Most pet lovers know the comfort, security and joy that come with the love of a dog. But for a group of disadvantaged women, dogs are much more than a source of companionship- they form the basis of a new lease on life, offering not just their love, but their trust and faith as well. Across North America, numerous prisons (mostly women’s correctional facilities) are reaping the rewards of bringing dogs into their facilities as part of vocational training courses, offering inmates not just unconditional acceptance but the opportunity to gain valuable, marketable skills for employment in the outside world.

At the Burnaby Corrections Centre for Women (BCCW) in British Columbia, 8 to 14 women at any one time are accepted into a business program in which they earn dog grooming and training certificates working at Freedom Kennels, a 10- run boarding, grooming and training facility situated on the prison grounds. At Freedom Kennels, which has been running as a true business for the past six years, the inmates receive a weekly prison wage and gain a sense of pride and accomplishment in being able to provide a service that is highly prized by the public.

"At Christmas, our boarding facility is booked up six to eight months in advance," says canine instructor Alicia Holmes, who adds that the program includes both provincial and federal inmates-some of whom are there just for a few months, others who will be there for years.

"Most of the women that I’ve had in the program have never had a job before," she explains. "They don’t know how to dress appropriately, [have never had the] the opportunity to work with co-workers or deal with the general public. Here they learn all of those things, and the clients phone down to the kennels and speak to them, and it’s important that they are polite and deal with them professionally. … All of [these] are important skills for them to learn."

In the U.S., the Prison Pet Partnership Program (PPPP) teaches inmates to train assistance dogs for the physically disabled. A non-profit program initiated by Sister Pauline Quinn at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women in Gig Harbor, the PPPP is remarkable in the way in which it reaches out to three disadvantaged groups all at once: dogs in shelters, women prisoners and the physically disabled. Dogs are rescued from shelters, trained by the inmates to become assistance dogs, and are then donated to people with disabilities. Since its inception, the program has been an incredible success.

"Once a woman is assigned a dog, that dog is her responsibility 24/7," explains program assistant Betty Devereux. "If she goes to the rec room or to church, the dog is with her. …Things happen between an inmate and a dog that don’t happen between an inmate and her counsellor, or between an inmate and her therapist. … For many of these women, it’s the first time in their lives that they’ve experienced unconditional love. The dog doesn’t care that they’re in prison, or what they’re in for, or whether they’re black or native. The dog just loves them."

Make no mistake; this is not merely about spending time with a cute cuddly animal. Before being matched with their first assistance dogs-in-training, the 12 potential trainers-who range from minimum- to maximum-security inmates-have to meet some pretty stiff requirements. Anyone with a history of abuse toward children or animals is automatically excluded, and inmates must serve at least one year before they can be considered for the program. The women must have at least two years left on their sentence so they can complete the program, and they must be free of major infractions against prison rules for one year. In addition, they must be free of minor infractions for 90 days and have no history of drug abuse within the prison.

Before they can join the training program, inmates are also required to pass an American Boarding Kennel Association Class where they receive their Pet Technician Level One certificate. Then, they are interviewed for a job with the PPPP, where they can earn a prison-level wage. The first 90 days of the PPPP are spent as kennel workers, after which, if their work and attitude are good, they become dog trainers, helping previously unwanted dogs become invaluable assistants to people who are confined to wheelchairs or restricted to the use of walkers. Those dogs that, for some reason or another, are not able to pass all the requirements for assistance dogs are adopted out to good homes, becoming "paroled pets."

Saying goodbye to their constant companions, who, on average, spend about a year with them before heading off to the outside world, can be very difficult for the trainers, Devereux admits. "For some of the women it’s harder than for others to leave their dogs, but we try to have another dog ready for that trainer. Many of the trainers are so proud of themselves for putting the work and effort into helping a dog to help others, or to finding it a good home."

At the BCCW in Canada, many bonds are formed between trainers and their guests-but luckily the business is so successful that they can be assured of many repeat visits. With a guarantee of ten walks a day, it’s no surprise that their waiting list is so long.

"We’ve had many tears when the dogs leave, and some of the women get hugely bonded to particular dogs, but most of our clients come back for boarding or training," says Holmes. "You get a sense of family. … I have so many clients saying as soon as they come around the bend of our road the dog gets so excited, and it doesn’t even look back when they drop it off."

As for the inmates involved in both the Canadian and U.S. programs, they often receive help finding work in dog grooming businesses or other pet industries, where the valuable training in people skills, self-control and vocational skills all pays off. Devereux tells about how lives have been turned around:

"One [former inmate] got a job at a grooming facility and now she’s running it on her own. Prior to that she was an addict. Another woman was released and now she’s working in a big corporation that makes pet supplies. She attributes the dogs for helping her quit her addiction and keep focused on her long-term goals."

Sadly, Freedom Kennels will be shutting its doors as of March 6, 2004, as the BCCW facility is being closed down at the end of that month. There are plans to reopen the program in Abbotsford, B.C., however, where a new institution for federal prisoners is currently being built. ■

Jessica Werb is a Vancouver-based writer and editor. Her Border Collie cross, Penny, gives her day passes to go to work to earn money for food and biscuits. Jessica can be reached at

The Prison Pet Partnership Program gladly accepts donations from the public. For more information, please visit or email