Work canine coaching program in Victoria tooling farmers with resilience in a bid to enhance psychological well being

Dogs are known as man’s best friend, and a new program in southwest Victoria is taking advantage of this bond to bring farmers together.

Important points:

  • Once a month, dog training sessions are held in southwest Victoria to bring together often isolated farmers.
  • Dunkeld farmer Kelly Barnes received the 2020 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award for her work at the Working Dog Training School.
  • There is evidence that the agricultural environment is a mental health hazard and that farmers suffer from high levels of stress and depression

Dunkeld’s Working Dog Training School not only improves farmers’ dog handling skills, it also removes the social barriers farmers can face when discussing their mental health.

Kelly Barnes is behind the program and received $ 10,000 to run the apprenticeship school last year when she won the 2020 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.

The farmer’s best friend

Ms. Barnes said the inspiration for the working dog training school was how her pooch Dugald helped her in times of need, especially after she had to give up physical labor due to developing fibromyalgia with chronic pain.

“My old seaweed was on the way with me and spends time with me on the couch [when I need a rest]” She said.

“Through this experience I realized what use my dog ​​had for me on the farm, but also as a tool and company when I am at home.”

Kelly Barnes and Ian O’Connell run a working dog training school in Dunkeld (

ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton

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However, due to COVID-19, their vision was interrupted until this year as the restrictions on social gatherings made the monthly event impossible to hold.

“That was pretty overwhelming because we were ready to go,” said Ms. Barnes.

“Of course this project came before COVID, but I think it really reaffirmed the importance of social connections and highlighted the social isolation farmers face.”

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Ms. Barnes said she was excited to finally be able to do the program with the help of working dog trainer Ian O’Connell.

“We have a great group of people here. We have 14 participants, from an 18 year old to a man in his 60s, a really diverse group of people.”

Break the silence

Jo Ward is a veterinarian who is on the program and she said while it’s a stereotype, farmers are uncomfortable talking about their feelings.

“This course opens the doors for these conversations, but even if they don’t want to talk about it, it gives them a chance to get away from the farm and meet like-minded people,” she said.

Dr. Ward said attendees connected through their connections with their K9 friends.

“For me, my dogs are my family.

“I know no matter how bad the day was, I’ll come home and you’ll be happy to see me.”

Farm workers Maggie and Ralph take a break during working dog training (

ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton

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Dylan Dyer, the hand of the Dunkeld Station, credits his dogs with saving his sanity after struggling to cope with his father’s death.

“It was pretty hard not having that person to call and just letting them know how you are. He’s played a huge role in my life.”

Mr Dyer said the opportunity to meet new people increased his confidence and felt like he had achieved something as he and his dog, Swindle, learned a new skill that benefited his mood.

“It’s good to get out and get out [on farm] Fool, you just never know the possibilities that could result from it. “

Three farmers with their working dogs Southwest farmers Rachel Morris, Dylan Dyer, and Dr. Jo Ward meet once a month at the dog school.

ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton

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Rural health crisis

The suicide rate among male farmers is significantly higher than among non-agricultural men in the countryside.

In 2008, a study found that 34 out of 100,000 male farmers die from suicide, significantly more than the 24 per 100,000 men in the countryside in general.

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Hamilton psychologist Katrina Malin said that not only are farmers exposed to stressful situations and isolation, but a lack of resources in regional and remote communities is also detrimental.

“I think there is a stoicism among some farmers who cannot read the signs and there is still a stigma when it comes to mental health.”

“Often times, farmers don’t even go to the family doctor to check their physical health, let alone their mental health. This is definitely a big problem.”

Promising results

Having a day off to train their animal companions is a good distraction from stressful mental health issues, said Dr. Malin.

“There is a lot of research in canine therapy and equine therapy that has gone into blood pressure, heart rate, and dopamine, as well as simple benefits that we can get [from animals],” She said.

“It’s such an underutilized resource, especially in areas where people are isolated, that it can be of great use.”

A cattle dog in the arms of a farmer Farm worker Rachel Morris trained her working dog Barry to jump into her arms (

ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton

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Alison Kennedy of the National Center for Farmer Health agrees.

“We can see the benefits from the early days when people came to dog school and had conversations.”

“We cannot underestimate the value of some of these conversations as a means of social connection.”

“I think weaving mental health into anything is always a challenge when we work with farming communities. So if we can take advantage of new opportunities to incorporate mental health into other activities, this is a real bonus.”