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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Dogs help people in prisons through the pandemic

This news post is over 1 year old

Paws for Progress is celebrating a milestone anniversary

A ground-breaking Scottish organisation offering young people in custody the opportunity to train rescue dogs for rehoming is celebrating 10 years of success.

Over the past decade Paws for Progress, providers of the UK’s first prison-based rescue dog training programme, have developed a series of invaluable human-dog interaction programmes in prison and community settings. They have worked with more than 945 young people and vulnerable adults, throwing a lifeline to 170 hard-to-home dogs. This is thanks to the support of grant funders such as the National Lottery Community Fund, who have been key to making this work possible.

Against the odds, the Stirling-based team has continued to provide essential services to over 150 participants during the pandemic, boosting their mental health and offering learning and development opportunities to build a brighter future.

The unique collaboration with the Scottish Prison Service was pioneered at HMP and YOI Polmont in 2011 by founder and current development manager Dr Rebecca Leonardi, who believed the strong bond between humans and our canine companions could be mutually beneficial in a custodial setting. The rescue dog programme at HMP and YOI Polmont was originally Dr Leonardi’s PhD project through the University of Stirling. 

The innovative approach has not only transformed the lives of the rehabilitated rescue dogs who find new homes, but has a far-reaching impact by increasing participants’ awareness and understanding of general animal welfare.

Dr Leonardi said: “There is something very special about the relationship between people and dogs. Over the past 10 years, Paws for Progress has harnessed this special relationship to bring mutual benefits to both dogs and people who are most in need of support. The power that this work has in unleashing potential and improving lives cannot be underestimated – it has had a truly life-changing impact for so many, and has far exceeded our original expectations. I am very grateful to all who have supported Paws for Progress and excited to see the difference that we can make over the next decade.”

Such was the outstanding success of the rescue dog programme that in 2014 Paws for Progress registered as a Community Interest Company to build upon this essential work. The organisation is dedicated to improving the lives of both vulnerable people and dogs.

Since then, they have expanded to engage with wider populations within prison settings, and young people in the community who are experiencing challenges in their lives.

Participants learn about animal welfare and training techniques through interactive sessions and can gain qualifications in collaboration with Fife College or through completing ASDAN units.

The effects can be transformative, with one student telling staff: “Thank you for all your help with the tasks I have gained certificates for and everything you have taught me… Thank you for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.” 

The participants, who often struggle to engage with other services, have found that taking part has improved their confidence, relationships, interpersonal skills, attitudes and behaviour and emotional management.

One observed: “Paws for Progress, they help dogs and they help you too. Working with Paws for Progress has taught me so much, not only about dogs but about myself and what I’m capable of.” 

During the pandemic, the significant mental health benefits to people in HMP & YOI Polmont saw Paws designated as an essential in-person service.

Tom Fox, of the Scottish Prison Service, said: “Paws for Progress have been a tremendous partner over the last decade and have made a significant difference to the lives of a number of those in our care. This is an innovative and exciting project, and congratulations on being 10 years young!”

Staff stepped up by adapting their materials to provide an online offering, helping participants with issues such as isolation and loneliness by providing educational materials, updates on the Ambassadogs (our staff team dogs) who stepped in until the rescue programme could be restarted  and thrive on their involvement in a range of interactive dog programmes.

The participants enthusiastically rose to the challenge and the effect was described by one of them: “The support you’ve given us over lockdown has been an absolute godsend, helped me so much to cope and keep a positive focus, at a time when other support was limited.”

The Paws anniversary sees a return to helping rehome rescue dogs with the relaunch of the rescue dog programme following a pandemic-induced break, plus exciting new community youth projects getting off the ground.

The team aims to offer direct help to more than 220 people and 30 rescue dogs over the next three years, with the emphasis on education in responsible dog ownership expected to have a much wider impact.

High numbers of ‘pandemic puppies’ are being relinquished or returned to rescue centres and the organisation is expanding its partnership approach to educate as many people as possible on animal welfare issues.

The decade-long Paws approach of unleashing potential to improve the lives of dogs and humans is a proven success, as was summed up by one participant: “You have taught me how much a dog can change your life. You have changed mine.” 



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