Dozens of prisons in the United States host programs where inmates raise and train service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD. Prison Dogs, the latest film from documentarians Geeta Gandbhir and Perri Peltz, follows one such program and explores the impact it has on the lives of everyone involved.
There is something inherently compelling about any story of people seeking redemption. Even those of us who have not committed a felony or experienced what it’s like to spend time behind bars can relate to the yearning for second chances in a world that doesn’t always provide them. The prisoners involved in the training of service dogs know their efforts will have little to no effect on their sentences, but they do not seem to care. For them, simply being able to do something that aides another person rather than harms them is enough. Their opportunity to prove they are better people than their previous actions would suggest lies in the care of their assigned animal, and if they can find a path to making the world a little bit better for someone else they’ll find, in some way, the forgiveness they each seek.
Prison Dogs takes a two-year process and trims it down to a brisk 72 minutes that attempts to explore the program, the men involved, the people who teach them to train the dogs, and the vets who will ultimately rely on the dogs for help in their everyday life. It’s a lot of information to take in, but it’s utterly compelling from the very beginning. It would be difficult for anyone to teach an animal 100 skills in 24 months, and knowing most the men involved in the program have no prior knowledge of animal training prior makes each a bit more relatable. You find yourself wondering how such an experience might improve your own outlook on life, and you cheer for them each in hopes that they succeed.
Aside from the prisoners and their experiences, Prison Dogs also tells the stories of the veterans who are counting on the dogs in order to live a better life. We meet men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages who have each struggled with their diagnosis. We hear the stories that lead them to seek, and we learn about the families who support them. It’s all very moving and it helps further reinforce the need for programs like the one featured in the film to exist.
Perhaps the most interesting story of all in Prison Dogs is that of Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who is responsible for leading the training program documented for this film. Her job requires a very specific version of tough love that is often challenged in ways that make you wonder why anyone would submit themselves to such work. Then you see the results, and suddenly it all begins to make sense. If she can help a single inmate successfully train a dog she can impact numerous lives. If she can teach many to do the same, hundreds more will experience the positive benefits of her work.
Of course, the scant runtime does hinder just how technical the film can be. The film’s best aspect is the number of great stories it has to share from the diverse group of people the program helps, but cramming everything into a film that is only slightly longer than your average made-for-TV movie leaves a lot of topics and angles unexplored. This isn’t to say the stories told fall short; nearly every individual journey explored is ripe with hardship and challenges, but going deep on any one element of the film is nearly impossible without sacrificing another crucial component. Keeping the narrative moving while making room to tell why the dogs are so important to everyone involved is a constant battle that never finds a perfect balance.