For some of the children, it was their first time playing with a dog. (ABC South East: Bec Whetham)
“This is a poddy lamb. Anybody know what a poddy lamb is?” Champion kelpie trainer Joe Spicer goes on to explain, they are young lambs needing a home after losing their parents.
The concept goes almost unnoticed on his young and unassuming crowd of children living in foster care or other out-of-home scenarios.
On this day Mr Spicer has agreed to run a ‘Wagging School’, a chance for at-risk young people living in South Australia’s south-east region to connect with working dogs in a meaningful way.
A chance for kids to be kids
For some of the 15 children taking part, it is their first time on a farm or meeting a working dog.
Carer Chris says they likely never had the chance before.
“They’ve come from families that have not had a lot given to them, so this is a very rewarding day for them,” Chris says.
Something Dani Atkinson knows all too well as regional manager of foster care services at AC Care Limestone Coast.
In the 200 square kilometre radius they cover, 169 children are placed in 70 foster homes.
A day on a farm provides opportunities for kids to experience normal kid things. (ABC South East: Bec Whetham)
While the terms of their stay vary from emergency to respite, short term to long term, Ms Atkinson says every moment counts.
“It’s those positive, enduring, and endearing experiences that the kids get to enjoy that they’ll remember forever,” Ms Atkinson says.
For some, their first birthday party or trip to the beach has been in foster care.
“Things that they wouldn’t have had before whereas many other children … that’s just a given for them,” Ms Atkinson says.
Dogs ‘critical’ during hardship
While some of the children have had pets before, none of them had interacted with dogs like this.
As well as a lot of puppy cuddling, a large part of the day was learning how kelpies work and some basic commands.
“It’s just amazing to watch the connection between the kids and the dogs and they just love each other,” Mr Spicer says.
Kelpie trainer Joe Spicer teaches the kids how the dogs think and interact with the sheep. (ABC South East: Bec Whetham)
So much love for each other that one carer thought she may have to check the van before leaving.
“We’ll have to count them before we go home and make sure there’s none missing,” Chris says.
The kids had a whole day to get to know the dogs and gain each other’s trust. (ABC South East: Bec Whetham)
One woman who knows the impact kelpies can have is Kingston farmer Lucy McCourt-Pearce.
She shared with the kids over lunch how “critical” dogs have been throughout her journey with cancer, which started as a teenager.
“There’s nothing better than when you’re feeling stressed. I like to let all my dogs off and just be with them. It makes everything better, all the time, guaranteed,” Ms McCourt-Pearce says.
“They do so much more than what I think we give them credit for.”
Kelpies have been a saving grace for Lucy McCourt-Pearce throughout her journey with cancer. (ABC South East: Bec Whetham)
Mr Spicer explains their power like this:
“We don’t have to really give the dogs anything except for our time and they’re happy with that and love us for who we are, and that’s why we love them so much,” Mr Spicer says.
They teach life skills too
While the puppy cuddles may have been a highlight, Mr Spicer was sure to remind the group that kelpies are working dogs above pets.
“Hopefully it will give these kids a little bit of direction in life, a little bit of discipline and to learn what it takes to train a dog,” Mr Spicer says.
Ms Atkinson says opportunities like this provide a great lesson in empathy.
“How to look after and care for and feel love for someone else, in this case the little puppies and dogs,” Ms Atkinson says.
In return, Ms Atkinson says the day was an opportunity for the children to receive love.
“Sometimes the children who come into care … they’ve had to absorb the role of being a parent, they may have had to provide some parental care for their siblings,” Ms Atkinson says.
“They’ve had an absolute ball. It’s been a fantastic day for them,” Chris says.
The day provided multiple insights for the kids, including the difference between girl and boy sheep. (ABC South East: Bec Whetham)
More foster carers needed
Ms Atkinson says the number of children requiring family care is constantly increasing.
“There’s a very dire need to get more carers in our local community because we really don’t have enough,” Ms Atkinson says.
She says the 70 carers they currently have range from single to married, gay to straight, and young to old.
“Seventy [carers] sounds great but when we’re in a population that covers up to 80,000 people it’s a smaller number,” she says.
“We’re very grateful of that number, but we’d love to see that number increase.”