Prison Therapy Dogs Literacy Programme

Running literacy courses for offenders with the aid of Therapy Dogs to reduce re-offending by increasing employability and promoting empathy

Photo of Kaylo Harper
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I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria and terms of the Purina BetterwithPets Prize and, based on its description, I am eligible to apply:

  • Yes, I’m eligible
  • Yes, I’m 18 years old or older

Should you be successful, please confirm your availability to attend:

  • Additional Skype interview(s) during the week of March 16-20th 2020
  • The Purina BetterwithPets Forum in Paris, on 3-4th of June 2020

Initiative's representative name

Kate Harper

Initiative's representative date of birth


Initiative's representative gender

  • Woman

Headquarters location: country

  • United Kingdom

Headquarters location: city


Where are you making a difference?

London and South East England

Website or social media url(s)

Date Started

February 2019

Focus Areas

  • Fostering emotional intelligence and behavioural competences
  • Promote inclusivity
  • Enhance physical activity and wellness
  • Re-imagining the role of pets in society

What is your current yearly budget for the initiative? If you are an idea stage, what early budget you would need to kick-off and run operations in your first year?

  • €10k - €50k

Organisation Type

  • hybrid: a combination of different types of organisations, such as a social enterprise (an organisation that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being)

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.

In 2019 we were the first people in England to introduce a Therapy Dog (Sherlock) into a custodial setting to support an education programme where young people learn about animal behaviour and training and we have been very grateful to watch this hugely successful project unfold. Sherlock, our Therapy Dog settled in very quickly and assisted us in teaching some of the most complex, vulnerable and dangerous young people in the UK. He allowed the young people to enter into relationships of mutual trust and develop the ability to empathise. What we had not anticipated was the impact our programme would have on developing their literacy skills and their attainment in English.

2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

50% of prisoners in the UK are functionally illiterate. At present, just 17% of offenders are in employment a year after release. The rehabilitation rates nationally in the UK are very poor, with 72% of children released from custody going on to re-offend within one year. We believe our project can help offenders develop the requisite literacy skills needed to engage in employment on release, which will lower re-offending rates in the UK.

3. Your solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

We aim to improve literacy skills of young offenders through programmes delivered in UK prisons, supported by Therapy Dogs focusing on animal care, reading and communication. The course will offer: education that increases young people’s understanding of the responsibilities of dog ownership, increased understanding of both human and animal behaviour, raise awareness of the welfare issues of dogs in modern society, give students the opportunity to learn to handle and train dogs humanely, offer student-led sessions in zoology - tailored to learner's specific interests. From our pilot project at Medway Secure Training Centre, we have seen what a powerful impact the use of Therapy dogs can have on young people who are incarcerated, and how the presence of dogs lowers anxiety and encourages engagement in class topics other which many young offenders find difficult, frustrating and lack confidence in. Our data has indicated a large reduction in the number of young people refusing to attend class or seeking time-outs from lessons where the dog has been present, leading to increased engagement and attainment across the wider curriculum.

4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?

We have delivered the first programme involving Therapy Dogs in a Secure Training Centre, to support young offenders wellbeing and engagement in education. This is a new approach to education provision for offenders in the UK and given its distinct success we feel it is important that innovative projects like these become common place and that we are able to expand our project in a sustainable way.

5. How does your project harness the pet-human bond to help people develop important social competencies (For example: emotional intelligence, collaboration, empathy, resilience, inclusivity) and overcome serious societal issues (for example: violence, abuse, trauma, isolation, abandonment)?

Our pilot programme provided the perfect opportunity to develop empathy in our students. Those that took part in our courses were able to gain both theory and practical skills in ethical dog training centred around positive reinforcement. It also organically provided us as educators with lots of opportunities for discussion around the way animals think and feel and how they relate to us. The feedback from one learner in particular was that the highlight of the course was ‘learning how to train dogs the right way’ using kind methods based on relationships of trust with our Therapy Dog. These young people will go on to be in contact with many dozens of dogs throughout their lives on their release and the knowledge they have gained with us will mean that they are able to interact with these animals in a kind way. We should not forget that many young people who are incarcerated in the UK have themselves been victims of crime and trauma. During our pilot, Sherlock has helped young people who have not been attending school due to depression, self-harm or trauma, by reducing their anxiety and helping them to transition back into the school environment and reintegrate with peers.

