With a cuddle, a pat or lying his head on a leg, therapy dog Fly can help calm and bring a smile to the face of a young person suffering with poor mental health.
Fly, who turns two on Friday, is one of the newest members of staff at headspace, working with owner Julie Jammet who is a psychologist with the service.
"Studies have shown that people, and young people in particular, are a lot more engaged with you if you have a dog. It promotes pro-social behaviour of being engaged, being involved, talking about the dog, getting a cuddle and giving a pat that creates a bond in that space," Ms Jammet said.
"Having a dog in therapy, compared to not having a dog in therapy, or just having a dog in general means you are more likely to have reduced stress hormones and increased oxytocin which is the feel-good chemical."
Ms Jammet, who previously worked with patients with quite severe mental health presentations at BHS, recognised the value of having a therapy dog working with her.
"Sometimes it's really hard to disclose trauma or very difficult information to someone you've only just met for the first time. ... and Fly helps build more engagement and more trust.
"Working with him here for a couple of weeks it's amazing the difference he makes. When I bring people in first I interact with them in the waiting room then when they come in and see him, and he puts his head on a restless leg, suddenly there's a smile on their face.
"A therapy dog offers unconditional affection and unconditional love ... and his favourite job if you sit down on the floor is to come and lay on you and give you a cuddle."
We do see a lot of young people with quite complex presentations and having Fly makes such a difference.- Julie Jammet
Ms Jammet began training her "COVID pup" for his future role as soon as she got him.
"He was eight weeks old and I had him one or two weeks before the first COVID lockdown which means we couldn't really go out and do training in public spaces, so we started with the basics.
"I had two sessions of puppy school before lockdown so I had an idea what to do, but I also watched YouTube videos and taught him basic obedience training, basic commands then we socialised when we could."
Unlike most dogs, and like most border collies, Fly was less interested in food as a reward during training and more motivated by a ball or toy.
"Squeaky toys are his kryptonite," she laughed.
After mastering basic obedience the pair began visiting therapy dog training in February this year.
"I had to do a few online courses first because it's not just about training him, it's about me as a handler as well so it was all quite intense."
After completing the various courses, and several three-day training sessions with dog and handler in Melbourne, their final training and assessment was scheduled in May, but COVID lockdowns saw the final assessment cancelled four times and finally, last month, they were able to complete it.
Final assessment included proving the dog was under control in all kinds of overstimulating environments, role play scenarios including angry people yelling at them, and a day of community visits which included going to shopping centres, nursing homes and other venues.
IN OTHER NEWS
Fly now accompanies Ms Jammet to headspace three days a week, but she keeps an eye on him to see how he's coping.
"I'm here three days a week and so is he for as long as he's happy, but if he starts to feel a bit tired or burnt out he'll have some days off to rest. As a handler I have to really pay attention to make sure the dog is still happy and still wants to work.
"I'm part of the specialist young program within headspace. headspace deals with more mild to moderate mental health presentations but my program is a bit more acute, bridging that gap between mental health hospital admission.
"We do see a lot of young people with quite complex presentations and having Fly makes such a difference."
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