Animal-assisted therapy in a Canadian psychiatric prison [2019]

Prison-based animal programs are becoming increasingly common in North America. The majority focus on community and animal well-being, with less explicit therapeutic goals for human participants. The purpose of this paper is to measure the objectives of a canine animal-assisted therapy (AAT) program in a Canadian psychiatric prison and examine whether the program supports inmates’ correctional plans.

A modified instrumental case study design was applied with three inmates over a 24-AAT-session program. Quantitative and qualitative AAT session data were collected and mid- and end-of-program interviews were held with the inmates, their mental health clinicians and the therapy dog handlers.

Inmates connected with the therapy dogs through the animals’ perceived offering of love and support. This development of a human–animal bond supported inmates’ correctional plans, which are largely situated within a cognitive-behavioral skill development framework. Specifically, inmates’ connections with the therapy dogs increased recognition of their personal feelings and emotions and positively impacted their conduct.

Research limitations/implications
The findings suggest that prison-based AAT programs emphasizing inmate mental well-being, alongside that of animal and community well-being generally, merit further exploration. It would be worthwhile to assess this AAT program with a larger and more diverse sample of inmates and in a different institutional context and also to conduct a post-intervention follow-up.

This is the first study of a prison-based AAT program in a Canadian psychiatric correctional facility.

Colleen Dell, Darlene Chalmers, Mark Stobbe, Betty Rohr, Alicia Husband
International Journal of Prisoner Health, 2019