September 2018 was a pivotal moment in Kelly Barnes life. Working casually for the National Centre for Farmer Health, her path crossed with suicide prevention researcher, Dr Alison Kennedy, who was running Digital Storytelling workshops in rural Victoria. Kelly joined in on a workshop, creating a short movie using photos and videos of her life focusing on her mental health struggles and her battle with chronic pain and fatigue.
“I have a chronic pain condition called Fibromyalgia. The easiest way to describe it is you have a hypersensitive nervous system, so you react to pain and external stimulus on a much larger scale,” she says. “I was looking through pictures of my life to put together my story, and realised they were mostly photos with my dogs. It just made me really think about how much I loved having dogs around; how I take them everywhere with me and they make me more confident and less anxious.”
Attending the workshop alongside Kelly was Alex Thomas, the winner of the 2018 Agrifutures’ South Australian Rural Women’s Award. The two stayed in contact, sparking the next step of a research project forming in Kelly’s mind.
“I’d been interested in how farmer information workshop type groups not only offer information, but also a social wellbeing aspect where they interact and get together,” Kelly says. “I was pondering how you could evaluate how these groups affect producer wellbeing. Looking at all my photos with dogs, I realised there could be something meaningful in researching working dogs and their relationship with farmers.”
The result has been Kelly’s concept, Mates Working Dog School – a working dog school to build low stress stock handling skills and to create a strong bond between dogs and their owners. Offering social connections and networks with like-minded producers, the project offers tangible skills and a day of interaction off the farm.
“It’s quite interesting because I deal with mostly male farmers every day, and they’ve all been really interested, so it’s been quite amazing,” she says. “I’d like to scale the project. I want to get some good data from this pilot program, then go to funding bodies and be able to roll the project out nationally. The idea is then to make it accessible to run multiple locations in regional Australia.”
Kelly hopes to roll the pilot program out by the end of the year, enlisting the help of dog trainer Ian O’Connell to run the six full-day sessions. “Ian has been running dog schools for 20 odd years, he’s amazing at it,” she says. “He’ll do the dog side and I will incorporate the social and emotional wellbeing side of things within those days, ensuring producers are interacting within the group activities. Each day there will be an aspect of building resilience, tying in with the dog.”
Kelly has adored dogs her entire life. Growing up on a mixed cropping farm in High Wycombe, south east England, she acquired her first working dog after she left university while working on a sheep property for a year. Travelling to New Zealand and then onto Australia in 2007, the then 24-year-old bought a kelpie, Dugald, who has been by her side ever since. “Working in shearing sheds and as a station hand, I really struggled without a working dog,” she says. “He’s pretty much been everywhere with me ever since and having him helped me get a lot more stock work.”
Travelling between shearing sheds and stations across Western Australia and Victoria, the intrepid stockie took up permanent residence in Victoria in 2010. She contracted for a number of farms, before the diagnosis of her condition in 2015 forced her to look for alternative work. “The hardest part is the loss of my previous life; not being able to do everything that you like doing. I love the farm work, but I just physically couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. “I had always been quite fit, active and strong, and it took away my identity. Everything I knew that I associated with being good at in my job was taken away. It’s so difficult to explain, as people think you’re just lazy, as it’s not something that’s physically obvious.”
Chronic pain conditions often have a draining impact on the sufferer’s mental health. Diagnosed with depression in 2008, Kelly says it was her dog that kept the darkest of days at bay. “Living on my own, Dougald boosts my mood and gives me company. Because of my condition I spend a lot of time on the weekends on the couch resting, and he’s always there,” she says. “He’s 13 now, and has had quite a few injuries, so I really relate to his slow pace. He gets me out to take him for walks and we have a real affinity. I started thinking, there’s a lot of people that live on their own or they live on a farm and they spend most of their time just with their dogs. It’d be good to help foster that relationship, so they’ve always got that go-to for company.”
Despite COVID-19 raining on her presentation parade, the 37-year-old says winning the Victorian Rural Women’s Award has offered an extraordinary shift in her perspective of herself. “It really boosted my confidence because I didn’t really know if other people would think it was a good idea and going through the application process and brainstorming and fine tuning it, you really get all this backing and then all these people saying what a good idea it is,” she says. “You think, I’ve got something here, I’m actually worth something. I have got value and I’ve got something to give. Fibro had taken my original sense of that away and this backs you up when you are questioning yourself and questioning your ideas.”
She’s enthusiastic for others thinking about applying for the next round of the award. “I had a previous winner contact me, because I put in a really rubbish application the year before and it was really vague. She said, ‘I’m happy to help you brainstorm’. There is so much support there. You don’t have to have a fine tuned amazing idea; you just have to start and the process is designed to help you fine tune it along the way. There are so many people out there that will help you,” she says. “It’s easy to say because people say that to me all the time, but just have a go and get it out there. Keep having those incidental conversations and keep building on them.”