Patting and grooming a dog in prison therapy sessions does more than bring smiles to inmates’ faces. Interacting with a dog improves social interaction, reduces loneliness, and teaches inmates how to get in touch with the thoughts and emotions they often shut off as a defence mechanism – all useful outcomes for therapists working to rehabilitate inmates and reduce the chance of them reoffending on release.
“There are inmates who won’t leave their cells and won’t talk to anybody, and if they do leave their cells they just sit and stare at a wall,” says Delta Society facility support manager Liz Woodward. “When the dog comes in, they will actually start to get up and interact.”
Delta Society has 1200 dogs visiting facilities such as prisons, aged care homes and psychiatric hospitals with owners who volunteer their time to bring a little joy into people’s lives.
Woodward saw the impact of Delta’s therapy dogs first-hand at Long Bay jail when she placed a dog in the lap of a 78-year-old wheelchair-bound man who had been in the prison psychiatric ward for almost 60 years. “He just started crying and said he was overcome with joy. He said ‘I’ve been in here since I was 19 and have not touched another person or animal in all that time’.”
Woodward says the dogs love having a purpose and get excited when their Delta bandanna is tied around their neck before a visit. The dogs – tested along with their owners for suitability before being accepted as volunteers – just seem to know when someone needs cheering up.
“I’ve seen it, they’ll get on the bed and lie down next to the person and just be. It’s really lovely to watch. They really do have that sixth sense.”
Dogs are also known to grieve when someone they’ve been visiting dies and sense when people are nearing the end. Dogs sometimes insist on going into a particular room to be with its occupant, Woodward says, and she finds out later that they passed away that night.