Dogs Sent to Prison Get a New Chance at Life

shelter dog mugshot

Story at-a-glance -

  • During the 12-week New Leash on Life program, specially trained inmates get high-risk dogs ready for the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen test, which makes them more likely to be adopted
  • Every dog that’s gone through the New Leash on Life program has passed the AKC’s Good Citizen test
  • Inmates are also taught job readiness and life skills
  • Ninety percent of inmates who have graduated from the New Leash on Life program have qualified for paid internships upon their release

By Dr. Becker

Combine at-risk shelter dogs with prison inmates for 12 weeks, 24/7 and what do you get? Dogs that are given a new opportunity for life and inmates who receive a fresh start as well.

The program, called a New Leash on Life, operates in the Philadelphia Prisons System and the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford, but hopefully other correctional institutions will adopt similar programs soon as, to date, the results have been phenomenal.

Dogs at Risk of Being Euthanized Turned Into Good Citizens

The program enrolls dogs at greatest risk of being euthanized at animal shelters. During their stay in prison, specially trained inmates get them ready for the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen test. This requires passing the following items:1

Accepting a friendly stranger Sitting politely for petting Appearance and grooming (the dog appears in healthy condition and will welcome being groomed by a veterinarian, groomer, or friend of the owner)
Walking on a loose lead Walking through a crowd Responding to “sit” and “down” on command and stay in place
Coming when called Behaving politely around other dogs Appropriate reaction to distractions
Supervised separation (the dog can be left with a trusted person and maintain good training and manners)    

A dog that has passed the Good Citizen test is considered ready to be placed up for adoption and generally has an increased rate of adoption from a shelter. So far, every dog that’s gone through the New Leash on Life program has passed the AKC’s Good Citizen test with flying colors.

As of the end of 2014, 30 dogs had been adopted into their forever homes as a result of the program. During the 12-week training period, the dogs spend all day and night with their prison inmate and learn obedience training and socialization skills. According to New Leash on Life:2

New Leash dogs live in the cell blocks with their inmate trainers 24/7, forging a strong bond between the dogs and their trainers, making them highly desirable for adoption and ensuring long-term success for both humans and canines.”

Benefits for the Dogs, Benefits for the Inmates

Part of what makes the New Leash on Life program so successful is that it’s beneficial for allparticipants involved. While the dogs learn skills to make them great family dogs, the inmates learn how to train and care for the dogs, thus building skills, confidence, and future employability.

The program allows inmates to give back to society while learning a sense of responsibility and unconditional love. There is often improved communication between correctional officers and inmates as well, which promotes a more positive environment at the correctional facility.

During the program, the dogs spend day and night with the inmates and attend weekly sessions with professional trainers, animal behaviorists and veterinary technicians. New Leash on Life also offers job readiness and life skill courses to the inmates to increase their successful reentry into the job market and society upon parole.

Internship opportunities and post-parole support with worksite transition services are also offered, and 90 percent of inmates who have graduated from the program have qualified for paid internships upon release.3

The program is even helping prisoners become better members of society. In Philadelphia County, 41 percent of inmates released in 2013 were arrested again after one year, but this dropped to 14 percent among those who took part in the canine-training program.4

More Prison-Dog Programs: Paws for Life in California

The Paws for Life program was developed by Karma Rescue, a non-profit organization in Los Angeles. It operates at California State Prison, a maximum-security facility where inmates serving life sentences are allowed to train the dogs.

While the prison is a Level 4 (highest security possible), those participating in the program have been downgraded to a Level 3 for good behavior. Like New Leash on Life, the Paws for Life program readies the dogs to pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test so they have an easier time being adopted.

So far, all of the program’s dogs have been adopted and there are plans to expand the program to six other prisons.5 As noted by Karma Rescue:6

Once a dog earns this designation, the chance for successful adoption increases — as does the ability to rescue another shelter animal in its place.

The inmates also benefit: beyond the rehabilitative therapy of a dog’s presence, they are learning “real world” skills and connecting to a larger humanitarian process outside of the prison walls. This program gives them a way to contribute back to society by helping a dog get a second chance at life.”

If you’d like to support these valuable programs, you can donate to New Leash on Life or Paws for Life… or find a similar program in your own area.