Sister Pauline Quinn says it was a German shepherd who saved her life.
After running away from an abusive home and being shuffled between different institutions throughout her adolescence, Quinn was released onto the streets at age 18.
“Where do I go? What do I do?” she remembers. “I lived in abandoned buildings. Slept in doorways, on a bench.”
Living on the streets made her even more vulnerable to abuse, Quinn says. “I was taken advantage of by people in authority, such as the police.”
Quinn would visit dogs in kennels as a way to cope with her mistreatment. When she eventually adopted a German shepherd named Joni, everything began to turn around.
“That became the start of a different life because I learned I had power within me at that time. She gave me the power,” Quinn says. People started treating her differently, staying away as she walked down the street with a big dog by her side. “I liked the feeling so much I got another dog. I knew that they would protect me, which people did not do for me.”
With the confidence Joni gave her, Quinn started thinking about how she could use dogs to help other people who were suffering. She couldn’t afford to take her own dogs to dog-training classes, but trainers allowed her to sit in on their classes and observe what they were doing. In 1981, after years of self study, she teamed up with Leo K. Bustad, the dean of Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, to launch the first-ever Prison Pet Partnership.
The program operated out of the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) and paired previously homeless dogs with inmates who trained them as service animals to help veterans and others suffering from trauma.
“I wanted the inmates to learn how to become others-centered, using the dog as a tool for change, but also for them to learn a skill that they can use when they get out, like dog training,” Quinn says.
After a three-month trial that showed the model could work, WCCW implemented the pet partnership as a permanent program — and similar programs began sprouting up throughout the country. Today there are over 200 prison dog programs in the U.S., as well as a handful in foreign countries.
Different programs have different objectives and funding sources, and there has yet to be a comprehensive study on the programs’ efficacy. But there are plenty of anecdotal reports on programs successfully reducing recidivism, improving inmate self-esteem and reducing conflicts within the prisons.
Inmates themselves report feeling empowered by their work with the dogs. “I thought that if I could do something to make someone’s life better, maybe it would help balance the scales a little bit,” says writer Charles Huckelbury, who served 38 years for homicide. “It gave me a good feeling knowing that I was helping somebody instead of hurting people.”
And Dunasha Payne, an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, tells NationSwell through tears that the dogs are a key way of coping with life behind bars. “They make you feel like you’re worth something, and they make you wake up every day, that you have a purpose in life and that you’re not just a prisoner.”
Watch the video above to learn more about Quinn and her work to bring about healing through the power of human-animal connections.