01/30/2013 03:07 EST | Updated 04/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Tories have bone to pick over Halifax program pairing pooches with inmates

HALIFAX - A pilot program that pairs convicts with canines in Nova Scotia has the Progressive Conservative party barking over the cost.

Tory justice critic Allan MacMaster said Wednesday he doesn't understand why the provincial government is spending about $26,000 on the program for inmates at a Halifax jail when the economy is on shaky ground.

"It's insensitive for a government to go out and spend this kind of money on a program for people who are incarcerated when there are so many other people out there suffering because of the economy," MacMaster said in an interview.

WOOF, an acronym for Working On Our Future, was launched in December at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in partnership with the SPCA and will run until the end of March.

Justice Minister Ross Landry said inmates will help care for and train five undisciplined dogs before they are returned to the SPCA and adopted.

The idea is to rehabilitate the dog and the inmate.

"I'm excited about this," Landry told reporters. "We're dealing with a segment of society that in a lot of cases are in there because they're not very positive or productive, and this gives an opportunity to change that direction."

WOOF is similar to canine therapy programs at correctional facilities in the United States and Canada, including the federal Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. A program was also launched at two Newfoundland facilities in 2011.

MacMaster said he hadn't heard about the program until he read about it on a local news website on Wednesday. The government sent out its first news release on the program after the Tories criticized its price tag.

But Landry defended the cost, saying funding for the program was found within the jail's budget and most of it is expected to be spent on one-time, start-up costs.

The bulk of the money was used to train 11 corrections officers at the jail who will then pass their knowledge onto inmates selected for the program, he said. The dogs will stay at the jail for the duration of the program, but the SPCA will cover their medical and care costs.

Two inmates will begin working with each dog in February but those with a history of domestic abuse or violence in the facility won't be eligible to participate.

Capt. John Landry of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility said he believes it's the best program introduced at the jail in his 25-year career and he's already seen a positive change among inmates who've interacted with the dogs.

"They'll come in and pat them and they turn into the finest kind of people," he said. "They really appreciate the program."