8 Aug 2019

Backtrack boys. Saving troubled teens with working dogs

From Nine To Noon, 10:17 am on 8 August 2019

Keeping troubled teens "alive, out of jail and to help them chase their hopes and dreams" is how Bernie Shakeshaft describes his mission.

 He's a former stockman from Armidale in New South Wales who's set up a programme since 2006 that matches at risk teenagers with wild pups to train.

 Shakeshaft's story, complete with plenty of highs and lows, is told in a new documentary called Backtrack Boys that's being shown at the New Zealand International Film Festival.

He told Kathryn Ryan he lets the kids take full responsibility of a working dog with the idea that they help each other reach their full potential.

For the documentary, the filmmaker followed a group of boys, including Rusty, Zac and Tyson, in the program for two-and-a-half years, showcasing their struggles, triumphs and mistakes.

 “When we got [Rusty] he came from way out west, was living in a burnt out stolen car. He spent as much time on the streets as he has sleeping in a bed so there are a lot of things to unpack – he lost his mum when he was very young, giving birth to Rusty, that stuff was never kind of addressed,” Shakeshaft says.

“[The boys] can't read and write, have hardly been to school. They’re like wild little wolf pups.

“And the things they learned to survive on the street are the things we're trying to take out of them. It just takes us years, you know, the trust stuff is very difficult.”

Prior to joining the program, some of the kids were getting in trouble all the time with the authorities, and some as young as 10 years old end up going to jail too, Shakeshaft says.

“We've got a bit of a crisis in our country, where in 2014, they estimated that one in five kids of high school age, so under the age of 17, don't go to school, don't have a job, don't get any kind of training,” he says.

“The director of education says the kids that we're working with are the 5 percent of kids in Australia that you just don't worry about - they're going to die early, and they're going to go to jail - to me that’s unacceptable.

“[The film] gives you a really good look at why we have to hang in, you know, if we'd have given up on Tyson the first time he went to jail, he'd be headed for adult jail by now.”

 Now they’re getting the kids to train up the dogs and compete in contests, like high jumping or dock diving - to keep them away from making trouble during the weekends, form bonds and develop life skills.

“When we started looking, and it didn't take us long, when are they in trouble? It was Friday and Saturday nights,” Shakeshaft says.

The first show they attended went well, they won an event, so they decided to compete regularly, he says.

“I think in that first year, we did 35 weekends, and not one of those kids ended up back in court.

“We've been taking kids on the road for a long time. We've never had a spare seat, now we compete all over the countryside with our team of 30 dogs.”

Dock diving is a specialty for one of the dogs and kids in Backtrack.

“They run off a platform, like off the back of a truck, and it's how far the dog can jump in the air before he hits the swimming pool,” Shakeshaft says.

“We've got a dog in the top six in the world there at the moment. One of our young fellows has just got back from competing over in the US in the dock [diving competition].”

 He says the dog training is effective because the kids can get along with their animal partners without discrimination.

 “It's why it works, it's a clean slate when a kid comes through. The dog doesn't ask him ‘can you read or write?’ or has he been to jail, doesn't care what colour his skin is, it’s a fresh start. And so we start that day with the kid … [saying] the way you treat that dog will be the way he treats you.”

 And to pair them up well, Shakeshaft says there’s an interesting method they use.

 “First thing we do is just let a pack of dogs go. It's a really interesting thing, but the personality of the dog will match the personality of the kid, hands down, every time, it's a crazy thing to see.

“We learned so much about those kids in the first two minutes, just by letting a pack of dogs go. It's quite an amazing thing to see.”

At the end of the program, the kids leave with something gained more than just certificates and accolades, Shakeshift says.

“If you asked those kids, what backtrack is to them, most of them will say family, and I guess that's what it is. If they come from broken families where a family just either doesn't exist anymore or it's so dysfunctional that they can't get a kid to school, that's what we create.

 “I guess we're like uncles and aunties to all those young people, and we just hang in for the long haul.

 “With all the kids we've had over 13 years, and we're working with the most violent kids in our community, I think I've only ever seen two punches thrown down the shed. To me, that's when I [say] we're tracking them in the right direction here.”

 In addition to the dog training, the Backtrack Boys also have a full-time teacher and go to school for a couple of days during the week, they get to learn practical skills, from welding, to cutting firewood, fencing and more. Some of the kids have already gone on to get jobs, traineeships, apprenticeships and casual employment, Shakeshaft says.

 But it’s not always going to be a fairy-tale ending that everyone would hope for.

 “We see in the documentary, Zac made a mistake, he ended up [in jail] so once you’re 18 you go into the boys call it the ‘big house’, adult prison. And I think that was just a tragedy that unfolded.”