Taking the lead in life

Sue Dansie labs n Life 0063

Labs ‘n Life is a unique educational and dog training program giving disadvantaged and disillusioned young people the skills and confidence they need to succeed in life, and it all started in the back yard of one Lewiston resident.

Sue Dansie has spent the best part of her life teaching and working with children and young people, and she also has a great passion and love of dogs – Labradors to be precise.

The Labs ‘n Life program was developed by Sue in 2007 after she realised the positive impact working with dogs could have on students at risk or in need.

A breeder of Labrador retrievers for around 20 years, Sue said the relationship between children and dogs was very special and was a great opportunity for disengaged students to achieve success, build confidence and participate in positive life experiences.

“The dog is a social facilitator,” Sue said. “That social facilitation is really important, it gives the students a real boost with what they’re doing.”

The program runs about 50 dogs across the state, with small group situations held at schools and community sites where students are involved in all aspects of dog training.

“We provide an opportunity for kids at risk to learn how to train Labradors to be companion dogs for kids with special needs,” Sue explained.

“It’s a two-pronged thing; we’re engaging kids who have problems going to school, for whatever reason, and at the same time we’re providing a dog for a child who needs support.

“The students see what they’re doing as something quite worthwhile to the community (and) they’ll end up training a dog that will help someone else.”

The program aims to train around eight companion dogs each year, with more than 140 children taking part in the process.

One of the program’s dogs recently featured in a magazine article where the story highlighted he had saved the life of a young autistic child on three separate occasions.

Sue said it was this kind of reinforcement, that what the program is about in the end – helping build relationships – that makes it all worthwhile, and the children involved in the program can feel they’ve played a part.

“The kids we are working with haven’t had a lot of success,” she said.

“So for them, success is hard.

“But training a dog, teaching a dog to just catch a bit of food, that’s success for them.

“And seeing the dog years down the track, seeing what it can and has done, that is really positive for them.”

Through the program literacy and numeracy aspects are constantly being reinforced, with Sue utilising every opportunity to engage the students in learning activities and using these as a “vehicle” for positive math and literacy learning.

Children eight years to young adults 23 years of age are involved, many from broken homes or disadvantaged backgrounds, and the program was an outlet for them.

Many high school students use the program as a way of working towards a Certificate 2 in Community Service while others gain SACE requirements. Others still have the opportunity to show the dogs at events like the Royal Adelaide Show.

“What we’re about is a positive life experience,” Sue said. “The kids will get that nurturing feel. We see kids picking these puppies up and nurturing them.

“The dogs really bring out the calmness and caring of the kids, they really recognise the kids (and) we look at the positive aspects of their personalities and also what the dogs themselves can do.”

The dogs involved in the program were initially picked from Sue’s own litters, but are now specially bred, with children helping to name them following a specific theme.

Some pups have been named in the nautical vein, like Brindabella, and Buccaneer, others have a Hollywood theme, others still are named after beaches or deserts.

It’s just one way Sue continues to incorporate learning aspects into the program.

“We’re value adding,” she said.

“It’s a matter of building a relationship and looking at what the kids can do, not what they can’t. Kids can then go on to mentor other kids in the program and it becomes a family for kids that perhaps haven’t had a real strong family presence.

“We teach relationships really and how you build a relationship, and it really does give them strength and confidence.”

As one Adelaide school involved in the program commented:

“Students have an area in their lives now that provides them with experiences in which they are 100 per cent successful. They are responsible for their dog and have developed a sense of belonging. They have an avenue to express affection in a safe environment. It is great to see students cuddling their dog with big smiles on their face. The Labs ‘n Life program has turned our students’ behaviour and outlook on school around.” – Wandana Primary School

• To learn more about this inspiring program visit the Labs ‘N Life website at www.labsnlife.com

Sue’s Recipe For Success

1:  Take an insecure young person who has had significant barriers to engagement in formal schooling

2: Add a loving Labrador Retriever, and LNL staff and volunteers

3: Add spoonfuls of patience, mutual respect, high expectations and fun

4: Stir in elements of literacy, numeracy, problem solving, effective communication, and IT and a curriculum written to the National Curriculum

5: Blend affiliation needs being met and a contribution to the community

6: Mix in a positive learning environment to enjoy success (with a trusted and loyal furry friend)

7: Bake in 2-3 hour sessions over a period of a number of terms

8: Decorate with the ribbons from success at dog shows and positive comments from peers

9: Garnish with mentoring other students, training a companion dog and showing the dogs in conformation shows

10: Package a more confident young person who has learnt how to train a Labrador to be a companion dog with the family of an autistic child

11: The ribbons are the “recognition of prior learning “towards a certificate 2/3 in Community Services and evidence for SACE accreditation

12: The bows are the companion dogs who “get” young people because they will have been trained by at least 30 before they are placed

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