Four-legged counsel

Dogs are delivering an exciting new program to students in Tenterfield and Emmaville to help them through the rough spots of adolescence.

WAGS youth worker Penny Lamaro with (from left) Jade Wright and Tommy, Kurt Page and Winstone, Jake Ryan and Scarlet, Tamika McDonald and Dottie, and Matthew Kirk and Lulu.

WAGS youth worker Penny Lamaro with (from left) Jade Wright and Tommy, Kurt Page and Winstone, Jake Ryan and Scarlet, Tamika McDonald and Dottie, and Matthew Kirk and Lulu.

WAGS is an innovative program connecting kids with their own version of success. A pack of highly-dedicated special dogs is making regular visits to a number of schools in the district each week, accompanied by experienced youth worker Penny Lamaro.

The program offer students an opportunity to learn dog training skills, showing them how to be good leaders and how to connect with the community around them.

Working with the animals also allows the handlers to defuse some tension.

“If I’m feeling agitated and angry, I go back to class feeling relaxed,” Jake Ryan said.

Mrs Lamaro usually brings a team of eight dogs with her, a combination of mostly Border Collie or Kelpie purebreds. While it seems during class they are being taught basic obedience skills, they are actually highly-trained dogs especially chosen for a demanding job.

After helping the students they get a chance to go home and chase some sheep around a paddock or do an agility course to “straighten out their brain,” Mrs Lamaro said.

“You’ve got to find out what works for each dog,” she said.

Mrs Lamaro said the schools nominate students who are becoming disengaged. Teachers also get to experience these special classes, which teaches handlers how to read signals, be a leader, be clear with instructions and to be assertive rather than aggressive.

Kurt Page takes some time-out along with Winstone.

Kurt Page takes some time-out along with Winstone.

The program has been running for around six months , with the students now starting to read their dog’s personality but it’s a two-way street.

“The dogs choose the kids,” Mrs Lamaro said, “ and it’s amazing how the personalities match.

“If you know the dog, you know the kid and how to relate to them.”

She said the students come to recognise this as well.

“They can see if their dog’s amazing, then what are they doing that’s also amazing. If their dog needs something from them, then what do they also need?”

At the primary school level the students instead can read to the dogs while they have a cuddle, often working off some energy in the process.

At the end of a session everyone sits around and has the opportunity to open up and talk about things they’re finding hard to deal with, even if it’s only to the dog.

“”They can tell their dog anything,” Mrs Lamaro said.

“It won’t tell anyone.”

The students learn that why they may not be able to change their situation, they can change to way they think about it. There are no restrictions on what they can say.

“I put them in control,” Mrs Lamaro said.

“We don’t have rules we have agreements. It’s important not to back these kids into a corner.”

She finds the students are protective of the dogs, are polite and enjoy a positive adult interaction. 

“If you can get their empathy, they can be your biggest champion,” she said.

WAGS youth worker Penny Lamaro with some of her special associates.

WAGS youth worker Penny Lamaro with some of her special associates.

The service currently visits Tenterfield High School and Emmaville Central School weekly during term, on a regular and highly-reliable basis.

“If you say you’re going to do it, you have to do it,” Mrs Lamaro said.

She excited that more funding is becoming available for the program, supporting subsidies which may improve accessibility for more schools.

The students also make leads and collars which are sold through the WAGS website  www.wagsthedog.org), and sometimes put on an obedience show for other students, for a gold coin donation.

Here’s some of the action from a recent session…