Bernie Shakeshaft and his BackTrack program use bush skills to tame at-risk young men in northern New South Wales.

Story By Ken Eastwood

Wild young men. A pack of dogs. It sounds like a nasty news item waiting to happen. But when the Paws Up crew turns up to the Gunnedah Show, in northern New South Wales, in bright red shirts, with smiles on their faces, they professionally and efficiently set up their dog-jumping equipment, then put on a terrific show, the Kelpies and Border Collies jumping over a bar as high as a basketball hoop.
The boys, many of whom are teenagers with a history of jigging school or worse, know how to get the most out of the dogs, motivating them to jump higher and higher. Older, more experienced boys watch and instruct younger ones. And standing back in the shadows, quietly orchestrating the show, is their mentor, founder of Paws Up and its parent organisation BackTrack, Bernie Shakeshaft.
Tall and lanky, with faded denim-blue eyes, 44-year-old Bernie is happy to let his colleague Dusty Fenn take the microphone this time. “There’s three or four green blokes here who haven’t done much dog-handling stuff,” Bernie says. “The boys are pretty cocky and they don’t realise how quickly things can happen. They’re in front of a crowd and there are girls in the crowd, so they can get distracted.”
For the past six years, Bernie has been working with up to 60 young blokes at a time from the Armidale area, initially teaching them to work with dogs and put on the travelling show, but also giving them life skills, teaching them to weld, crutch sheep, fence, muster and ride horses. He helps organise work experience and further training and, for all this, Bernie was declared the Armidale Dumaresq Citizen of the Year on Australia Day this year.
Many of the boys who have been referred to Bernie, or have found him, have rough backgrounds, coming from generations of welfare dependency and unemployment, and some have wound up abusing drugs or in other trouble. “We should have 50 punch-ups a day,” he says. “These are kids who have been caught throwing chairs at teachers, or throwing teachers, and in six years we haven’t had one punch-up.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #84

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2012