Therapy dogs should be more widely available in prisons to improve wellbeing and self harm, says new report

16 December 2019

Therapy dogs can help prisoners to restore their mental health and reduce the risk of serious self-harm, according to a report published today.

Restoring Something Lost, by Graham Durcan from the Centre for mental Health, is an evaluation of a pilot therapy dog scheme run by Rethink Mental Illness in three prisons in the North East of England.

It finds that the therapy dogs, Magic and Cooper (pictured below), had a calming influence on prisoners, helped increase coping skills and strategies, and provided a safe space for them to explore ways of expressing and processing their emotions.

Levels of self-harm rose by 20% in prisons in 2018, and at least nine out of ten prisoners has at least one mental health problem. The report found clear benefits of the therapy dog scheme including a significant reduction in rates of self-harm.

The project was run with grant funding by Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS) as part of a programme to pilot, develop and test initiatives which may reduce the risk of self-harm or self-inflicted death in prison. The two therapy dogs worked with both women and men (including young men) in three prisons.

They were handled by Rethink Mental Illness practitioners who were experienced in working in prisons and with people with mental health problems, and who were also experts in dog handling.

One of the participants in the programme said: “I can’t describe it, but it takes me back to a happier place and somehow that helps me feel better about myself.”

Dr Graham Durcan, Centre for Mental Health associate director said: “We saw positive change in the majority of the participants after their therapy dog sessions. The impact of interacting with the dogs was marked for people whose wellbeing was otherwise so poor. This is a stark reminder of the need to support wellbeing in prisons but also of the simple steps that could help to tackle rising levels of self-harm and to make prisons a safer and healthier environment for everyone.” 

Jonathan Munro, associate director for criminal justice and secure care services at Rethink Mental Illness, said: “There’s a mental health crisis happening in UK prisons at the moment and we need to find creative ways to tackle it. What was unique about this project was that the team was trained in mental health, prison work and dog handling. With this specialist knowledge in all three areas we were able to really engage with prisoners, and they reported feeling a lot better as a result.” 

Read the full report 


Magic And Cooper






Press team contact details:

Emma Bailey 07891005608  

Rethink Mental Illness - 0207 840 3138


Notes to editors

The report will be available for free download from from 00.01 on Wednesday 18 December.


About Centre for Mental Health


Centre for Mental Health is a charity with over 30 years’ experience in providing life changing research, economic analysis and policy influence in mental health. Over the last decade, our work has expanded to include physical health, wellbeing, inequality and multiple disadvantage across the life course.

We are international thought leaders contributing to innovation and ground breaking health and social change. By disentangling complex experiences and finding big ideas that can be shared, we have developed a reputation as the people who make sense and can provide evidence that helps and makes a difference in real time and in real life.


About Rethink Mental Illness


Rethink Mental Illness is a leading charity provider of mental health services in England. They support tens of thousands of people through groups, services and advice and information. They train employees, employers and members of the public on how best to support someone affected by mental illness. All of this work guides their campaigning for the rights of people with mental illness and their carers.


For access to a range of free images to accompany mental health news stories please visit: These images have been developed by Time to Change.