When we tap into the power of our canine companions, great things are possible.
Love, devotion and companionship from dogs have been a constant for 2020 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award Victorian winner Kelly Barnes.
Originally from the south-east of England, Kelly moved to Australia in 2011 and worked for years on properties in shearing sheds and as a station hand with her faithful kelpie, Dugald, by her side.
And so Kelly would have continued until the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia brought about a major life change.
“Being diagnosed with a chronic condition that has no real treatment or known cure was very confronting and has been extremely challenging to come to terms with,” Kelly says.
“It’s forced some major lifestyle and career changes and I’m still working through the loss of my physical strength and sense of identity.”
When Kelly thought about the positive mental health benefits from her relationship with Dugald, she started down the path of a unique rural wellbeing project.
Kelly’s brainwave lay at the intersection of improving farmers' mental health and wellbeing, while boosting their dog handling skills to help create a lower-stress working environment.
“Working dogs are a great way to bring people together and break down social barriers,” Kelly says.
With that goal firmly in mind, Kelly successfully applied for the 2020 AgriFutures Victorian Rural Women’s Award and received a $10,000 bursary to pilot a series of one-day workshops.
Fifteen Western Victorian participants aged 18-65 were recruited via Kelly’s personal networks, social media and local newspapers – all from within 100 kilometres of each other to enable connections to endure after the pilot had finished.
Kelly’s aptly-named Mates Working Dog Training School focused on resilience building and working dog training.
“We delivered the workshops over a six-month period, with interactive activities, videos and discussion that captured various learning styles,” Kelly says.
Keen to use the project to develop a sustainable model that could be used into the future, Kelly’s pilot had four key objectives.
“The main goal was to teach basic aspects of low stress stock handling and personal resilience,” Kelly says.
“I also wanted to build awareness and create a safe space to discuss the links between mental and physical wellbeing.”
The fourth objective was to introduce the concept of working dogs as a source of support and companionship.
Kelly delivered the resilience, mental health and wellbeing content, while respected dog handler Ian O’Connell delivered the stock handling and dog training components.
Project evaluation by the National Centre for Farmer Health (NCFH) found the initiative made a positive difference to participants’ lives.
Now a full-time research assistant at the NCFH, Kelly credits her award for giving her the skills and experience to make the career move.
“We did a series of online personal development workshops as part of the award and with the media opportunities enabled by the Rural Women’s Award process, the more you talked about your idea, the more invested you became and the more connections you made,” Kelly says.
Sadly, Kelly’s dog Dugald – the inspiration behind her working dog school and pivotal force behind her project – passed away in August 2022.
“This has been an extremely challenging time as he was such a huge part of my journey, but I’m so lucky to have been able to create such a beautiful legacy to honour his life,” Kelly says.
“I was grateful to be working at the NCFH with such a supportive team who knew my background with Dugald and it’s been lovely to be able to talk about him.”
Not to be left without canine companions, Kelly is surrounded by a team of three dogs who may not quite be the special connection that Dugald was, but they do a pretty good job. She now hopes to train her youngest recruit Ashley to be a therapy dog.
“When you start talking about dogs, everyone has something to say. It really stands out the way a dog can have a positive impact on a conversation, they really get people opening up.”
As far as what’s next, Kelly says it’s currently under consideration.
“Working full-time and running my project during a global pandemic followed by a career change left me pretty burnt out and the Fibro has thrown up a number of different challenges.
“I am working on some ideas in the background and also taking time for myself, which has included completing a chronic illness coaching program for seven months this year.”
Whatever it is, we know Kelly will have her canine companions by her side, with all the wonderful rewards these four-legged wonders offer their humans.