A paw in need

Wednesday, Jan 24, 2018, 12:18 AM | Source: Pursuit

By Jess Heerde

A paw in need

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Leila is a "hugger" and Opal is a "circulator," but their jobs as therapy dogs are the same – helping stressed people to relax.

Sensing cues that we are blithely unaware of, like the stress hormone cortisol, Leila the little grey Schnoodle will sniff out who needs her, and stand in front of them shaking with anticipation as she wills them to give her a hug. But Opal the black Labrador is always on the move, making herself available. When she senses you need her she will move in, offering to lick you happily all over.

Therapy dogs can sense anxiety and try to help. Opal (above) chills out at one of the Frontyard pilot sessions with young people experiencing homelessness. Picture: Supplied

Leila and Opal are part of an innovative program developed by Melbourne City Mission's Frontyard Youth Services to use animal assisted therapy to promote the wellbeing of young people experiencing homelessness, help overcome their disconnectedness, and encourage them to access help. And the young people desperately need help, whether it be accommodation, access to health services, financial assistance, or legal advice.

But most of all they really need a break from the stress and anxiety of living on the street. That is where Opal and Leila come in.

"The dogs can give the young people something we simply can't give them - a hug and a kiss. And they reciprocate," says Frontyard's community development worker Poppy Fotiadis, who led the pilot program.

reading the room

I'm in the large basement at Frontyard in central Melbourne where, for three hours once a week, the room is opened up for these young people to mix and be with the dogs. Some are there waiting for an appointment upstairs with a social worker, some are waiting nervously for news on accommodation, and some are there just to get off the street.

Some 387 young people were involved in the pilot program. Leila (above) gets down to work. Picture: Supplied

Opal is constantly on the move circulating among the ten young people in the room, tail wagging, going from one to the next to see if someone wants a lick, a paw-shake or maybe even a roll on the floor. But Leila is repeatedly going up to a downcast young woman. The dog is almost pleading to be picked up and hugged, and the woman laughs as she finally gives in, saying she doesn't understand why Leila is pestering her so much. Therapy dog handler and registered psychologist Melanie Jones whispers to me "she's doing her job!"

"Dogs are much subtler than we are," she later tells me. "They are reading a whole catalogue of signals to sense our internal states because that is how they interact with each other. Among dogs a lick of the nose or a glance away of the eyes can be enough to avoid a potential fight."

Harnessing natural dog behaviour

Ms Jones runs "Lead the Way", which provides psychology and animal-assisted therapy services, and was brought in to provide the sessions. She is also studying a PhD in animal-assisted therapy at Orygen and the University of Melbourne. "Leila might look timid," she says, "but she is incredibly brave. She doesn't read anxiety as a danger, but as a signal that someone needs to hug her. It is a natural behaviour that is enhanced through training."

Also in the room is University of Melbourne Department of Paediatrics Research Fellow Dr Jess Heerde, who is assessing the effectiveness of the pilot program based on observations and interviews. It is part of her wider research work on the causes and effects of homelessness that is being funded by a research fellowship from the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation.

The response of the young people, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive and suggests that, subject to resourcing, dog therapy could be feasibly introduced on an ongoing basis.

Psychologist and animal trainer Melanie Jones (pictured with Leila). The training is about building on a dog's natural behaviour. Picture: Paul Burston

"The dogs appear to help them to switch off and engage with other young people going through the same experiences," says Dr Heerde. "When they are here they can just be in the moment."

As one interviewee told the researchers, the dogs are like "a warm water bottle."

The pilot program, which involved 387 young people, was inspired by previous evidence that animal-assisted interventions can be effective in assisting emotionally distressed people, such as homeless women in shelters and youth dealing with trauma and substance abuse.

causes of homelessness

But in addition to better supporting youth experiencing homelessness, Dr Heerde wants to understand the factors driving homelessness, and the effects of being homeless, to come up with better interventions and policies to prevent it. In particular she is analysing data from the ongoing International Youth Development Study (IYDS), that began surveying participants in 2002, to try and identify the potential predictors and outcomes of homelessness.

The IYDS is a joint Australian and US survey of almost 6,000 young people across Victoria and Washington states that began interviewing participants at ages 10-11 and who are now in their mid-20s. It aims to track the factors that drive the health and behaviours of young people, including the frequency of transitions in accommodation and homelessness. This is gold for Dr Heerde.

"Those experiencing homelessness are a very transient population, which makes it very hard to track them over time. But with the IYDS data we can track homelessness. It means I can use it look at homelessness as an outcome and then track back to look at what has happened from early adolescence that may have been an influencing factor."

People experiencing homelessness are a difficult population for researchers to track. Picture: Christian Spies/Unsplash

One of the key factors starting to come out of her analysis is family environment. "Family conflict and poor family management practices, such as parents simply not knowing what their adolescents are up to or where they are, is correlated with the subsequent experience of homelessness," says Dr Heerde.

Other factors include school disengagement, as reflected in truancy or low achievement at school, as well as anti-social behaviour with peers, like fights or substance use.

Can happen to anyone

Anyone from any circumstance can experience homelessness, but these correlations she says suggest that early intervention programs aimed at fostering family, school and community connections may pay dividends. Programs that could be considered include family programs, peer tutoring, counselling for families, and drug and alcohol reduction strategies.

"We need to be looking at how we engage young people and their families at an early stage," she says. "If we can invest early we can make a difference.

"But we also need to remember that homelessness can affect anyone at any time, depending on how people's circumstances fall."

For Dr Heerde, tackling homelessness is also about addressing its outcomes. Experiences of trauma and maltreatment are commonplace for these young people, she says.

"The development of safe and trusting relationships with others is important in finding the strength to get through the difficult times.

"The dogs may be an important factor in assisting these young people to begin to develop these positive relationships."

It is a reminder that we are all vulnerable in hard times and we shouldn't take for granted the power of connection, even if it is a furry one that comes with a lick.

Frontyard Youth Services is one of Victoria's largest integrated services assisting people aged 12-25 years who are experiencing homelessness, are at risk of homelessness, or are disengaged. Part of Melbourne City Mission, Frontyard's services include early intervention, crisis support, health and wellbeing support, legal assistance, income support and education, employment and training programs.

Banner Image: Paul Burston