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Stronger Together

Stronger Together
Herdstrong co-founders Dylan Bradley and Jess Ryan. Supplied.

A Mid Canterbury couple have started a mental health initiative that utilises working dogs to aid connection and well-being across the agriculture sector.

Jess Ryan and Dylan Bradley founded Herdstrong after Dylan experienced a sense of isolation whilst working on a farm in the Mackenzie Country.

"Dylan left his job just before lockdown because he found he was struggling with his mental health and didn't feel like he had anyone to turn to," Jess says.

"It wasn't from a lack of friends, but from a lack of understanding."

Jess said it is common for farmers to tough it out and hope those feelings fade.

The pair met during lockdown in Auckland before moving to Darfield.

Both had struggled with mental health and had friends with similar experiences.

"We just kind of meshed together and knew we wanted to make a difference."

Headstrong, which Jess describes not as a business but more of a "passion project", is a space where people who are struggling can be open about speaking up about their mental health journey and learn how to have conversations with friends who may be struggling.

With working dogs as a catalyst, the pair are looking at farm dog training days to get farmers off-farm and connect with like-minded people.

"Dog training can provide a common topic of conversation and serve as a social lubricant.

"Life on the farm is often isolated, and everyone can benefit from a day out meeting like-minded people and sharing experiences.

"It's a good way to get farmers off-farm."

Working dogs can help farmers' well-being and, as companions, can decrease stress, improve mood and reduce depression, Jess says.

When farmers are stressed, however, dogs are often the first to take the brunt of their owner's frustrations, whether by a few harsh words in the yards or by less than adequate care.

By improving the health and well-being of our dogs, we, in turn, strengthen our own, Jess said.

"Some farmers still have dogs working 50 hours a week, but sleeping on a hardwood floor or in an apex kennel with a hole in the top."

A study of 641 working dogs between 2014 and 2018 conducted by Vet Life, in conjunction with Massey University, confirms this.

The study found that of the dogs that took part, 74 per cent had clinical abnormalities, such as arthritis which is unsurprising considering the average farm dog travels an estimated 20 kilometres each day.

Vaccination rates were shown to be low in adult working dogs, and with 85 per cent of dogs fed meat, worms were also an issue.

The study also reported that 86 per cent of dogs were housed in uninsulated kennels, 44 percent had  no kennel bedding, and 52 per cent were not given a coat at any stage.

The recommended temperature to house a dog is 20-26 degrees, and with temperatures in the South Island dropping below zero in winter, insulated kennels and jackets are a must for healthy working dogs.

"So we need to change that and normalise dogs with jackets on and in good quality kennels, with quality feed and supplements during busy periods, "Jess said.

Richard Emsley, owner and founder of Southern Cross Dog Kennels, was impressed with the Headstrong ethos and has been a big supporter of the project.

"If you are mentally fit when you wake up in the morning to do your job, the pressures of your job don't get to you, and you don't tend to neglect your priorities," Richard said.

Working dogs as a high labour unit should be a priority, but they are often undervalued.

"So the value of your own mental health goes down the chain to the rest of your working team, whether that is actual staff or your dogs."

Jess and Dylan rely on support from businesses such as Southern Cross Kennels to host off-farm dog training events and keep the initiative going.

Herdstrong merchandise sales keep the wheels turning, but funding remains a challenge.

The last order of merchandise cost the couple out of their savings.

"Headstrong is beginning to feel like a business, and that's not why we started it,” Jess said.

"It's not something we want to make money from.

"We are a young couple; we want to have kids in the next few years and buy a house.

"So we want to make a difference, but it can't come at our own cost."

Determined to keep going, Jess is planning the next Herdstrong "Back Your Pack" off-farm dog welfare and training day to encourage connection and improve the health and well-being of farmers and their dogs.

"We want to  give young working dog owners the vital tools for happy and healthy working dogs and 'grow our herd' by bringing together people in a neutral space who are mental health aware and are prepared to lend an ear and speak up if they sense something is a little off."

by Claire Inkson