Pooch programs for widespread well being

February 25, 2021 BY

Canine care: Kangaroo Flat Primary School teacher and students with Dale, their Dogs Connect companion. Photos: SUPPLIED

IN a world first move to improve community mental health, Bendigo’s own Dogs Connect was established to incorporate canines in schools, hospitals and other institutions.

Founded around seven years ago, creator Grant Shannon was a primary school teacher looking to offer his students some extra emotional support when he had the idea.

“I was also completing some studies at the time around wellbeing and I had to implement a cultural change into a school,” he said.

“We were exploring ways to help students build empathy and strategies and the principal at the time gave me the green light to try out using stories of dogs to break down some of these barriers with young people.

“Then, I had a lightbulb moment and thought, what about using a real dog?”

Rosie is placed at St Phillips Christian College.

Initially taking on the project while still working full time as a teacher, once the program started to take shape Mr Shannon took a year off to research, structure and build relationships to kick start the concept as a business.

“It’s just gone from strength to strength, now it’s covering some pretty big areas in Australia and branched into a few different industries,” he said.

“We have a team of us now who are all so passionate about the idea of the connection that lots of people naturally find with dogs.

“We’re also making links to how you can build that connection to be supportive of your autonomic nervous system to shift behaviours that have come about and manifested because of trauma.”

Now offering the program Australiawide to not only schools but also hospitals and justice communities, the organisation is continually looking at ways to expand the program into aged care, emergency services and other industries.

Rather than simply sourcing and placing a dog in a select institution, Mr Shannon said his team work with each site throughout the entire journey.

“We regularly are on site, almost weekly, and we take them through this program step-by-step which means some implementation can take six to 12 months or more,” he said.

“There’s so much merit in teaching people about this, not just handing them a program.

“We explore what the right fit is for the community and what levels of support they need then build a strong foundation with them and say that we’re around but hope that they take it on board and really make it their own.”

With the aim to provide the best service possible, Mr Shannon said Dogs Connect are consistently working with their clients and researchers to develop the program.

“We have a great research team at La Trobe University who we’re working along a journey of critical reflection to ensure we’re always improving what we do,” he said.

“We’re also about to be recognised by the biggest trauma institute in the world, the Polyvagal Institute, who contacted us and asked if they could certify us as trauma informed, we’re stoked about that.”

Although Mr Shannon said it’s great to see dogs in any educational and support setting, his program is unique in forming connections with these companions to create sustainable support systems.

“This is really in depth and is so much more than just patting a dog when you’re having a rough time,” he said.

“My dream is they will be everywhere one day and actually being acknowledged for what they offer and honoured for what they’re prepared to give.

“It’s amazing, you just hear people say time after time that these dogs are the best thing in their entire world not just at their work or school.”