Dog training helps troubled Aussie teens get lives back on track

ARMIDALE, Australia (Reuters) - In a paddock in rural eastern Australia, Bernie Shakeshaft is working with man’s best friend to help troubled teens get their lives back on track and teach them new life skills.

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The station hand-turned-social worker started the program in 2006 with a group of volunteers, opening his own home as a place boys could turn their lives around.

The program pairs each boy with a dog to train and is a part of the BackTrack scheme, which has helped over 1,000 troubled teens in the city of Armidale, 375 km (233 miles) from Sydney.

On a winter’s day at Shakeshaft’s property, the boys train dogs of varying sizes and shapes, running and throwing tennis balls to them.

“Our mission is keep the kids alive, keep them out of jail and then chase their hopes and dreams”, Shakeshaft said.

Many of the teenagers lack family support and face challenges at school. Some have been in trouble with the law on several occasions.

Under the BackTrack scheme, they are taught welding, dog training, gardening or agricultural skills, and also receive math and English lessons.

Carl, 19, had been in and out of juvenile detention until he met Shakeshaft two years ago.

“Instead of going out on the streets, thinking that no one cares...well - you’ve got Bernie here,” said Carl.

“He told me to go out to his house and stay for a couple of weeks, and I did that...that’s the whole reason why I’m still here today.”

Kayden, 15, who had drug problems and stays at BackTrack from Monday to Friday, said his relationship with a dog named Gibson has really helped him.

“I go to him whenever I’m sad or down, and I need to just talk to someone. He helps, even though he can’t talk.”

Reporting by Jill Gralow, Writing by Natasha Howitt and Karishma Singh; Editing by Sam Holmes