Five years before applying to graduate school, Carmaleta Aufderheide’s family faced a tragedy that resulted in a long road to recovery. To lift her family’s spirits, Aufderheide brought home a Golden Retriever named Jake. The dog turned out to be transformative in the family’s recovery process, more so than she could have expected.
“Little did I know that this dog would become an instrumental piece of my personal recovery,” Aufderheide says. “My experience with Jake became the motivation for the research I would pursue.”
Last spring, Aufderheide graduated from the UO Law School’s Conflict and Dispute Resolution Master’s program. Inspired by her own emotional recovery through dog ownership, Aufderheide’s thesis sought answers to questions that would take her behind the walls of three prisons to discover how working with dogs can help adults in custody re-enter society more successfully after leaving prison.
For many dog owners, their furry companion is more than just a pet. They serve as a confidant, an exercise partner, even a best friend. For adults in custody who are cut off from close personal relationships by prison walls, working with dogs can have especially transformative effects. Because incarceration often results in the loss of close personal relationships, Aufderheide says that many inmates experience feelings of isolation, anger, frustration, and depression. Some prisons operate dog programs that involve inmates in sheltering and training homeless dogs facing euthanasia and raising puppies for service organizations. Aufderheide says these programs often report improvements in self-esteem, empathy, and helping behavior among inmates.
Having experienced the healing powers of dogs herself, Aufderheide set out to explore exactly why inmates who work with dogs experience these improvements. When she began exploring scientific literature on the topic to see if these improvements were observed in other areas of research, she noted similar findings coming out of a field of study in social psychology called “relationship closeness.” Aufderheide hypothesized that adults in custody who work with dogs may be experiencing relationship closeness with their dogs that mirrors close relationships they might have had with family, friends, and loved ones outside of prison. This experienced closeness between offender and dog may additionally influence self-esteem, empathy, and helping behaviors as well as initiate restorative processes for prisoners through what researchers refer to as “self-other overlap".
Aufderheide traveled to three prisons that ran dog programs and sat down with inmates to hear how working with dogs had affected them. Using a mixed methodology approach of quantitative surveys and scales borrowed from relationship closeness, followed by qualitative interviews modeled after those quantitative surveys and scales, Aufderheide worked to uncover what researchers refer to as “degrees of felt connectedness” between inmate handlers and their dogs that lead to self-expansion.
Thirty-seven inmate dog handlers participated in her study, and the results demonstrated strong support for her theory that relationship closeness occurs between inmate handlers and their dogs. By replicating the emotional bonds that are normally experienced with their friends and family, inmate handlers were experiencing fewer of the negative feelings associated with the isolation of life in prison.
Aufderheide says that getting approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to interview inmates for her research was a long and difficult process, as prisoners are considered a protected population in research. Eventually, Aufderheide was able to gain the permission she needed, and she says the time she spent talking to the inmates made for the most memorable experiences from her time working on the study.
“They were the heart of this work,” Aufderheide says. “Without the opportunity to conduct interviews with them this work would not have had the same impact.”
Aufderheide says her work is the first research to introduce a theoretical explanation to understanding why adults in custody who work with dogs show improvements to their self-esteem, empathy, and helping behaviors. While the study does not have a large enough scope to show causation, Aufderheide says strong associations are present that warrant continued research. She believes that working with dogs could prove to be an important tool in helping inmates re-enter society successfully after leaving prison.
“The reality is that re-entry and alternative approaches to improve an offender’s chances of successful re-entry doesn’t always come in the form of traditional vocational and educational programs,” she says.
Aufderheide says she plans to continue her work in new ways now that she’s completed her master’s degree.
“I plan to make a career out of bringing vulnerable populations and dogs together,” she says. “I’m still working out the direction this will take. But have no doubt, I will find a way to bring the two together in my next career move.”
We have no doubt that that whichever path Aufderheide chooses, it will include helping many people, and we can’t wait to hear what comes next for this outstanding alum!