When farmer Kelly Barnes had to give up physical labor due to chronic pain from fibromyalgia, she was left feeling hopeless and isolated.
That was until she realized how much her Kelpie dog, Dugald, would be there by her side to help her battle through her mental health struggles. Now, Barnes is helping farmers throughout Victoria, Australia pair up with working dogs who will help them do the same thing through Dunkeld’s Working Dog Training School.
“Going through this experience made me realize 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,” Barnes told ABC News. “’We’ve got an awesome bunch of people here, we have 14 participants ranging from an 18-year-old to a guy in his 60s, a really diverse group of people.”
With the help of working dog trainer Ian O’Connell, Barnes helps train and pair dogs with farmers — many of whom, according to Barnes, typically don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings. Through the working dog training program, the farmers can have a best friend to not only work with, but feel comfortable being themselves around.
The program also encourages farmers to meet up, many of whom bring their dogs along to socialize. Livestock vet Jo Ward, who attends the program, said that it helps otherwise isolated farmers form friendships with one another that will last a lifetime.
“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.
One farmer, Dylan Dyer, credits the program and his dogs as the saviors of his mental health after facing the loss of his father. Getting the opportunity to meet new people and get off the farm with his dog, Swindle, has improved his confidence and moods, Dyer said.
“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,” he said.
This is a great opportunity for farmers to improve their mental health, as records show that the rate of suicide for male farmers is significantly higher than for non-farming rural males.
Hamilton psychologist Katrina Malin said that in addition to farmers having a stressful job that is quite isolating, a lack of resources in rural areas could also damage mental health.
“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,” Malin said.
Luckily, the benefits of working with dogs truly show. Giving farmers a day off from working the land to train their dog companions provides a good distraction from any mental health issues, Dr. Malin said. Working with animals also has amazing physical impacts.
“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.”