6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?

All learners enrolled on our 12 week programme completed the course. The feedback gathered from young people at both six and twelve weeks was resoundingly positive, with all learners confirming that they had both enjoyed the course and gained skills and knowledge. 50% of the young people enrolled on the course have made steps towards a career in dog training on release and one learner who has been released is now on work experience with a dog trainer in his local community. He is working to complete his Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths alongside this. Feedback and data collected from the tutors has confirmed that the dog training programme we ran had a positive impact on the learner’s engagement with the rest of the curriculum. All learners enrolled on our training programme went on to achieve Functional Skills qualifications in English and maths within 2 months.

7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?

We would like to expand the reach of our project, running programmes in young offender institutions in London and the South of England permanently. We would widen our ability to deliver concurrent programmes by expanding our team and we have the intention of employing young people who we have worked with on release to help them develop their employability and work experience further. We are in discussions with the Youth Custody Service (YCS) to build an evidence base for what we have achieved so far and we understand that the YCS are very keen to run similar projects in the future.

8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for different stakeholders?

One great example of opportunity for shared value in this project is in our unique position to improve relationships between Police and offenders. A shared love of dogs has meant that we have been able to foster positive relationships between the Police and Young Offenders who have been able to visit Police dog trainers and handlers as part of the pilot project we have run. The dogs have acted as a common shared interest between these two groups of people for whom relationships are typically fractious. There is also huge wider potential for greater cohesion and value in society created by this project, due to increased employment opportunities that will help to prevent young people becoming trapped in a cycle of criminality.

9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

Our pilot project was funded by Nacro and we were very generously gifted a trained dog at the start of the project. We were able to run this project on a budget of around £5k. We are now intending to continue this project independently and are seeking grants to cover the initial outlay of costs to progress the project i.e. acquisition of dogs, business costs and accreditation of the courses we will offer. The courses we will provide will be paid for by individual prisons out of their education and enrichment budgets. The demand for the kind of projects we are offering in prisons is extremely high and we have networks eager to employ our services. This demand will create financial sustainability even as we scale up our project.

10. Team: what is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

Chloe is an English teacher with QTLS and a Masters in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Culture and Thought. She has nine years’ experience working across the education sector and six years’ experience teaching. Kate is a Dog Trainer and Behaviourist, a UK Sniffer Dog accredited instructor and Mantrailing UK accredited instructor. She holds a BSc Hons degree in Animal Science and has 17 years experience working with dogs and teaching humans how to train dogs.

11. How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of this edition of the Purina BetterwithPets Prize?

We intend to be innovators within the prison education system. Education within the system is currently largely traditional in its approach but we aim to bring a new, more holistic dimension to this with the use of our Therapy Dogs to engage the hard to reach young people who are incarcerated. Working successfully with the most complex, vulnerable and dangerous people in the UK requires a modern and flexible approach and the use of therapy dogs helps us as educators to be able to communicate and build relationships with these young people effectively, which is essential in supporting their rehabilitation and ability to positively contribute to society in the future.

12. How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media

13. Example: Please walk us through one or two concrete examples of how your solution will solve the problem you’re trying to address.

Young people who are in incarceration are three times as likely to suffer from mental health problems than those in the general population, and with low literacy levels, reading and engaging with educational activities can be a great source of anxiety for young people. We have found that through engaging with therapy dogs and assisting in the training of dogs, that the young people are much more willing to engage in activities that improve their literacy, resilience and self-esteem. One learner realised that the activities he was completing with us was of value and would translate to an English qualification if he was committed to engaging with the wider curriculum. Teachers began to thank us, attributing his recent success in their subjects to the work he was doing with us each week and he was able to gain qualifications in English and maths. Now he is now working with our network of dog trainers in the community to build a career in this field.

