Source: CTV News (Extract)
Posted: August 9, 2023

A graduate student from the University of Saskatchewan (USask) is looking into what she describes as the transformative power of animal therapy programs at Canadian correctional facilities.

Five years ago, Grace Rath, along with her black Labrador companion, Jager, volunteered in a therapy dog program.

Intrigued by what she calls the profound impact of the relationships between participants and the dogs, Rath embarked on an in-depth investigation to understand whether these furry friends could help incarcerated individuals break free from internalized stigma, restore their self-confidence and improve the institution’s overall environment.

The findings shed light on the unique and powerful connections formed between inmates and therapy dogs, offering a more positive environment and effective rehabilitation strategies, said Rath.

“The main thing that I found was the dogs were able to be physically and emotionally present with the participants in ways that human interventions hadn’t been able to before,” she told over the phone on July 21.

These dogs exhibited genuine excitement upon seeing the participants, allowed physical contact and offered affection, all of which are rarities within the confined prison environment, explained Rath.

Emotionally, dogs provided a non-judgmental ear to listen, which helped participants build trust with their canine companions.

“There isn’t that barrier of stigmatization coming from the dogs or perceived mistrust because the dogs don’t really care why they’re in prison,” she said. “And that’s just something that human interventions weren’t able to do previously.”

Rath’s dog-centric research expands on the 2016 data from USask’s Prof. Colleen Ann Dell and University of Regina’s Prof. Darlene Chalmers, who looked into studying prisoner wellness with canine-assisted learning, animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy.

The participants Rath worked with were part of a substance-use recovery program, and many had experienced near-fatal overdoses. For them, the introduction of therapy dogs was deemed an emergency intervention, she said.

“The participants had kind of felt that nobody cared about them because they were a part of the prison system,” said Rath. “The dogs brought in this unique perspective and unique way to really connect with the participants and able to get them to think a bit more positively about themselves and help with their recovery.”

While Rath focused on rehabilitation centres, she said she hopes her research can expedite the integration of animal therapy programs in correction centres in Canada.

A spokesperson from the Correctional Service of Canada told animal-assisted programs, which are already available at some sites across the country, offer inmates a chance to develop personal skills that might be useful upon their reintegration in society.

Rath will be joining the PAWsitive Support Canine-Assisted Learning Program next week at Drumheller Institution, Alta., where participants from the first cohort will act as peer mentors, she told in an email on Tuesday.