Therapy dogs can help prisoners to restore their mental health and reduce the risk of serious self-harm, according to a report published today by Centre for Mental Health.

"The impact of interacting with the dogs was marked for people whose wellbeing was otherwise so poor".

The report

'Restoring something lost', by Graham Durcan, is an evaluation of a pilot therapy dog scheme run by Rethink Mental Illness in three prisons in the North East of England.

It finds that the therapy dogs, Magic and Cooper, had a calming influence on prisoners, helped increase coping skills and strategies, and provided a safe space for them to explore ways of expressing and processing their emotions.

The project was provided with grant funding by Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS) as part of a programme to pilot, develop, and test initiatives which may reduce the risk of self-harm or self-inflicted death in prison. The two therapy dogs worked with both women and men (including young men) in three prisons. They were handled by Rethink Mental Illness practitioners who were experienced in working in prisons and with people with mental health problems, and who were also experts in dog handling and agility.

Benefits of therapy dogs

Levels of self-harm rose by 20% in prisons in 2018, and at least nine out of ten prisoners has at least one mental health problem. We found clear benefits of the therapy dog scheme including a significant reduction of the severity of need (including rates of self-harm).

One of the participants in the programme: “…I can’t describe it, but it takes me back to a happier place and somehow that helps me feel better about myself…”

Dr Graham Durcan, Centre for Mental Health associate director said: “We saw positive change in the majority of the participants after their therapy dog sessions. The impact of interacting with the dogs was marked for people whose wellbeing was otherwise so poor. This is a stark reminder of the need to support wellbeing in prisons but also of the simple steps that could help to tackle rising levels of self-harm and to make prisons a safer and healthier environment for everyone.”

Jonathan Munro, associate director for criminal justice and secure care services at Rethink Mental Illness, said: “There’s a mental health crisis happening in UK prisons at the moment and we need to find creative ways to tackle it. What was unique about this project was that the team was trained in mental health, prison work and dog handling. With this specialist knowledge in all three areas we were able to really engage with prisoners, and they reported feeling a lot better as a result.”