McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
prison, dogs, human-animal relationship, phenomenology
This qualitative study investigated the relationship between incarcerated dog handlers and the service dogs they trained. Six men at a large northeastern prison were interviewed during the summer of 2017; all were current or former dog trainers in the Canine Partners for Life (CPL) training program. The men were serving prison sentences ranging anywhere from several years to life without parole. The interviews focused on their lived experience, rasing and training puppies for a period up to eighteen months. The qualitative data consisted of approximately thirteen hours of transcribed interviews, which were then interpreted using the phenomenological psychological method developed in the Psychology Department at Duquesne University (Giorgi, 1970, 1985a,1985b). Eleven themes were identified as being common to all participants. The data revealed that the relationship between a trainer and his dog was a transformative one. In this relationship, a new world unfolded, which did not previously exist in the prison environment. Participants who had previously felt like failures and lived essentially fearful and lonely existences, now experienced a sense of purpose and solidarity within the dog training community. Not feeling judged and simultaneously feeling loved by their dogs, gave the participants in this study hope. By experiencing their dog’s unconditional love for them, the trainers began to understand that they could comport themselves in new ways toward others. For example, participants now understood the value of being more patient with people and taking time to communicate with them. The trust between the trainer and his dog was mutually reinforcing and facilitated a sense of a shared world. Additionally, a sense of accomplishment and worth derived from the fact that others now looked to the trainers as people who could speak knowledgeably about a valuable skill: training dogs. Each handler in this study self-identifified as someone whose purpose in life now was to help another human being and potentially save a life – to “give back” and even be “redeemed”. All of the men spoke of their dogs as being like babies or children for whom they felt an immense responsibility, and who - despite the incredible commitment and months of hard work – like children also provided welcomed moments of ineffable joy and lightness. A final theme was one of mourning and loss as participants had to relinquish the dog at the end of the training program. Suggestions are also offered for future research, as well as some reflections on the role and experience of the researcher with a
population such as this.
Odysseus is recognized by Argus after an absence of 20 years
Kocherzat, K. (2019). “I Do Have a Softer Side”: A Phenomenological Investigation of the Prisoner-Dog Relationship in the Canine Partners for Life Training Program (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1765