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Dogs on the Inside

2014
Distributed by Bond/360, 42 Bond Street, Third Floor, New York, NY 10012 212.354.2650
Produced by Brean Cunningham and Douglas Seirup
Directed by Brean Cunningham and Douglas Seirup
DVD , color, 67 min.
High School - General Adult
Animals, Animal Facilitated Therapy, Animal Assisted Therapy, Animal Rescue, Corrections, Counseling, Dogs, Prisoners, Psychiatry, Rehabilitation, Social Psychology, Socialization


Reviewed by Pamela Rose, Health Sciences Library, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 11/19/2015

“Just as much as we’re teaching them skills, they’re teaching us. I didn’t have no patience when I came here.” -- Inmate in the program

Dogs in the Inside is a particularly poignant film documenting the partnership between Don’t Throw Us Away (DTUA) and the North Central Correctional Facility in Garner, Massachusetts (NCCI Gardner).

Created in 2011, DTUA’s mission is to pair dogs rescued from Southern shelters with inmates for the purpose of rehabilitation. NCCI Gardner was a logical choice - they already had experience selecting inmates for a program begun in 1998 with the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS) to train hearing and service dogs. The dialogue throughout the film expresses the plight of both dogs and inmates as each becomes a catalyst for change, rising above the past and recovering their futures.

The use of animals for rehabilitation has a long history. From 800 A.D. when the physically disabled cared for farm animals as part of their therapy in Belgium; to 1860 when Florence Nightingale advocated for small pets as companions for the chronically ill; to 1991 when Dr. William Thomas founded the Eden Alternative which advocated pet therapy as a method to create more humane environments for the long term care elderly. Thus it is no surprise that innovative solutions to solve multiple problems for both animals and people continue to be forged between unlikely partners.

The film opens with the selected inmates enthusiastically greeting and interacting with the latest group of rescues to choose the dog with whom they feel the most connection. Each dog will live with and be completely cared for by their inmate 24/7 throughout the process. Professional trainers and recreational outings provide opportunities for dog-inmate pairs to interact with each other, which cuts through existing barriers and creates a family among inmates who foster. Because the inmates have so much time to invest, these dogs have a better chance of being successfully adopted than a typical rescue in a community foster home.

The long vigils and treks of the rescue volunteers who pull dogs from abandoned, neglected and abused situations are also profiled along with the transporters who move many dogs at once across the country in custom built trailers.

Interspersed throughout and lending credibility to the underlying concepts and successful outcomes is commentary from staff at the prison and DTUA, trainers, and experts in the field of animal behavior. Sgt. Regan-Jones of NCCI says: “The mission of the program was to save the dogs as well as the people.” Dr. Nicholas Dodman talks about the intense need for unconditional love by both inmates and the dogs, and the “social glue” – emotions - attracting us to dogs and other animals. Dr. Marc Bekoff notes that the dog becomes the foster inmate’s lifeline, their oxygen.

The therapeutic implications of the human-animal bond are well documented. The new discipline of Anthrozoology now supports continued investigation, and the premise for endeavors that match animals and humans in need. Dogs in particular, as “[hu]man’s best friend”, have a long history of their amazing ability to affect human physiology and psychology. Experiments confirm that petting a dog increases oxytocin, the “love hormone” responsible for the protective, caregiving relationship. Inmates feel comfortable with the dogs, who are non-judgmental and quickly engender their trust.

Cindy Meehl was also the executive producer and director of Buck (2011), a Sundance Festival U.S. Audience Award winning film about a real life “horse whisperer,” in which the animal-human relationship becomes a metaphor for facing the daily challenges of life. Producing Dogs on the Inside was a natural fit for her, and for both directors. Cunningham and Seirup are co-founders of Expect Miracles Productions with a mission to “tell stories people can believe in,” which this film surely accomplishes.

The idea for inmates rehabilitating abused and neglected animals was put into practice as early as 1981 through the Prison Pet Partnership in Washington State devoted to training service dogs. There are over 2 million inmates in the U.S. who have a lot of time and ability to empathize with animals who have suffered fates similar to their own. Utilizing even a fraction of this number solves one of main barriers to rescuing dogs, a lack of foster homes. All animal shelters suffer the knowledge that simply not having room for a rescue may doom the animal to death, so having a program with literally a captive audience is a perfect solution. Rescues have partnered with other unique foster home populations, including college students and seniors, both of whom benefit from having a companion animal albeit for a short time. However, partnering with prisons provides two tremendous benefits to society by giving both dogs and inmates a chance at redemption. Fostering a dog provides inmates a model for being in the moment and resiliency, and shows them that rehabilitation and capacity for change is possible.

A quick environmental scan found inmate-dog rehabilitation programs active in many states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington State and Wyoming. Some programs rehabilitate other species such as horses, birds, and cats. In Louisiana, inmates actually staff the Pen Pals Animal Shelter which was formed at the Dixon Correctional Institutes during Hurricane Katrina.

Dogs on the Inside appears to be the first to document rehabilitation of dogs going to the average adoptive home rather than as service animals. While other similar films include real-time footage of the inmates actually working with fosters, one strength of this film is following the pair from the first day they meet through adoption into a loving family. Interviews with each inmate in the program reveal their metamorphosis into likeable folks despite their tough personas. “It’s like they’re a psychiatrist – we tell the dogs things we wouldn’t tell anyone else.” “When you think you’re at your worst, a dog can bring a smile.” Every inmate interviewed here and in comparable documentaries lauds their chance to do something useful and give back. A satisfying postscript at the end tells us how each dog and inmate featured is currently faring. The DVD also offers a closed caption option.

The viewer may be confused by the rapid shifts between inmates, commentary, and the rescue volunteer footage, although sparse explanatory screen text helps. Other weaknesses include profiling only positive outcomes and lack of details about the partnering agencies which were discovered only through research.

The camera work and audio quality are excellent. Parsing between real time events and interviews does provide a flow to the story and intellectual content even with shortcomings. Sam Gay’s music is perfect, enhancing the poignancy and theme, particularly the title song, “Don’t Throw Me Away” written by Templeton Thompson.

Dogs on the Inside is recommended for public and academic libraries. The film will be most useful in animal behavior, society, psychology, human-animal bond, criminology, prison, and anthropology studies.

Similar documentaries include: Castaways, a series debuted in 2013 that chronicles individual dogs rescued and rehabilitated as service dogs by inmates in the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program (PTKCP); Dogs of Lexington(2013) is the story of the Friends for Folks inmate dog training program at the Lexington Correctional Center; Leader Dogs for the Blind Prison Puppy Raising Program is an open access 14 minute video about another similar program that trains guiding eye dogs; and Prison Pups (2006)is a documentary for a similar NEADS training partnership at another Massachusetts minimum security facility in Concord.

Awards

  • Viola M. Marshall Audience Choice Award, Rhode Island International Film Festival
  • Best Feature Documentary at the Rockport Film Festival

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1. Dr. Dodman is a one of the most noted veterinary behaviorist in the world. One of his books on dogs, If Only They Could Speak (Norton, 2002), was listed as one of the top 5 dog books by the Wall Street Journal, and is well worth the read for supporting material even though several reviews noted it wasn’t elegantly written.

2. Dr. Bekoff is Professor Emeritus of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, U. of Colorado, Boulder and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won many awards for his scientific research and is the author of, among many others, The Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships (Greenwood, 2007)) – another excellent supporting resource.