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Four-legged friends – harnessing the therapeutic and rehabilitative benefits of working with animals

In the UK, Australia and New Zealand, we work with a wide range of agencies, specialists and voluntary organisations to design and deliver prison-based programmes to help rehabilitate and reduce the risks of reoffending. Some focus on specific physical or psychological issues, while others address developmental needs, career prospects, social relationships and giving back to local communities.

Among our many programmes, our teams have long recognised the powerful therapeutic and rehabilitative benefits of working with animals. In the last year, we have launched a new prisoner-animal programme at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP Thameside) in the UK, Strength and Learning Through Horses, while in Australia, the positive impact of our Pups in Prison programme has been recognised through an independent study.

Pups in Prison, Southern Queensland Correctional Centre, Australia

Through partnership with Assistance Dogs Australia (ADA), Serco delivers the Pups in Prison programme, in which prisoners train puppies to support people living with physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism. Participating prisoners are assigned a puppy, and training takes approximately eight months, during which they care for the puppy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The programme has been running at Southern Queensland Correctional Centre (SQCC) for more than 10 years, with more than 40 pups trained and placed with people who need their support.

An independent social impact assessment conducted in 2020 found that prisoners who participated in the programme experience a range of positive rehabilitation and wellbeing outcomes, including a 94% increase in overall wellbeing, a 32% improvement in confidence and self-esteem, and a 25% improvement in mental wellness. The research also shows that recipients of the dogs experienced a 148% improvement in relationship skills and a 224% improvement in mental health.

“Pups in Prison provides prisoners with new skills, training and responsibilities,” said Nick Rowe, SQCC Prison Director, “which supports their rehabilitation and improves their chance of success when released back into the community. The improvements evident in the research results are all important factors in reducing reoffending.”

Download the full 'Pup's in Prison' Social Impact Report


Strength and Learning Through Horses, HMP Thameside, UK

In September, a team of horses and equine specialists from the charity, Strength and Learning Through Horses, were welcomed into HMP Thameside to help deliver a 10-week programme for residents aged between 18 and 25 – the first of its kind.

The idea for the programme was developed by the Forensic Psychology team at HMP Thameside as a purposeful and constructive activity to offer young adult offenders, who are often involved in gangs, violence and antisocial behaviour. The aim was to target those whose poor custodial behaviour might often cause them to miss out on other such opportunities.

“The benefits of working with horses are well researched,” said Dr Philippa Thody, Head of the Forensic Psychological Service at HMP Thameside, “and include increased emotional awareness and improved mental health, and the development of key life skills.”

Each week, in small groups, the participants received instruction in communication, leadership, body language, building trust, understanding signs of stress, horse movement, horse psychology and horse care. On completing the programme, participants received formal qualifications in ‘Understanding Horse Psychology’ and ‘Employability and Horsemanship’.

“All participants spoke positively about their experience,” said Dr Thody. “Several are excited about their potential future prospects, and many have professed to becoming delighted horse whisperers!”