How a dog training program is changing canine lives for the better

How a dog training program is changing canine – and human – lives for the better

Kelly Barnes received the 2020 AgriFutures VIC Rural Women’s Award for her ground-breaking Working Dog Training School.

In the country, dogs are so much more than just pets. They’re mates, workers, companions and therapists.

When Kelly Barnes was diagnosed with the chronic pain condition Fibromyalgia in 2015, her kelpie Dugald became all of the above and more.

“After my diagnosis, I struggled with the loss of my identity. I’d always done physical stockwork. So when I could no longer do that, I had to completely redefine myself and find another purpose,” says Barnes, 38, who grew up on a cropping and livestock farm in southern England and moved to Dunkeld in Victoria’s south-west 10 years ago. “Having the company of my dogs [Dugald and Jess] has been a huge benefit. They give me the motivation to leave the house and go for a walk, and when I’m in pain, I can sit on the couch with them and watch Netflix.”

Research shows that spending time with a dog improves heart health, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, and reduces stress.

Work in ag? Get our weekly update for women in ag, The Ag Wrap

With these benefits in mind, Barnes set about creating her Working Dog Training School, using the $10,000 Westpac bursary she received as the 2020 AgriFutures VIC Rural Women’s Award Winner. “Telling my story about how much the dogs have helped me has become my purpose, and I want to share those benefits with others,” says Barnes, who recently finished her first pilot program with 15 participants. “The group were trained to know how to work and understand their dogs, but they also built friendships and gained a support network, and learnt about failure, commitment and repetition. For people struggling with mental health issues, dog therapy and training can be hugely beneficial.”

Photo credit: Samantha Kaspers

The Working Dog Training School is about so much more than sitting, fetching and shaking paws. It’s about breaking down social isolation and building resilience. For Barnes, the experience of setting up the program and winning the Rural Women’s Award has been life-affirming. “The Award has given me so much confidence and it’s also holding me accountable. It’s pushing me to make my idea a reality,” she explains.

The pilot program has been a giant leap towards making the Working Dog Training School a reality. “The participants loved getting together once a month and sharing their wins and failures with a group of like-minded people,” says Barnes, who made everyone set goals at the start of the six-month program. “They all smashed their goals out of the park!”

Determined to do the same, Barnes has plans to expand the program across the country and create an ongoing network for those involved. “Creating these networks and helping people get off the farm and have face to face contact with others is a big support,” she says. “If we can give people preventative tools, tips and coping mechanisms to build their resilience when they are faced with mental health issues, they’ll know what to do and where to turn.”

The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award National Winner and Runner Up will be announced via a live virtual National Announcement event on Wednesday, 20 October 2021 at 12:30pm (AEDT).

Free registrations are now open until Wednesday, 13 October 2021.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox