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The Philosophy of Pets in Prisons: An Interview with Emily Humbert

When thinking of the settings where the human-animal bond is present, people usually think of schools, long-term care facilities, hospitals, libraries, and even the typical American family’s backyard.  But, very seldom does a person think of the U.S. prison system as a prime location for the beneficial relationship between humans and animals to develop.

With that in mind, it is the goal of Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate student, Emily Humbert, to bring to light the benefits of canine-based training programs on both the inmates and dogs involved.  She hopes to achieve this through a focus on care ethics and the philosophy of education.

Emily HumbertEmily HumbertHumbert received her Master’s in Education from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.  After some experience in the education field, she found a love for philosophy and decided to devote her life to work within that realm.  Her interest in philosophy coupled with her love for animals has driven her towards her newest area of research and dedication: canine-based training programs in the United States’ prison system. Recently, Humbert has committed herself to studying and advocating for how the philosophy of education relates to the human-animal bond, in hopes of creating a greater sense of respect for the incomparable relationship between people and animals.

The Benefits of Canine-Based Training

Humbert was first inspired to dive further into the study of canine-based training systems when watching Animal Planet’s television show, Pit Bulls and Parolees.  A pit bull owner herself, she was fascinated and inspired by the relationships that developed between these two groups of castaways, and she began to wonder if inmates could work with animals in order to gain marketable skills that will prepare them to leave prison more ready to combat the outside world.

“Animals ignite feelings of love, respect, and care in inmates who don’t usually experience opportunities to grow as individuals,” says Humbert.

Humbert hypothesizes that these feelings are something that prisoners don’t have the opportunity to develop in their family or community environment which may have contributed to their participation in criminal activities. She has found a lot of testimony that says that the prisoners who took part in canine-based training never really felt loved before entering prison, but once they fashioned a relationship with the dogs, they began to feel unconditional love.

She mentioned the fact that several prisons in Colorado and Ohio have used canine-based training with success, and the same results would surely come out of other prisons too.

But, the inmates aren’t the only ones who reap the benefits of canine-based training.  The dogs used in these programs are usually large breeds that require training and attention before they are desirable for adoption.  Through canine-based training, these dogs become acquainted with people, learn obedience, and develop manners that will be necessary as they move into a new, permanent family home. 

The benefits of canine training programs in prisons are widespread, preparing dogs and people for life in a society that does not always see the greatest amount of value in them.

A pair of dogs from a selection day for a prison dog program. Image credit below.A pair of dogs from a selection day for a prison dog program. Image credit below.Challenges Facing Canine-Based Training

Through her research, Humbert has come across many psychological reports on particular instances where canine-based training programs were used and produced positive results.  However, the challenge lies within the fact that there is sparse information available on this topic so actual qualitative or quantitative data is hard to find.  Humbert hopes that her work will bring more attention and focus to this area of work in the future.

She also plans to study and help combat a couple of the negative aspects of canine-based training programs so that they will be able to be even more impactful and widely used down the road.  She is interested in looking at the difficulty of coping that some inmates experience after parting with the dog that they trained.  Since inmates may feel that the dog they trained is the only living being that loves them and does not judge them for their past actions, the separation period is often emotional and can take a toll on inmates.  Humbert agrees that research needs to be done to determine if this coping period can actually counter-balance the positives associated with such training programs.

The Philosophical Side of Using Rehabilitative Programs in Prisons

Humbert also acknowledges the fact that the lack of these programs is due to multiple aspects including limited funding, lack of incentive for the prisons to participate in these programs, multiple-levels of corruption inside and outside the prison system, and an archaic view of punishment. The power struggle between guards and higher authorities who are not always in favor of the pleasure that being around dogs can bring to inmates often stops prisons from utilizing canine training as a form of rehabilitation.  This is thought to be a common belief seen amongst those in authoritative roles within the prison system, as they value masculine ethics and less compassionate inmate care.

Humbert says, “It also relates to care ethics in the sense that I am looking to feminist care ethics as an alternative to punishment in this overtly masculine system we live in today.”

She plans to advocate for the use of these programs by presenting them as a rehabilitative form of education that revolves around the importance of development through interaction with another living being.

Spreading the Word

Currently, Humbert is writing a paper on canine training programs in prisons, with a focus on care ethics, the way in which people perceive inmates and the treatment they deserve. She also hopes to emphasize the potential of alternative views of education and personal growth amongst inmates.  Her goal is to utilize this paper in order to bring to light many underlying issues in prisons, including race, gender, and care ethics, as well as gain respect for the study of the human-animal bond.  She is confident that her research on canine-based training can encourage further reform and a focus on education and rehabilitative programs in the U.S. prison system.

Ultimately, Emily Humbert is driven and excited to share her passion for impacting human beings and animals alike by “looking at different ways of doing things.”

Credit for second image to Knight725 through CC-BY-NC license.

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  2. Human-animal bond
  3. prison-based animal programs

Comments on this entry

  1. Anne Elizabeth Beall

    Emily, are there currently prisons in Colorado or Ohio that are using animals now?


    Reply Report abuse

    Replying to Anne Elizabeth Beall

    1. Katie Carroll

      Hi Anne,

      I just wanted to share some information with you in regards to your question.  I would encourage you to check out these links that include information about prison dog programs in the states you mentioned.



      Additionally, I'd like to encourage you to do a search of the HABRI Central website for the tag "prison-based animal programs" and then focus in on the "organizations" category of resources. We don't have a specific resource up right now that fits your question about prison-based dog programs in OH and CO, but if we ever do put up such a resource, it will be indexed that way.

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      Replying to Katie Carroll

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