Inmates find puppy love in women’s prison

Ellen Dennett’s life as an inmate at Fraser Valley Institution for Women at Abbottsford, British Columbia isn’t what you imagine being behind bars to be like: she spends a couple of hours each day taking care of dogs while their owners are away at work.

Dennett is part of the Doghouse program, a collaboration between the prison and Langley Animal Protection Society (LAPS). Through Doghouse, inmates who are recognized for their good behavior work together to run a dog daycare. More than 150 women have benefitted from the Doghouse program.

"All day long, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, these women are feeding, exercising, scooping poop, washing muddy paws. And they work really, really hard," program manager Alicia Santella says.

Through Doghouse the women are able to learn work ethic skills that would be valuable in any job. Many of the women who have left this program look for jobs specifically in this industry, finding that working with dogs gives them solace.

"They don't look at you as an inmate," says Dennett, who was convicted for second-degree murder. "They don't know the horrible crime I did. They love you just the way you are. The good stuff, the bad stuff, they don't care."

A program like Doghouse that entrusts responsibilities to inmates that feel they have been shut off from society. This is important in empowering them, giving hope that everyone has it in them to engage with the communities around them.

For Dennett, working with dogs has put her on a path for a kinder, calmer life after prison.

"I know we're not supposed to have a good time, that we're not supposed to laugh with the dogs, but that's why this is here — to help us cope with what we've done and to get back on track, and to move on with whatever life I have left."