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Winning the hearts and minds of young offenders

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Plans for the first prison-based dog training rehabilitation programme in the UK will be unveiled this week at an event being organised by The Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) and the Scottish Prison Service at HMYOI Polmont, near Falkirk – the country’s largest young offenders’ institution, located in Central Scotland with over 700 residents.

The pioneering project is being developed by the University of Stirling in association with the Scottish Prison Service and Dogs Trust. Participants will learn how to how to train and rehabilitate rescue dogs for rehoming, as part of an animal-assisted intervention programme for male young offenders, aimed at addressing behavioural change, offering valuable transferable skills and reducing reconviction rates.

Elizabeth Ormerod BVMS MRCVS, the Chairman of SCAS is a veterinary surgeon with 35 years’ experience in companion animal practice and who has worked in many settings, including prisons. With knowledge of animal-assisted intervention programmes both in Britain and internationally, she is one of a growing number of professionals around the world who recognise the value of this approach: “Young offenders learn how to achieve something - not through exercising power, control or domination, but through developing communication skills, understanding and empathy. In this way they come to realise that building relationships with an animal, based on trust, mutual respect and understanding, can also translate into their interactions with people. They also realise that if a dog can change its behaviour, and then enjoy a better quality of life, then they can change their own behaviour too.”

Studies in the USA, where there are already 65 prison-based dog training programmes, have shown the success that can be achieved through working with dogs in this way. One example is Project POOCH, a canine-centred vocational and educational programme in Oregon: an innovative programme that has achieved excellent results with young offenders since 1993. As Joan Dalton, the founder of Project Pooch, explains, “Young offenders learn to care for and train rescue dogs and find them new adoptive homes. The dogs leave the programme ready to be great pets, while their trainers re-enter the community with new job and personal skills, as well as increased compassion.”

“I am delighted to have been invited to share what we have learned over the last 15 years at Project Pooch as this programme kicks off in the UK. Our research on the effectiveness of the US programme reveals a marked improvement in behavioural patterns both during and after imprisonment, including a remarkable zero reconviction rate following their release into the community.”

It is hoped that the programme will get underway at Polmont in Spring 2011, as part of a postgraduate research project by Rebecca Leonardi, a SCAS member studying for her PhD at the University of Stirling, under the supervision of SCAS and in association with the Scottish Prison Service and Dogs Trust.

Rebecca Leonardi said: “This project offers an exciting and innovative opportunity to make a considerable difference to lives of the young offenders involved. It really is a win-win situation; by helping the dogs, the young offenders are helping themselves at the same time. And the evaluation of the project will provide the research evidence we need to expand these types of programmes further, providing effective long term strategies for rehabilitating offenders in Scotland.”

Through teaching inmates how to change and improve the dogs' behaviour, this project addresses a number of related needs arising from current evaluations of young offender provisions in Scotland: improving offender engagement with educational programmes; enhancing participants' cognitive and personal development, particularly by improving problem solving and social skills; setting and achieving targets and overcoming low self-esteem. Learning to work as a team to help the dogs will also help them gain valuable transferrable skills for life on the outside.

Notes for editors

For more information, interviews and images, please call Jane Bevan or Susannah Penn at Firebird PR on 01235 835297 / 07977 459 547


Speakers at the seminar, How dogs can win the hearts and minds of young offenders, being staged at HMYOI Polmont on Thursday 25 November include:

  • Elizabeth Ormerod, Chairman of SCAS
  • Joan Dalton, Project Pooch, Oregon –
  • Alexandra More, The State Hospital, Carstairs
  • Rebecca Leonardi, University of Stirling

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