child.
The programme is the brainchild of Governor Conal Healy, and so far it's gone well - so well, they're willing to talk about it to a national newspaper.
"I came here three years ago as a governor, and was looking for initiatives and ideas to promote in the open prison. I've always had an interest in dogs, and how they can help people. I did a bit of research and saw how animals are used in buddy programmes in America and Canada. I was interested in using that in the Irish system.
"So I bit the bullet. We got in touch with a charity because I'd heard they were badly stuck for people to train the dogs who'll eventually live with disabled kids. We sold it to the CEO Jennifer [Dowler], something totally new and a bit risky. The proposal was that we'd take on a number of pups and get prisoners to take them on a voluntary basis; to mind them, rear them and then hand them over to the charity."
While the charity, Dogs For Disabled, retains ownership of the dogs, for all intents and purposes the prisoner is the dog's master while it's in their care. The dog lives in their room, they bring it for a walk and if it's sick, they mind it.
Dog therapy in prisons isn't actually a new idea - the Pups in Prison programme began in Australia in 2002 on a similar basis, and is ongoing. Such programmes also exist in the United States, with one prison in Colorado actually training dogs within the prison to then help their mentally ill inmates.
Studies from Harvard University going back to the early 1980s support the idea that dogs have enormous health benefits for people, both mentally and physically. Pets have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve recovery from heart disease, and also improve people's psychological well-being and self-esteem. Therapy dogs have long been known to help humans in the outside world by offering a calming presence - children with autism have been benefiting from assistance dogs in Ireland for years. But the thinking behind this prison-training move is that dogs will also help to diffuse tense situations in such a highly charged environment.
"It's all about normalisation," says the governor. "That's our brief here - a change of atmosphere and trying new things."
He explains that there's every type of inmate in Shelton Abbey - those who are in prison for murder on life sentences, right down to the guys serving a few months for contempt of court.
"They come here because they've been transferred from a closed institution. They prove themselves, and that they're using facilities suitably, and they move through the system. What we're trying to encourage is the whole package - responsibility and psychological benefits, as well as benefiting the community."
Those who have been the victim of a crime might balk at the idea of the perpetrators living in an open prison and minding dogs, but the governor is quick to point out that this programme only works because it's benefiting everyone - particularly the children who end up with a highly trained animal at the end of it.
"The cost of having the dogs here is zero to the prison. Also, the inmates aren't rewarded in any way for being involved in this programme. Some guys just don't want to do it, and that's their choice. Those who do take it up do so for the right reasons - they're not going to get anything better from me or from the system for doing it. "We've one guy here who's 27 years in the system and he's had two strokes. He transferred here a year-and-a-half ago. He's immobilised on his right-hand side, but working with the dog daily has brought him on to where he can now move his right arm. He's had four dogs over that period, and he's trained them to take his socks off, turn on and off the light switch."
I meet some of the prisoners as they go through their weekly training session with two of the ladies from Dogs For Disabled. Not permitted to identify them, we chat without revealing details of their sentences or crimes committed.
"It's a brilliant programme," says one older man. "I've dogs at home, and I love them. The dogs are fantastic because they don't judge us like people do, and it's nice to think they go to kids that need them."
Another couple of young men tell me that the programme has helped them. "It gives you something to focus on," says one. "You're thinking about something other than yourself and your sentence. I love my dog, even though it's not my dog. And yeah, it can be sad when they go but you know they're going to help someone and that makes me feel good. And look, they lighten the atmosphere."
"Yeah, prison isn't the best of places to be," says the other young man. "But this makes it feel a bit more normal."
The governor says that it's not just the inmates that benefit, but their families. "We have visiting hours twice a week, and the kids come to see the dogs! It's an emotional connection; I've seen prisoners crying when the dog has been taken away."
If Shelton Abbey has wide open spaces to beat the band, the Dóchas women's prison in Mountjoy is certainly more compact. But they too are participating in the project; in this instance minding a breeding bitch and helping to rear her puppies from birth to eight weeks. They're then collected by the charity, assessed and sent to live with families in the outside world for a year before being transported to the men's prison for further training.
The Dóchas Centre is more what you might expect of prison. There are no phones allowed, and security is tight. But right in the middle of the outdoor area (which the female inmates can access at any time) is a shed housing eight beautiful golden retriever pups, and their mum Friday. There are two other dogs here; a pair of male retrievers who were brought in several years ago as general therapy dogs.
An inmate named Una has taken responsibility for Friday and her pups. But as we photograph them, lots of other prisoners gather around to watch and for a chance to cuddle the five week-old dogs. "Aren't they gorgeous?" is heard more than a few times. One inmate told me that having the pups around makes everyone happier. "It is a prison after all, so it's not always sweetness and light. But the dogs are a bit of sunshine in our days, everyone wants to cuddle them. We all got to suggest names for them. They all had to begin with I, so there's Ivory, Ian, Isabelle… I forget the rest!"
Una evidently devotes all her time to Friday and her brood; she'd been minding the female dog for a couple of years before the pups came along. "I love dogs, so when I heard the Governor was asking for volunteers to mind Friday and whoever else might come along, I said I'd do it. I don't know if anyone else wanted to or was asked, but Friday came to live with me. She sleeps in my room, and we're together all the time. She can be a bit of a handful - she had to go back out for a bit more training because she was loud, but she's great now. I actually miss having just her a bit, since the pups came along."
Friday went in to labour at 1am a few weeks back, and it was Una who stayed up with her and fed her ice cream as she delivered all eight. As we talk, the pups are clambering all over her, clearly as devoted to her as they are to their mother. I ask if she's found having them has helped with doing time.
"I don't get as much school as I used to - I do this and a bit of gardening. But it's brilliant, I love minding them. It definitely gives me something to focus on and work hard at. Maybe I'd like to work with dogs when I get out in a couple of years, who knows.
"The dogs bring out the softer side in everyone in here and I think they bring a bit of relief to the other women and the guards. How could they not, really?"