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Animals, Legal, criminological and forensic

Dog Training Programmes Unleashed

Barbara Cooke and Graham Towl on novel ways of applying psychological theory in prisons.

04 July 2024

In the UK, since the advent of Covid, dogs are more part of our lives than ever before. With over 250,000 pedigree dogs being registered every year with the UK Kennel Club and a spike in ownership around the lockdown period, there are now an unprecedented number of adolescent dogs in homes and with families. 

The dog training services industry has also seen a period of growth. Putting aside the absence of industry regulation, what is clear is that dog training methods draw increasingly heavily from psychological theory. Especially fashionable is the application of the operant quadrant from early Skinnerian learning theory: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.  

In prisons, dogs tend to be seen as part of the toolkit to address some aspects of security; for example, with dog patrols and also with passive and active drugs dogs. Dog Training Programmes (DTPs) in prisons are widespread in the US and increasingly coming to the UK. In the UK DTPs have tended to focus upon either assistance dog training beginning with puppies, or the training of adult dogs from rescue centres with a view to making them more suited for rehoming.

There are two main categories of DTPs: those focused on preparing shelter dogs for adoption and those dedicated to training dogs for service roles. As such, DTPs vary in structure and operation on a programme-specific basis. Dogs in DTPs come from diverse sources; certain programmes prefer purebred dogs bred for their service dog qualities and others opt for shelter dogs. DTPs also differ in their criteria for admitting prisoners; screening processes may include interviews, psychological evaluations, criminal background checks, prior experience with animals, remaining sentence length, and behaviour records during incarceration. 

Besides selecting offenders and dogs, DTPs often operate in distinct manners. For instance, some programmes require that prospective handlers undergo classes in animal care and dog training before engaging with programme dogs. In other programmes, the handlers are trained by professional dog-trainers, and they may be paired with senior handlers. The dogs are generally trained during specific training sessions that can be daily or weekly, depending on the DTP. During these sessions, the dogs are taught basic commands, tricks, and even specialised training in the case of service dogs. Most programmes use positive reinforcement for training and many use American Kennel Club guidelines, including Canine Good Citizen, as the basis for their training.

Outside of these training sessions, the dogs may be housed and cared for in the cells with the handlers, in an on-site kennel, or off-site (e.g., shelter, volunteer's home). When the DTP participants are the primary caretakers for the dogs, they are responsible for feeding, walking, and bathing the dog.

While some programmes run continuously, certain programmes operate in cycles, treating the training of a single dog or a group of dogs as a cycle with a defined duration, typically ranging from 3 weeks to 24 months. Participants typically remain in DTPs for 3 to 26 months, averaging around 10.8 months (Furst, 2011). Some programmes prioritise dog training as the focus of the DTP, while others emphasise inmate rehabilitation, providing educational and vocational opportunities. Some the latter programmes offer certification opportunities in areas such as dog training, grooming, and veterinary technician assistance.

But do such programmes 'work'? 

As with many such programmes there is a wide variation in the quality of evaluation studies (Cooke & Farrington, 2016).

Unlike traditional psychologically based 'programmes' where there is mixed evidence of efficacy, to reduce the risk of reconviction – DTPs are relational and can be measured in a wider range of ways. For example, the few studies examining the impact of DTPs on the dogs themselves have highlighted the positive impact on welfare. Participants are often praised for their dedication to the animals' care and training, resulting in well-socialised and adoptable dogs. These dogs are then more likely to be adopted and avoid euthanasia. Dogs in DTPs being trained to be service dogs are also fulfilling a need in the community. 

In terms of the prisoners, while there is concern about the empirical rigour of several DTP evaluations, there is a growing body of evidence that they support a variety of internalising (e.g., emotional wellbeing) and externalising (e.g., recidivism) outcomes associated with programme participation. 

Firstly, animal contact may in and of itself be beneficial for many prisoners (Batt, 2024). In prison culture, where physical touch is often either viewed as violent or sexualised, the touch of a dog can help access some therapeutic aspects and lower stress. There is evidence that DTP participation can alleviate psychological problems, have a desirable impact on empathy, and improve one's ability to control emotions. On some programmes participants have expressed that taking part has enabled them to develop invaluable skills such as the ability to build relationships, improve their communications skills whilst also developing more patience. Participants have also reported feeling calmer with reduced feelings of loneliness (Nabi, et al, 2024). 

