ABBOTSFORD, British Columbia, Canada, 2006, The Globe and Mail

Bosley is a big black mutt with dubious Doberman, Lab or hound parentage, doleful brown eyes and a perpetual goofy grin on his long snout.

Like nearly every other long-time resident of the Fraser Valley Institution — 60 women and about seven dogs — Bosley’s had a rough life. Not yet three years old, he’s been abused, abandoned, rescued by an animal shelter, adopted by a family, rejected and dumped back at the shelter.

Now he’s behind bars — and a stint in a federal prison might be the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Bosley is one of dozens of delinquent dogs being rehabilitated by female inmates, in an unusual kennel program run by Correctional Service Canada and the Langley Animal Protection Society in a suburb of Greater Vancouver.

The women are imprisoned for crimes including first-degree murder, impaired driving causing death and serious drug offences. Most have less than a Grade 8 education, troubled childhoods and a history of abuse. The dogs are sent by the society due to behaviour problems, most stemming from abandonment or abuse, which makes them unsuitable for adoption into permanent homes.

The program improves each dog’s chance for a permanent home and each inmate’s chance to thrive when released. “Half of the program is employment training for the women and half is a training program for the dogs,” said Jayne Nelson, a professional dog trainer contracted to co-ordinate the program. “One facilitates the other.

“The idea is to give the women employment skills when they leave the institution. We teach a good number of general skills, how to be a good employee, show up on time, telephone answering skills, networking, interpersonal skills, things that some of the women are obviously lacking . . . There’s a good many women who come into the program who have never worked before,” said Ms. Nelson, who also teaches resume writing.

The women get the unconditional love offered by the dogs, the satisfaction of watching their obedience training work, a modest wage, and skills they can use when they’re released.

The dogs — like the handsome Rottweiler named Otis or the young German shepherd named Sam, which were both successfully adopted in December — get a second chance at life.

When Otis arrived at the prison in the fall, said Alex Young, an inmate serving a life sentence, “he was so scared it took two days for him to take food from somebody, to trust me at all. Six weeks later, there was an amazing difference in that dog. He was trained in obedience, he was trusting, wiggly and waggly and happy and meeting people.

“A wonderful couple adopted him, and they’re letting us know how he’s doing,” Ms. Young said. “We’ve met some really wonderful people. . . . A lot of people have sent pictures and e-mails and cards to thank us.”

“I know a lot of folks that would think this country’s ridiculous, that people [in prison]don’t deserve that kind of treatment,” said Sean Baker, director of the Langley Animal Protection Society. He noted the women have a fair amount of freedom on the prison grounds, live in houses and have programs such as one that lets them finish their high school education.

“But what’s the goal of having people in prison? Is it just to hold them there for a period of time? If it’s to rehabilitate them, it’s mandatory to do what we do, you can’t do it otherwise,” Mr. Baker said.

The program at Fraser Valley began in August and is modelled on earlier prison kennel programs that Ms. Nelson ran at a provincial reformatory in Burnaby and at Fraser Valley when it was a men’s prison, before being renovated two years ago to become one of five federal prisons in Canada for women.

“The canine program is about the best thing that happened here,” said Cara Lindley, a prisoner serving a 4½-year sentence for assault. She said the dogs and the women understand each other.

“Almost every woman here has been abused at some point [in their lives]. . . I don’t think the dogs have gone through anything we haven’t. They’re locked in cages, they’re allowed out only at some times, it’s like the max [security]setting we’ve all experienced. We can all relate to that.”

“There are some real parallels,” said assistant warden Maria Dalziel. Most of the women “have been victimized and have emotional scars, and as they train these dogs to become more sociable, to overcome their scars, they work to make the dogs more adoptable. But in the same way, the things they’re teaching the dogs they’re learning themselves. When they go back and relate to other staff members or inmates, it’s in a more positive way.”

With Ms. Nelson as their teacher, about seven inmates work each day at the kennel. The inmates learn canine first aid and feed, exercise, clean, bathe, groom and train the dogs. The kennel workers, who must first earn the right to apply for a job through good behaviour and making progress in other prison programs, are paid as much as $6 a day, which they either save or spend on treats, like specialty shampoo or chocolate, through the prison canteen. Kennel workers also get to take the dogs home with them at night to the prison’s cottage-like housing units.

Prisoners said the dog program picks up where standard prison programs that focus on cognitive issues end, because the dogs help the inmates cope with past traumas and abuse. “These dogs are amazing therapy,” Ms. Lindley said. “Having a puppy cuddling up with you at night changes your focus. It’s an amazing thing.”

The program began with a $20,000 charitable grant from the VanCity Community Foundation, Mr. Baker said, and the cost of rehabilitating the rescue dogs and teaching skills to the women is offset by offering kennel services to the community at standard market rates. The prison has several runs available for overnight boarding at $25 a day, and also offers doggie daycare, grooming and dog washing.

When Ms. Nelson decides the rescue dogs are ready for adoption, the Langley shelter takes applicants and staff choose the home and owner that best match the dog. Adoptees are obliged to take three one-hour training sessions at the prison and, if they pass, they pay $350 for a puppy fewer than six months old, $250 for an adult dog fewer than six years and $150 for an older dog.

Mr. Baker argues that the fee is a good deal for the adoptive family, because the prison dogs are spayed or neutered, microchipped, vaccinated and have received intense obedience training. The adopted dogs also come with six weeks of pet health insurance.

The average return rate in Canadian animal shelters is 25 per cent, say animal experts. So far, not one of the dogs adopted from the prison has been returned.

“We have a desire to find permanent homes, not just move animals through the shelter that just feeds the cycle,” Mr. Baker said. “Our mandate is to find permanent homes, the first time, because it’s stressful on an animal [to be returned] and a negative experience for folks . . . people live with guilt, they feel they have personally failed because they haven’t rescued a shelter dog.”

Mr. Baker acknowledged there are unique challenges to providing kennel services out of a federal prison surrounded by a metal fence and protected by security guards, a camera system and a dense bureaucracy that requires each visitor to undergo a security check that can take as long as a week. Only those serious about pet adoption go to the trouble of seeing one of the dogs in prison.

“We all win,” said Ms. Dalziel. “These women are going back to society. If they don’t come back [to prison] it’s a win for the taxpayer. And if they’re successful out there, they’ll become contributing members of society instead of chronic recipients and what more can you ask? It’s a small investment for the potential gain and we all lose if the women keep recycling back.”

Ms. Dalziel said for the inmates, the dog program “could be the make or break difference . . . dogs add something to the prison environment, make it more humane. The dogs give a kind of release and a type of joy.”

Copyright Deborah Jones 2006

Originally published by The Globe and Mail, December 28, 2006