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Students Dig into 'Pawsitive' Prison Program

Last spring, Assistant Professor of Sociology Jacqueline van Wormer assigned a doggone interesting service-learning project to the 25 students in her Courts & Corrections class. The project grew out of research she had conducted and published in The Prison Journal on prison inmate dog-handler programs.

Van Wormer assigned her students to analyze the Pawsitive Dog program at Airway Heights Corrections Center. The 10-week program pairs prison inmates with rescue dogs. The inmates first receive training and then teach the dogs skills, from responding to basic commands to performing advanced tricks. The dogs even sleep in the inmates' cells. Research has shown that the program has a positive impact on all involved. Van Wormer's study revealed that inmates who participate in the program have fewer grievances and less infractions, which helps create a safer prison environment.

Her students attended the Pawsitive Dog graduation ceremony and then worked with the inmates in-person to compile a SWOT analysis, identifying the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the program.

"We welcome students into our program to learn the systems and to educate them on the programming to change behavior of the incarcerated," says James Key, superintendent of Airway Heights Corrections Center. "It gives the students the real-life perspective of prison versus what they see on TV or read in a book."

The students presented their findings to prison officials during the last class of the semester. Their ideas, based on the inmates' feedback, included creating a newsletter to keep all informed of the benefits of the program, familiarizing the center's staff with the program's guidelines so everyone can be successful, and taking pictures of the inmates with their dogs at graduation. Their findings were well-received, and officials told the students their ideas would be considered.

Van Wormer hopes her students will be able to continue studying the program. Next time, she'd like them to focus on how and why training rescue dogs aids in the rehabilitation of inmates.