David Graham, better known as “Farmer Dave”, helps vulnerable teenagers gain skills, build self-worth and foster a new lease on life via a transformational youth program called RuffTrack, in Sydney’s north west.
“Our remit is to keep kids alive, out of prison and skilled – to allow them to follow their hopes and dreams,” says David. “Kindness and positive reinforcement are a big part of RuffTrack’s philosophy.”
Connecting kids with animals to foster responsibility and trust, RuffTrack has helped lower local youth crime and reduce levels of family violence. The aim is to boost at-risk teenagers’ practical know-how and help them re-engage with their education and the community.
Based on farmland at Riverstone, RuffTrack, which is part of a network of similar organisations, harnesses the power of animals to nurture change and hope in at-risk young people. Participants aged 13-17 are paired with a dog, allowing them to form a bond and bolster responsibility and self-reliance.
“That opens up a window, helps break down those barriers,” says David. “It teaches them how to do no harm to others, and how to communicate effectively without conversation. Often, there's been a lot of damage done by humans to our young people. Language and words have been used in a way that can create a lot of pain.
“Dogs, through their non-verbal communication, can open up a whole new form of conversation – a whole new way of communicating. It's pretty hard to be angry at a gorgeous little fluffy creature that really just wants to be with you, wants to learn from you and wants to share a journey with you.”
RuffTrack’s animals – which also include a horse, alpacas, guinea pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks and sheep – are involved in a diverse range of activities. Participants train and work with a dog to herd sheep and participate in community outreach programs and performances in schools. The teens also learn carpentry, woodwork, horticulture, animal husbandry and metal fabrication, while building a connection to country.
“It's all built around the idea that education should be engaging,” says David. “And to give them basic knowledge to be able to work in any field in the future.”
RuffTrack, which began in 2019, is increasingly needed. David, who works closely with local police and schools, says kids are often referred by caseworkers and parents. The team, however, can only take in six teens at a time. “We have a fairly gigantic waitlist, unfortunately,” he says.
Helping young people move on from the past
Kie, 17, says the program has changed his life. “I was getting in trouble with the law quite often,” he says. “If it wasn't for RuffTrack, I would still probably be in lock-up, I reckon. RuffTrack has given me a lot of freedom to get back into the community and be trusted in the community again.”
Kie says he is now inspired to work with young people when he leaves the program. “There's a lot of kids that are in my situation,” he says. “And you can help other kids like me, in care, or who have had really bad trauma growing up.
“Being part of RuffTrack is unexplainable. It's the best thing ever knowing I have these people and this opening, this choice, in the world. To work with dogs and move on from our past and learn how to change our lives for the better.”
David, a professional animal behaviourist who grew up on a farm in Queensland, has had a high-profile career, appearing on TV shows such as Big Brother and Dancing with the Stars. A father of three, he believes helping others is the circle of life.
“I've been so fortunate to have the most incredible life,” he says. “To return the favour of humanity to young people who may not have the influences to direct them to the best life is fulfilling beyond words. It is indescribable.”