A paw-sitive impact: Animal-assisted therapy at RPC

Submitted by: Regional Psychiatric Centre

In 2014, a St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program dog and handler team began visiting the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC) in Saskatchewan. Inmates and staff quickly recognized that the structured visits were having a positive impact on the inmates’ lives. In fact, based on the experiences of the inmates who took part in the visiting program, the therapy dogs appeared to instinctively support evidence-based trauma principles used by health care service providers. Of course, they don’t know it’s called that. They’re just friendly.

I am not sure if you know this, but I struggle with day-to-day relationships and common socializing,” said one participant* in a letter to the handler. “I have a very hard time being around people, especially in small or large groups. I just wanted to let you know that when I see [the therapy dogs] I find a large bit of courage and can spend time with people.”

A year later, in 2015, RPC began offering an animal-assisted therapy (AAT) program involving two St. John Ambulance therapy dog teams with select inmates. The program typically consists of 24 30-minute sessions over eight months. Each session is guided by an RPC mental health clinician alongside the therapy dog team and supports the program’s goal of offering participants comfort, love, and support. At the start of the program, overarching mental health-oriented skills that are in line with inmates’ correctional plans are identified and then revisited midway through, with the inmates choosing a skill to focus on during each session.

Building on this experience, the RPC’s Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) led a national CAC Kickstarter project to raise awareness about the benefits of the human-animal connection. Held in five institutions in three regions, this project profiled research and different CSC animal-assisted initiatives, and invited inmates to share stories of personal experiences, artwork, photos, and poetry in institutional events across the country. This culminated in a November 2018 visit by several St. John Ambulance therapy dogs to nearly 100 male and female RPC inmates to highlight their submissions to the Kickstarter project. Evidence on the positive impacts of the human-animal bond were also shared with nearly 50 RPC staff.

This evidence came from a study done with the initial three AAT program participants, drawing on data from the session as well as interviews with the participants, their mental health clinicians, and the therapy dog handlers. Published recently in the International Journal of Prisoner Health (https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPH-04-2018-0020), it found that inmates connected with the therapy dogs through the animals’ perceived offering of comfort, love, and support.

One inmate shared: “I feel so great when I get to see and get close to the dogs as they always cheer me up and comfort me so much.” Another said: “The dogs give me love and make me feel good.” A third inmate commented on the support the dogs provided: “I don’t know where I have ever felt more supported. It was totally wonderful […] They made me feel special in a way that I was so very accepted, no ifs, ands, or buts.” The development of a human-animal bond also supported the inmates’ correctional plans, increased recognition of their personal feelings and emotions, and positively impacted their conduct.

These research findings and experiences at RPC suggest that AAT programs in correctional institutions that emphasize the human-animal bond are worth further exploration. This includes the ways that the participant-animal connection can be maintained. For example, RPC shares pictures of the therapy dogs with personalized messages with the participants, provides booster sessions for program graduates every three months, and offers holiday therapy dog-themed cards to all inmates at the institution.

Over the years, RPC has piloted a number of animal programs and their current success is thanks to solid working partnerships – including with Dr. Colleen Anne Dell at the University of Saskatchewan and Dr. Darlene Chalmers at the University of Regina – and the RPC administration, departments, staff, and volunteers who are all committed to supporting the role of animals in human health.

(*This participant has since been released on parole. A detailed case report on their experience is available in the Journal of Forensic Nursing (Vol 11, Issue 3, 167-173).

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