Jayk Hansford with his special friend. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
Here's how 14-year-old Cameron Power describes himself and his school life so far: ''A bit of a stuff-around.'' But you'd never know it today, watching him work a little black Labrador called Bella in a spacious concrete and cyclone wire pen at Lockwood, just south of Bendigo.
Cameron puts her through an obstacle course: Over and under a couple of hurdles, through a short tunnel, across a twisting fibreglass bridge and - a new one for Bella - through the narrow gap between a drum and the fence. Bella is smart and eager to please. Cameron is gentle, encouraging and patient. When she baulks at the bridge and the drum he keeps urging her on with enthusiastic, optimistic commands until she gets it right. When she finishes he lavishes her with praise and both their smiles exude a sense of achievement and pride.
No stuff-around there. Cameron, from Weeroona College at White Hills, Bendigo, spends a day a week at Lockwood, helping train dogs with Righteous Pups Australia, a unique not-for-profit organisation with a mission to raise, socialise and train autism-assistance dogs to do a variety of practical tasks for children with autism spectrum disorders and their families.
Righteous Pups For Love
From left: Catherine Peters, Jayk Hansford, Cameron Power, Nicholas Coates, Lachlan Murdoch and puppies from Righteous Pups Australia. Photo: Meredith O'Shea
But Righteous Pups has double-barrelled benefits, explains founder Jo Baker. Not only do the dogs improve recipients' lives, giving greater levels of independence, self-esteem and improvement in psychological well-being, but they do the same for the school children who help train them.
Cameron is one of the organisation's SWAT (Specifically Working with At-risk Teens) team - secondary students struggling at school with academic or behavioural issues, especially those with depression or anger-related issues. ''I was getting into a bit of a mess and being a bit of a stuff-around and they thought it would be good for me to get out of the classroom for a day and maybe learn some new skills,'' he says. ''I didn't know anything about this, but I got a whole heap of information forms and thought, oh yeah, it looked pretty good to do.''
Catherine Peters, 12, from Bendigo South East College, hugs her favourite, a golden lab called Jones, as she tells how she was getting into fights at school and having concentration problems. ''But I love animals and the school asked me to come here on a Wednesday,'' she says. ''Righteous Pups helped me because now I have something that's happy to think about.''
Lachlan Murdoch, 14, also from BSEC, says he is a hard worker but easily loses concentration, so was struggling at school: ''Here it's cool, looking after the dogs, the people. I like the attention, the love that they give out to you, just their playfulness.''
Cameron says there's a lot to be proud about in their work with the dogs: ''I like the fact that you can train them and help them work out and knowing that you've trained a dog that will one day be helping someone in need. That's a pretty good feeling.''
Ms Baker says the kids' success with the dogs is reflected back at school. ''They're engaged in community. They're playing a part in blessing someone down the line and they've had a wow of a time in the process. They go back into school no longer as someone with low self-esteem.''
Cameron agrees. He says he was getting into arguments with his teachers. "Now they say I am building much better - but they reckon I've still got that part that's a bit of a stuff-around," he adds with a cheeky smile.
■ Righteous Pups Australia receives funds from Melbourne's Newsboys Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that has been supporting young Victorians for 120 years.