A Dunkeld farmer's passion to boost the resilience of her local community by building connections through animals has seen her take out the 2020 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Women's Award.
Minister for Agriculture Jaclyn Symes this week announced Kelly Barnes as the winner of the prestigious award, and Victoria's candidate for the national title to be awarded in Canberra later in the year.
Ms Barnes will receive a $10,000 Westpac bursary to help her pilot a working dog training school in Dunkeld.
"It's surreal and very exciting to have other people backing my idea and see it as a valid project," she said on hearing the news of her success.
The idea for the training school came from Ms Barnes' love and respect for her working dogs. She believes working dogs are a great way to bring people together, not only to improve their dog handling skills but also to break down social barriers and aid mental health.
"Dogs are a really good source of support and therapy and a lot of people don't understand how to use their dog's full potential," she said.
"Looking through old photos I realised most of my pictures were of me and my dogs, it made me realise how much they have supported me through my personal struggles.
"Being on a farm you can feel isolated and with chronic pain and fatigue my dogs have been my lifeline.
"They're an untapped resource that every livestock farmer has."
She hopes the training school will comprise of a small group training formula of six one-day sessions over a 12-month period to provide practical skills in a training environment that supports social interaction and networking with like-minded people.
"Whether it's with older farming men who experience high suicide rates, or high school kids looking to get into farming, it could be tailored to different kinds of groups," Ms Barnes said.
"It's all about creating bonds with your dog and breaking down the stigma that working dogs should be stuck outside on a chain or that you have to treat them mean to make them work.
"They work better when you have bonds with them, there's an urban myth that a working dog can't be your pet and that's simply not true."
The first pilot program will be made up of about 15 people from within 100 kilometres of the Dunkeld area and the training will be facilitated by master kelpie trainer Ian O'Connell.
"The program will be about learning valuable skills needed on the farm, encouraging social networks and how to use dogs as support companions, all while gently having other conversations dealing with isolation and stress that so many people on farms experience," she said.
"It's about breaking down that stigma around mental health at the end of the day."
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