Studies also suggest that DTP participation can have a desirable impact on relationships between prisoners and between prisoners and staff, improve personal and professional skills, and improve behaviour while incarcerated (Cooke & Farrington, 2016; Villafaina-Domínguez et al., 2020; Hill, 2020; Wesely et al., 2024). These outcomes appear to improve the well-being and quality of life of dog-training programme participants, mitigating the negative effects of incarceration and serving as a model of strengths-based corrections. 

One of the most researched outcomes of DTPs is their impact on recidivism. There is sufficient evidence to support that DTPs can improve self-control and reduce behavioural infractions while incarcerated, but the findings regarding their ability to reduce reoffending are more mixed. This may be a result of differences in programme implementation (e.g., how long the participants participate in the programme, how frequently the participants interact with dogs), participant demographics (e.g., gender, age), and potentially even differences in geographic location or culture (e.g., a study found no impact on recidivism for Dutch youth). However, the largest-scale evaluation of DTP effects on reconviction did find a reduction in offending during the first year post release (Hill, 2020). The programmes may help improve behaviour and compliance with institutional rules, but this may or may not translate into reduced recidivism.

To the everyday

In summary, evaluations suggest DTPs can be an effective rehabilitation tool, with benefits for institutional behaviour, recidivism reduction, and potentially psychological well-being, though effect sizes and long-term impacts require further study. Challenges remain in systematically measuring programme success, measuring long-term outcomes post-release, and assessing how the different programme models impact programme outcomes. More research is still needed on optimal programme design, participant selection, and longitudinal outcomes.

We can also apply some of the learning from such programmes in improving our own everyday interactions with dogs. For example, by never approaching service dogs whether they seem to be 'at work' or not. Using the everyday principles of positive reinforcement is a large part of what a pet dog needs in its early development. Only giving 'high value treats' or reinforcers (say such as fresh chicken) for the most important commands such as recall, can further strengthen them. At an early age, hand rather than bowl-based feeding can further build the relationship between dog and human and give the opportunity to provide quick reinforcers immediately after desired behaviours (such as calmness around people). When so many human to dog interactions serve to increase excitability, it is especially important to reinforce calmness in dogs. Finally, loose lead walking can be straightforwardly achieved through the application of an appropriate reinforcement schedule reinforcing desired behaviours.     

Hopefully we have whetted your appetite to apply psychological theory and skills to your own dogs, and maybe in some cases have inspired you to get involved in this growing area of 'programmes' in prisons.

Professor Barbara Cooke, Keiser University, Fl, US 
[email protected]

Professor Graham Towl, Durham University, UK

Photo above: From a DTP in Florida


Batt, S. (2024). Exploring the impact of Animal Therapy on prisoner well-being, Psychological Services Department, Serco, HMP Doncaster, UK.

Cooke, B. J., & Farrington, D. P. (2016). The effectiveness of dog-training programs in prison: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the literature. The Prison Journal96(6), 854-876.

Furst, G. (2011). Animals programs in prison: A comprehensive assessment. Lynne Reinner Publishers.

Hill, L. (2020). Becoming the person your dog thinks you are: An assessment of Florida prison-based dog training programs on postrelease recidivism. Corrections5(3), 149-169.

Nabi, N, McAloney-Kocamen, K, Fleming, M, Bain, S. and Hogan, K. (2024). An investigation into the effectiveness of an animal assisted intervention at improving the mental health of incarcerated individuals. Paper accepted for the International Association of Forensic Mental Health Services Annual Conference, San Francisco, 19th June, 2024.

Villafaina-Domínguez, B., Collado-Mateo, D., Merellano-Navarro, E., & Villafaina, S. (2020). Effects of dog-based animal-assisted interventions in prison population: A systematic review. Animals10(11), 2129.

Wesely, J. K., Furst, G., Bello, B., & Morris, K. (2024). How Prison Dog Programs Challenge the Racial Code in Correctional Settings and Beyond. Corrections, 1-20.