Retired greyhounds Zandie & Jack about to enter Rimtuaka Prison.An innovative programme in Rimutaka Prison is helping to get retired racing greyhounds ready for new homes as pets.

The prison has partnered with Greyhound Racing New Zealand (GRNZ) to deliver the Great Mates Prison Programme, where prisoners take on roles as dog handlers and foster carers.

Over eight weeks, four prison handlers work with a dog each, training them and getting them ready for a domestic environment. Kennels, an exercise area and an area that resembles a residential home have been established to help the greyhounds get ready for adoption.

Part of the training includes basic canine obedience, as well as teaching the dogs how to walk up stairs and through doorways. At the end of the programme both handler and dog receive a DogsNZ Canine Good Basics Certificate.

The programme is taking place in Te Whare Manaakitanga Special Treatment Unit, a therapeutic unit where men identified as a high risk of violent offending are assisted to address their antisocial behaviour and develop psychological skills to help with their rehabilitation and reintegration into the community.

The treatment programme is the most effective intervention provided by Corrections. Research shows that men who complete the programme and receive parole are 32% less likely to reoffend than similar untreated offenders.

Zandie enjoys being brushed.Nicky Perkins, the unit’s Principal Psychologist says, “The greyhound project provides an opportunity for the men to rehearse the skills they are gaining in the rehabilitation programme.

“For example, they are required to put into practise skills that they are learning related to interpersonal communication, work ethic, emotion management, and compliance with rules and structures”.

“The more opportunities that the men have to practise these skills, the more it will become second nature”.

Dr Mairi Stewart, Head of Welfare for GRNZ, says, “This is an exciting programme and enhances our greyhound rehoming programme by teaching the skills needed to transition from racing life to pet life before being rehomed.

“We’re really impressed with the work the handlers have done to get the dogs ready for new homes.”

The programme has brought big changes for the greyhounds as well as their handlers.

Jo Heath, the unit’s Principal Corrections Officer says, “You can see the changes in the men and the dogs as they work together.  The men have supported each other and when they’ve faced challenges they have worked as a team to get solve them.”

The highlights are many for the handlers, with one saying “I haven’t cared for an animal for 11 years.  It’s been good.  It’s taught me about relationships and empathy. I hope he goes to a good home.”

A Great Mates trainer visits the prison handlers weekly to teach them the skills to train the dogs and ensure they’re ready for pet life, and to check on each dog’s welfare.  The men are also supported by two volunteers from a local retirement village who visit twice weekly to help with handling and training the dogs.

After two earlier pilots, the programme is now an on-going one.  Nine retired greyhounds and 13 prison handlers have been involved to date.

Find out more about the Great Mates Prison Programme: watch the handlers with their greyhounds at Rimutaka Prison below.