14. Mutual Benefit: Explain how your project mutually benefits the pets involved – how is the pet not only used as tool?

Research demonstrates that positive interactions between humans and dogs can stimulate mutually positive effects and this has been confirmed by hormonal and behavioural changes in studies. Despite some concerns for the welfare of therapy dogs, the most robust evidence we have concludes that in the right programmes, therapy dogs do not experience stress. However, the absence of stress does not necessarily indicate that a dog enjoys it’s job! This is why for us, our number one objective is that the dogs involved in our project actively love their work. Although we applaud other projects where shelter dogs are involved in community projects for example, we have to be mindful that young offenders held in prisons can be loud, disruptive and their behaviour can be volatile. So in order to guarantee the enjoyment and welfare of the dogs taking part in our project, we will only work with dogs who are enthusiastic for this work, are resilient, solicit affection and are trained for the job.

15. Marketplace: Who else is addressing this problem in your environment? How does your proposed project differ from these other approaches?

So far we are the only people in England to have successfully piloted this project where we placed a therapy dog into a young offenders prison. There is interest from other prisons to replicate what we have achieved due to our success but many have had difficulty implementing this due to a variety of problems such as a lack of funding, problems sourcing suitable dogs, lack of staff training and ethics and safeguarding barriers. With this new proposal, the approach we are taking is slightly different from our pilot project and it's tailored to solve all of these problems. We will be visiting prisons with therapy dogs as part of education programmes fulfilling the needs of these prisons for the presence of therapy dogs without the costs and logistical problems that go along with having a resident therapy dog. Our project is dynamic and solves multiple problems.

16. Tell us about how collaborations and partnerships would enhance the scalability and impact of your project.

We are working with Youth Offending Teams who manage young people in the community after their release to provide work placements with dog trainers so that those with a passion for dogs can realistically pursue a career in this field. We have also forged links with Writtle University College which teaches a variety of animal courses where we have facilitated visits for offenders so that they were able to gain the knowledge and confidence needed to apply for courses here after their release. The current students have also had the opportunity to engage with us by assisting with temperament assessments of dogs and by receiving lectures on our work. We have also worked with Battersea Dogs home who have generously shared their experiences of a pilot project they ran at an adult prison. In addition to this we are seeking to collaborate with The Liminailty group, who deliver interventions in prisons. These collaborations will help to facilitate scalability throughout the UK.

17. Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions, if any, has the project received so far?

After delivery of our first six week programme, we were nominated by staff at Nacro (a national social justice charity), and were honoured to receive the award for: ' Design and delivery of special projects which prepare learners for the outside world'.

19. Financial Sustainability (OPTIONAL): Please tell us more about how you plan to fund and scale your project, include an attached document with your detailed business plan or other equivalent information. (This information will NOT be shared with your fellow contestant, it will only be visible to you and internal Prize reviewers).

Please see the attachment which details our financial plan for upfront costs, the delivery of our next 12 week programme and scaling up our project.

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. OVERALL Evaluation

Yes, absolutely! - 100%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

3. Does this entry have SOCIAL IMPACT?

Yes, absolutely! - 100%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

4. Does this entry have potential to GROW & demonstrate LEADERSHIP?

Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

5. Is this entry VIABLE?

Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%


Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

7. FEEDBACK – Highlights

INNOVATION: You have a great understanding of the problem, have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions or used an old model in a new way - 100%

IMPACT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 66.7%

GROWTH & LEADERSHIP POTENTIAL: You have a thoughtful plan for growth and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 66.7%

VIABIBLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 33.3%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: You value thinking around how to activate changemakers and empower them to innovate through your product or programming - 33.3%

POTENTIAL TO CREATE SHARED VALUE: You have a clearly defined plan on how to maximize shared value across multiple sectors and stakeholders - 66.7%

WRITING STYLE: Your writing style is concise, descriptive, clear, and specific - 66.7%

Other option - 0%

8. FEEDBACK - Areas for Improvement

INNOVATION: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 0%

IMPACT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 0%

GROWTH & LEADERSHIP POTENTIAL: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 0%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 0%

POTENTIAL TO CREATE SHARED VALUE: Your plan can benefit from more thought on how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 0%

WRITING STYLE: Try to be more concise, descriptive, clear, and specific. Avoid jargon - 0%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 100%

Other option - 0%

Attachments (1)

Financial Plan for Prison Therapy Dog Project.odt

Please see the attached financial plan for upfront costs, running the next 12 week programme and scaling up our project.


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