Nova Scotia's Department of Justice is sending five dogs to the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside as part of a pilot project that pairs convicts with canines.
The canine therapy program is called WOOF — Working On Our Future — and will have offenders working with corrections officers to train and socialize the five dogs before they're returned to the SPCA and adopted.
The idea is for inmates to learn life skills in the process.
"I've been in corrections 25 years and I would say this is the best program that we started. We had direct supervision before and this is something that's going to get the staff and the offenders working together," said Capt. John Landry.
"We're hoping to get a bond where they respect us and we respect them. So that works for everybody, right? That's what I'm going to get out of it, is a better, safer place to work."
Landry is one of the guards at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility who has already started training for the program, which began in December and runs to March.
The inmates are set to join the program next month.
The SPCA, which has partnered with the Department of Justice to co-ordinate the program, has a say in which offenders can participate in the pilot project. Those with convictions for domestic abuse or gang violence are excluded from the program because those crimes have been shown to be linked to animal cruelty.
"Very careful consideration has gone into the screening of the offenders," said Kristin Williams, the executive director of the Nova Scotia SPCA.
"The SPCA has specifically asked to screen out offenders with any association with gang violence or domestic abuse because of the research which suggests there may be a correlation between the two."
Program to cost taxpayers $26,000
The Department of Justice is putting up $26,000 for the project. Of that money, $3,000 will go to the SPCA and the rest will go to the dog expert who will be training the guards and the inmates.
The dogs will stay at the jail for the duration of the program, but the SPCA will cover their medical and care costs.
"I'm excited about this," said Ross Landry, the Minister of Justice.
"If it reduces stress and enables them to cope better and reduce the potential of incidents, I think that's a positive thing."
But Allan MacMaster, the Progressive Conservative justice critic, said he doesn't understand why the provincial government is spending $26,000 on the program when the economy is on shaky ground.
"It's insensitive for a government to go out and spend this kind of money on a program for people who are incarcerated when there are so many other people out there suffering because of the economy," MacMaster told The Canadian Press.
WOOF is similar to canine therapy programs at correctional facilities in the United States and Canada, including the federal Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. A program was also launched at two Newfoundland facilities in 2011.