07/18/2013 08:24 EDT | Updated 09/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia government extends programs that pairs prisoners with pooches

HALIFAX - A Halifax jail with a history of violence is hoping a program that teaches inmates to train pound puppies will help soothe tensions at the facility.

Justice Minister Ross Landry announced Thursday the pilot program launched in December will be extended for a full year at the Central Nova Correctional Facility at a cost of $60,000.

Landry joined jail staff, a dog trainer and an inmate to praise the program, saying he has heard it has helped ease outbursts of anger among offenders while providing them opportunities to be contributing members of society.

"It's working," Landry said. "Offenders have described their participation in the program as life-changing. ... Staff at the facility tell us the program has helped reduce tension and has strengthened the relationship between staff and offenders."

He said a dozen inmates have helped prepare more than 70 puppies for adoption through the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals since the launch of the program called WOOF, an acronym for Working on Our Future.

Since the government balanced the budget, it was able to extend the program, he added.

The leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives said the money spent on the program is misplaced given the other issues such as the need for doctors and rural schools that the province is facing.

"It may be a good program, but you have to question the government's priorities when there are so many other pressing needs," Jamie Baillie said.

Over the next year, the Justice Department will study whether inmates who train dogs are less likely to reoffend, and will measure whether violence has decreased in areas of the jail where the puppies roam.

Three years ago, the jail was the site of a series of violent assaults that resulted in the hiring of 30 part-time staff and prompted the province's director of correctional services to move into the building.

Disturbances in the summer of 2010 also caused damage to parts of the facility, which houses about 400 inmates.

John Landry, a supervisor at the jail who oversees the program, said he hopes it builds respect between correctional officers and inmates.

In the two units where the dogs are trained, instances of violence have fallen, he said.

"It's been really good in there," he said. "That's made a great big difference in our facility, where there are assaults every day."

He said one inmate who took part in the program later found a job at a group home offering similar dog training programs.

"It costs $63,000 per year to house an offender. So if you make a difference in one person's life, that more than covers the cost."

Jacque Deon, a 27-year-old inmate who has participated in the program for the past month, said he notices other inmates calm down when the puppies are in the lounge.

"Everybody sees a dog, they don't think of anything else. They pick up the dog. They play with it," he said.

"It's an easier time with the dog around."

He said spending hours every day training puppies has helped him prepare to return to his regular life as a lobster fisherman in the rural community of Pubnico, N.S.

He wears the standard blue fatigues and laceless sneakers that the jail issues him, but is distinguished by a belt that holds a pink pouch for dog biscuits and a roll for picking up poop.

The training routine begins at 7:45 a.m., when Deon and the other nine inmates in the program wake up to take the dogs for their morning stroll and clean their kennels. They spend up to six hours each day either in classes or with the puppies.

"You need to have patience to train these pups," Deon said, as one of his charges gobbled down a piece of kibble.

Amy MacRae, a dog trainer with the SPCA who teaches the prisoners, said the training of 70 puppies in the span of six months has opened space at the shelter and reduced her volunteer organization's workload.

"The inmates have gone above and beyond to open up the kennel spaces in the shelter, so we're able to open them up and help more animals," she said.