All super heroes wear a cape, but this one has a fur coat as well; meet Mika the newest team member at healthAbility, a Whippet cross Kelpie employed as a Therapy Dog. The benefits of Therapy Dogs is being widely recognised across the world; they are helping in lots of settings such as classrooms, courtrooms alongside counsellors to help people affected by trauma. They offer emotional support through comfort and distraction, often reducing the client’s anxiety and helping them to relax. Mika’s owner and partner on the Reconnect Program is Counsellor Luke Mitchell, and together they’re working with and supporting youth at risk of homelessness in the Banyule and Nillumbik area.

Luke is part of a team of youth workers at healthAbility helping to ensure our younger generation stay connected to their school, family, friends and broader community in order to reduce their need or urge to leave home. Luke’s presently supports twenty-six clients between the ages of 12-19. He says, “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. A recent survey in the 2013, Youth Homelessness Report says there’s about 100 homeless and youths across Banyule and Nillumbik and 700 at risk of homelessness or couch surfing on any one night. Then you have kids living in situations that aren’t safe either for themselves or their family. It might be challenges with their family, financial, maybe mental health, anxiety, depression, drugs and alcohol or family violence; every client’s situation is different. Sometimes it can be the young person themselves causing the family disturbance.”

Luke has been amazed what a positive experience working with Mika has been and how he has influenced his practise since joining him in March this year. “He is like a magnet for the teens, they love him.” Luke says, “It’s about using the dog as a tool to engage the young person, Mika helps to calm and relax them. I think they are quicker to open up and they probably trust me more because they see I am looking after the welfare of a dog. I also use him as a great indicator of where that young person’s at by the way Mika greets them. He may put his head on their lap or at their feet, or in some cases he gets up and wants to leave the room. It’s not a rejection of the young person as such. Usually he’s saying that they don’t want to sit in that space any more, prompting me to say, ‘Mika needs to go for a walk’.

“Mika loves to get outside and the teens are usually quite happy to do that and they take the lead. Normally, they’re a lot more comfortable outside of the office environment because no matter what age you are it can be quite confronting to sit face-to-face talking about sticky topics.” 

Luke says it’s really beneficial to get out walking or driving, any activities which get the eyes moving side to side. “EMDR (Eye Motion Desensitisation Reprocessing) is very good for trauma. The movement of your eyes allows the part of your brain that has been affected by trauma to recall and process traumatic thoughts, which you are then able to talk through. Mika comes to work with me now two and a half days a week. I don’t use him in all environments or with all clients, only when the client’s have consented and only where it is appropriate; last week we happened to have an appointment at a bowling alley! More often though we meet at the student’s school to reduce their time away from classes. I also meet with their teachers, siblings and family to help support that young person.

A ready-made therapy dog can cost upwards of $10,000 so Luke hoped for the best and adopted a rescue pup with compatible temperament and sought training and accreditation for himself and Mika through the K9 Support Program in Benalla, funded through School Focused Youth Service.

“When Mika is working with me he’s very gentle and calm, but it can be really intense for him.  I learnt about how this work affects the dog and how to take care of his welfare and needs too. When Mika’s at home with my family and his therapy jacket comes off, he’s a very different dog.”