By all accounts, Chilko and Riley are well behaved and haven't been convicted of any crimes, yet every day they end up behind the razor wire and heavily fortified walls of a federal prison. 

Chilko, a border collie-cross, and Riley, a golden retriever, are part of of a program called the Doghouse, a dog daycare and kennel inside a women's prison in Abbotsford, B.C., where inmates look after dogs while their owners are away at work.

Dennett with puppy

Dennett and other inmates who work at the Doghouse have seen many dogs grow up in their program. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"Chilko ended up coming to jail when my husband and I adopted him in 2011," says Janine Luce, who comes through the security gates and into the prison lobby for a handover twice a day.

She says Chilko was rescued from northern B.C. and adopted from an animal shelter in Langley, so it's fitting he's now spending his days with women who are looking for their own fresh starts.

Kennel

Program participants care for several dogs each day, grooming them and supervising their relaxation time in their kennels. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"I feel like rescued dogs know they've been given a second chance and behave accordingly, and the ladies that are here are also working towards a second chance," Luce says.

"I think maybe they have a bond."

'They don't know the horrible crime I did'

Ellen Dennett agrees. She is serving a life sentence at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women for second-degree murder and was selected to participate in the Doghouse program because of her good behaviour as an inmate.

Flag

The Fraser Valley Institution for Women has units ranging from minimum to maximum security. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Ellen

Dennett says the Doghouse has given her hope for a future outside the prison walls. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"They don't look at you as an inmate," says Dennett, 63. "They don't know the horrible crime I did. They love you just the way you are. The good stuff, the bad stuff, they don't care."

Dennett was convicted in March 2013 after the elderly woman she was caring for was found dead in her Montreal home.

'It gets me through the guilt, the grieving, the humiliation of my family.' - Ellen Dennett, inmate and Doghouse participant

Dennett says taking care of the dogs has helped her accept the harm she's caused to her victim's family as well as her own.

"Just to come in here every day and take care of these guys, it gets me through the guilt, the grieving, the humiliation of my family."

Towel

Dennett says the best thing about working with dogs is they don't judge her for her past. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Skills to take back to the outside

More than 150 women prisoners have worked in the Doghouse program in the decade since the Langley Animal Protection Society (LAPS) partnered with Corrections Canada on the project. The latter provides the space and facilities, but staff say the program is otherwise revenue neutral. 

LAPS handles day-to-day operations, and pet owners pay $18 a day — cheaper than the going rate at many private facilities.

Dogs

Doghouse manager Alicia Santella says many of the women who've gone through the program continue to work with dogs after being released from prison. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"Whatever we can do to facilitate people's successful release back into the community adds to public safety," says Chris Szafron, assistant warden at the facility.

"The more general skills they learn — working with others, positive interactions with the community —  those are skills they can take back and apply in any field."

'That connection with a dog opened up her heart.' - Alicia Santella, Doghouse program manager

Program manager Alicia Santella has an office on the prison grounds and supervises the inmates.

"All day long, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, these women are feeding, exercising, scooping poop, washing muddy paws. And they work really, really hard," she says.

They're learning work ethic skills that can be applied to any job, she says. "I've had 14 women leave this program and go and work specifically in the industry. They're doing well for themselves."

Training

Prisoners who participate in the Doghouse are also involved in training pups. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Santella says many of the inmates she encounters have had difficult lives, and the dogs have provided a kind of unqualified love they've rarely experienced.

Santella describes one conversation with an inmate who had a dog boarding with her for a while: "She said to me, 'Alicia, I've never loved anyone as much as I loved that dog.' That connection with a dog opened up her heart and her point of view and her ideas."

The power to heal

The Nova Institution for Women in Truro is the only other federal women's prison with a dog program, though the focus there is on training assistance dogs.

The women's prison in Edmonton is also planning a program that teaches prisoners dog-grooming skills.

Sign

Clients from around B.C.'s Fraser Valley drop off their dogs for daycare and boarding at the prison. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Fraser Valley Institution

Some of the women who work at the Doghouse get the chance to bring dogs back to their living units when the pets need to be boarded for longer stays. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the national John Howard Society, says she's a firm believer in the power of animal therapy for prisoners.

"Dogs have a remarkably strong impact on people," Latimer says, and they can help foster "soft skills" such as being in a trusting relationship. "Being exposed to a situation where prisoners learn empathy is important."

Ellen walking Chilko

Dennett and other inmates at the Doghouse escort dogs to and from the prison gates many times a day. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Dogs

Dennett says she hopes to work with animals after she is released from prison. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Dennett, who will be eligible for partial parole in 2018 and full parole in 2021, believes dog "therapy" has set her on a path out of prison — one that will lead to a kinder, calmer life after — and helped her come to terms with her crime.

"I'm responsible for two families that are not ... adjusting very well," she says, pausing to compose herself. 

"I know we're not supposed to have a good time, that we're not supposed to laugh with the dogs, but that's why this is here — to help us cope with what we've done and to get back on track, and to move on with whatever life I have left."