I’m addicted to documentaries, and I love to watch them with my dog. We call them dog-umentaries and we laugh and laugh at how funny I am.
One of my favorites is called Dogs on the Inside, and it’s about inmates at the North Central Correctional Institution in Gardiner, Massachusetts working to train and socialize rescue dogs. It’s a feel-good story and there are lots of puppies. What’s not to like?
This film depicts one of many programs focused on matching inmates with rescue dogs in America and around the world, and they are part of a larger philosophy around giving people in prisons the chance to work through issues in their lives by doing good and taking part in something relevant to their emotional side. This particular program is mutually beneficial, allowing for people who wouldn’t ordinarily have pets to bond with a dog, while helping the dog to overcome any obstacles to adoption.
These programs foster friendship and love between the inmates and their dogs. Rescue dogs often come from backgrounds where they might not have had that kind of closeness to humans, and the inmates are in situations lacking companionship, especially from animals. There are so many benefits to having a pet, but one of the biggest ones is just about the sense of unconditional love, which even extends past their time together in the program.
Dog ownership teaches structure, patience, and leadership. Many inmates found those elements lacking in their lives, and they say that it sometimes contributes to their incarceration. Through training, setting boundaries, and rewarding hard work, they are able to give something absolutely necessary to their dogs while instilling these values in themselves.The dogs in turn learn obedience, and specifically that their obedience will be enforced in loving, clear ways. It’s a positive feedback loop that really cements these new attitudes and behaviors for everyone involved.
Without oversimplifying things, it’s fair to say that there are certain overarching experiences or at least feelings that touch the lives of both the dogs and the inmates. Whether they have experienced loss, abandonment, abuse, or neglect, dogs and inmates with similar experiences can be paired up to experience the catharsis of addressing and ultimately overcoming some of the pain of these experiences. Being able to relate so clearly to another being’s life makes it easier to see and name the similar pain. It also deepens that connection and kinship, as they understand and relate to each other in ways that most just can’t.
As the inmates go through the training and socializing experience, they get to see a softer side of themselves emerge. Society so often sees those in prison as being hardened and incapable of good, and that is reinforced in the structure of prison itself, as well as from fellow inmates and people working in the prison. Getting to work with animals requires so much gentle behavior, nuanced and thoughtful responses, and genuine nurturing. Seeing an animal in need as it starts to open up and become happier and more comfortable is one of the greatest feelings of all, and it absolutely impacts the inmate with added emotional vulnerability and depth on top of a great sense of pride.
Ultimately, these dogs go on to be adopted and loved by their families. Although it’s painful to say goodbye and see them go out, the vast majority of inmates know that eventually that they’ll get out as well. In the mean time, there are other dogs who need care, attention, and support. There are new friends to be made and new dogs to love.