It's 1:05 p.m. and lessons are starting slightly late today at the dog-sitter course. But this is not your usual dog sitting class: It's taking place at Bollate prison, just north of Milan.
Every Thursday until November, 18 inmates will spend four hours (two hours of practical lessons and two hours of theory) learning until they "graduate" with a diploma from the National Sports Education Center (CSEN).
Animal-assisted therapy has long been advocated in helping piece together shattered lives — or simply aiding social, emotional and cognitive functioning. Dogs, obviously, are among the most widely used pets, though recently the Italian website Italy Journal reported that donkeys were being considered for use.
The lessons here at Bollate prison include animal care, pet therapy and lectures from veterinarians, trainers and teachers. The students seem to thoroughly enjoy their training, as evidenced in an article from Italian daily La Stampa, after journalist Antonella Mariotti paid a visit to the inmates that will become the prison's first qualified pet therapists.
Vito Catorre, 51, remembers that before he was behind bars, "I was good with animals — I even trained geese. When I get out, I want to live in the countryside with lots of animals."
The dogs that the class work with are called Bible — who has curlers in his hair to keep it in shape — and Rosie, a greyhound rescued from the commercial racing industry in Britain.The prisoners file into the room as class begins; one of them stops to pet Bible.
"Did you know it's been 10 years since I've pet a dog?" he says. He bends down, almost kneeling and Bible responds by rolling onto his back to have his belly rubbed.
Another student here is Otis Opoku Ackah, 34, who has been at the facility since 2007. "In Ghana I had so many animals: two dogs, a cat, goats. I'm so happy to be around animals again. What will I do when I get out? Maybe I will have learned dog sitting so well that I'll be able to teach it to others!" he jokes.
During the class, Claudio, the groom at Bollate comes in — yes, in this prison you can also learn how to take care of horses. "You never know who's helping whom," smiles Nicolò Vergagni, ethologist and biologist. "Once a week," he says, "these animals just take away the pain that's in here."
Main photo: Alberto Gottardo (All Rights Reserved)