A pioneering programme in Scotland is encouraging young offenders to train rescued dogs, ready for rehoming. from Polmont training rescue dogs from the nearby Dogs Trust West Calder rehoming centre.
Paws for Progress runs in eight week cycles and each one sees a small group of prisoners from HM Young Offender Institute (HMYOI) Polmont take part in three training sessions each week, two of these with rescue dogs.
As well as working with the dogs, the participants learn team working and social skills, while some become volunteer assistants and peer mentors for the programme. The aim is to help offenders address their behaviour and develop employment skills in preparation for release.
Every prisoner is paired with a dog, making them responsible for its development and accountable for its behaviour. They are taught never to use punishment, while positive reinforcement techniques, like rewarding good behaviour, are encouraged. It is hoped that by completing the programme, prisoners will enhance their employability, develop social skills and gain the confidence to be positive about their future prospects.
The project was instigated by Rebecca Leonardi, as part of her Psychology PhD at the University of Stirling and is being run in collaboration with the Scottish Prison Service. “The young men involved in the programme are going through difficult and challenging periods in their lives,” she said. “They are aware of how their attitude and behaviour impact upon their allocated dog’s progress. They must remain positive and help the dog to trust them and work very hard to ensure their dog is given the best chance of a happier future. When they see how the dogs change as a result of their hard work, it is very rewarding and they realise that they are capable of changing too.”
Paws for Progress was inspired by the success of a similar programme in America (Project POOCH). Initial observations are overwhelmingly positive.Throughout the project the young offenders complete two portfolios: the first covers the dogs’ development (and includes a K9 CV) while the second focuses on that of the prisoner. The dogs’ portfolios are used by Dogs Trust training and behaviour advisers and shared with potential owners, who make an informed decision as to whether the dog is suitable for them. Students can achieve a qualification and the successful rehoming of a dog is an achievement for the trainer.
The dogs involved have been carefully selected by experts from the Dogs Trust charity. Susan Tonner, Manager of Dogs Trust West Calder, explained: “We’re very excited to be part of this groundbreaking project. The dogs taking part benefit from extra training and socialisation which, in many cases, increases their appeal to potential owners. It’s great to tell prisoners that their hard work with a specific dog has helped us to find a new loving home. We’re looking forward to lots more success stories.”