THUNDER BAY — A new initiative at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre is boosting inmate morale while simultaneously helping rescue dogs prepare for adoption.
The program, called Canine Connections, sees a local animal rescue group bring dogs to the Highway 61 facility for training and obedience lessons.
Shawn Bradshaw, president of the OPSEU Local 708 that represents staff at the correctional centre, believes this is a first in Ontario.
Currently, four fostered dogs are working with four specifically-chosen inmates to learn how to walk on a lead, ignore distractions, and obey commands.
"Just general organized behaviour for the dogs that are very high-energy, just helping them to focus on their commands," Bradshaw explained Monday in an interview.
The course will last eight weeks, including two weeks of orientation for the inmates before they are introduced to the dogs.
Bradshaw said the participating inmates are chosen based on the nature of the charges they were convicted of, and their behaviour while incarcerated.
"Generally we will give preference to inmates who choose work assignments within the prison, and as kind of a reward. Basically, the hope is that it gives inmates the incentive to participate in something positive and behave accordingly in order to earn the privilege of working with the dogs. To be quite frank, who wouldn't want to work with a dog if they had to do time?"
He said the impact on the inmate volunteers has been beneficial, as "they seem to love it," and other inmates observing the exercises are showing interest in participating as well.
"It helps brighten their day, and helps them with compassion and patience," he suggested.
"Idle hands become the devil's playground. So if we give them something positive to participate in, and we make it a tangible benefit, we really hope to encourage positive behaviour in the institution, and we hope they can learn some skills going forward. Because there is an actual registered dog trainer working with this program, hopefully they can learn some skills they can apply to their lives when they do get released."
This is week four of canine connections.
Bradshaw said officials would like to see the program not only continue but expand.
"We're looking to have a long run with this. And just in general, even outside the dog program, partner with community agencies to give the inmates an ability to give back to their communities, and influence positive behaviour within the institution."
In a statement provided to TBnewswatch, the Ministry of the Solicitor General said both staff and inmates have reported their appreciation for Canine Connections, and for the "overall positive atmosphere" for all involved.
The ministry expects that participating inmates will develop patience, discipline and empathy, among other skills.
It said programs for Ontario inmates are largely provided through trained ministry program officers, probation and parole officers, rehabilitation officers and clinical staff, but third-party organizations and volunteers also facilitate programs and services.