Dogs are known to be man’s best friend, and a new program being run in Victoria’s south-west is utilising this bond to bring farmers together.
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- Dog training sessions are being held once a month in Victoria’s south-west, with the aim of bringing often-isolated farmers together.
- Dunkeld farmer Kelly Barnes was awarded the 2020 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award for her work on the Working Dog Training School.
- Evidence suggests the farm environment is hazardous to mental health, with farmers experiencing high rates of stress and depression
Dunkeld’s Working Dog Training School not only improves farmers dog handling skills, but also breaks down the social barriers farmers can face when it comes to discussing their mental health.
Kelly Barnes is behind the program and was last year given $10,000 to run the training school when she was awarded the 2020 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.
Farmer’s best friend
Ms Barnes said the inspiration for the working dogs training school was how her pooch Dugald helped her in times of need, especially after needing to give up physical labour due to developing chronic pain condition fibromyalgia.
“Going through this experience made me realise how much of a benefit my dog was to me on the farm, but also as a support tool and company when I’m at home.”
But due to COVID-19, her vision was put on pause until this year as social gathering restrictions made holding the monthly event impossible.
“That was quiet crushing because we were ready to get up and running,” Ms Barnes said.
Ms Barnes said she was excited when she could finally run the program, with the help of working dog trainer Ian O’Connell.
‘We’ve got an awesome bunch of people here, we have 14 participants ranging from an 18-year-old to a guy in is 60s, a really diverse group of people.”
Breaking the silence
Jo Ward is a livestock vet who attends the program, and she said although it’s a stereotype, farmers aren’t comfortable talking about their feelings.
“Doing this course opens the doors for these conversations, but even if they don’t want to talk about it, it’s giving them an outlet to get off farm and meet like-minded people,” she said.
Dr Ward said the participants bond over their connections to their K9 friends.
“I know that no matter how bad of a day I’ve had, that I’ll get home and they’ll be happy to see me.”
Dunkeld station hand Dylan Dyer credits his dogs with saving his mental health, after struggling to cope with the passing of his father.
“It’s been quiet hard not to have that person you can ring and just let them know how you’re going, he played a big part in my life.”
Mr Dyer said getting the opportunity to meet new people has improved his confidence, and he got a feeling of accomplishment when he and his dog Swindle learn a new skill, which benefitted his mood.
“It’s good to get out and get out of that [on farm] rut, you just never know the opportunities that might come out of it.”
Rural health crisis
The rate of suicide for male farmers is significantly higher than for non-farming rural males.
In 2008, a study showed that 34 in every 100,000 male farmers die by suicide, significantly more than the 24 per 100,000 among rural men generally.
Hamilton psychologist Katrina Malin said in addition to farmers being exposed to stressful situations and isolation, a lack of resources in regional and remote communities was also damaging.
“Often farmers won’t even go to the GP to check on their physical health let alone their mental health, so it definitely is a major problem.”
Giving farmers a day off from working the land to train their animal companions provides a good distraction from any burdening mental health issues, Dr Malin said.
“There’s lots of research into dog therapy and equine therapy, that looks at blood pressure, heartrates, and dopamine and simple benefits that we can get [from animals],” she said.
“It’s such an untapped resource, especially in areas where people are isolated it can be of great benefit.”
Alison Kennedy from the National Centre for Farmer Health agrees.
“We can already see the benefits just even in the early days of people coming to the dog school and having conversations.”
“I think it’s always a challenge to weave mental health into anything when working with farming communities, so if we can take new opportunities to bring mental health into other activities it’s a real bonus.”