Caring with canines

Author: Kristy Porter

 Sarah Macdonald

Teacher Sarah Macdonald discovered her love of learning later in life, but she always loved dogs. She has combined these loves to launch Canine Comprehension, a company that brings therapy dogs to schools to interact with children.  

Sarah uses therapy dogs to help young people get to a place where they are ready to learn, something she would have appreciated during her time at school.

“When I was a kid, I often hated being in the classroom. I found schoolwork difficult, boring and often pointless. I became even more frustrated when I did try to excel, as I would still receive average marks and was often left wondering what was the point of trying?” she said.

“After I left high school I scraped into university and studied an arts degree in history and politics. Through failure, persistence, some great tutors and time I started to learn how to learn. I started to learn how to write well. I started getting better marks and developed some self-belief. It dawned on me that although learning comes naturally to some kids, others need more help. Some kids need to be taught how to learn.”

Learning from experience

 Sarah Macdonald

After Sarah finished her degree she moved to Japan and taught English. This experience taught her to understand how different cultures approach learning and value education.

“When I returned to Australia, I went to ACU and gained a Master of Teaching. By this stage I understood my own learning style and enjoyed completing the master’s. The experience was fun and exciting because I had far more control of my learning than I ever had before,” she said.

“I also developed my educational philosophy and love of teaching. I took a job at a college in Melbourne, and I loved my time developing curriculum and helping students in the classroom, but I was yearning to do something a bit different.

“I found that in dog training. I had been training Minnie and Oscar as a hobby and decided to complete a professional dog trainers course. I was offered a job as a dog trainer. It was fantastic and allowed me to understand the learning process further. By teaching dogs to learn, and teaching adults how to become their dogs leaders, I got a unique perspective on the learning process.

“I also completed a course in animal assisted therapy. It was through this course that I really saw the possibilities of using dogs to assist in learning in exciting new ways. I always get excited when I start to explain the huge potential of combining teaching practices with animal assisted therapy.”

“For those, who like me, hated some of my classes – having a dog in the lesson acts as a silent but positive ray of hope when they are struggling to understand. A dog in the lesson motivates the student by taking the seriousness out of the air and replacing it with a friendly 'can do' attitude.”

Making a start

 Sarah Macdonald

Starting small Sarah could never have imagined what her company would become.

“I started this business with a hope to be able to tutor a few children a few days a week to supplement my part-time job. Boy has it grown. I never thought it would get to a stage where I would be running a company that can reach hundreds of young people all over Victoria. It's not just about growth, it's about the healthy way we have expanded the business and given each member of our team the training and trust to make a difference in so many young people's lives,” she said.

“I also never thought it would be possible to work with my dogs. They are my co-workers and always happy to start the day.”

The reality of care

Supporting a range of young people including those on the autism spectrum, facing medical difficulties, dealing with behavioural issues like verbal resistance, aggression, violence and other emotional issues such as anxiety, fear and depression, means there are challenges as well as triumphs.

“I had a young person I was working with who was in residential care. He was a hard case to reach, and it had taken me and my therapy dog Oscar a long time to build trust and rapport. I remember going to his unit to be told that due to an incident the night before he had now been moved. I was able to find out where he was and went straight there. As the move had happened so quickly, he didn't even have time to pack his bag, he had nothing with him. I was able to come in with Oscar and have a chat about the recent events and where to go from here. I realised how important flexibility was in this job. I was able to support him in a fashion he needed, in a timeframe he needed and although his world was constantly in flux Canine Comprehension was able to be the continuous support he craved,” Sarah said.

“This young man is all grown up now and I am proud of the person he is becoming. I know we have taught him a lot, but he has taught me so much more about how we can be there for young people to listen, try to understand, and just give them space to be themselves.

“Now I see the tutors who work for me experiencing these types of relationships and I am so glad that I grew the business to a place where young people were being helped by more than just myself. We are able to reach so many more young people now and that makes me feel great.”

Overcoming challenges

While Canine Comprehension is now a thriving company, Sarah readily admits her success did not come without having to overcome significant hurdles.

“Human resources are a really tough thing to get right.  There have been times in the past when people haven’t been a good fit, and I tend to take issues with staff very personally.  I know I shouldn’t, but I do,” she said.

“The balance has been a particular challenge recently due to Covid-19 putting extra financial and mental strain on my team. Right now, we have a fantastic workforce. We have an administration office that is laser focused on getting processes and procedures right, so we are prepared for future growth. Our tutors are a wonderful group of teachers, allied health professionals and social workers who add a rich tapestry of knowledge and experience to the team. They are all generous people willing to share their advice and support one another.

“Honesty and transparency are vital in any relationship. A working relationship is no different. I want to be real and honest with my team – if I am struggling with something, I let them know. If I make a mistake, I am upfront about how I plan on fixing it. If I get something wrong, I will apologise. It's how every human being should be treated and expect to be treated. So, I expect the same back from my team.  Once you have a respectful and honest working relationship that goes both ways, mistakes are turned into learning opportunities and everyone feels respected and safe enough to keep challenging themselves and growing.

Success and surprises

Sarah and her work have been recognised many times. She has been awarded the Commonwealth Bank Australian of the Day and was the Silver Stevie Award Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Asia, Australia or New Zealand in 2019. Last year, Canine Comprehension was nominated in the Animal Assisted Learning (AAL) Category at the Animal Assisted Therapies Ltd Conference Awards and was a finalist at the Australian Small Business Champion Awards. In 2021 they won the Australian Achievers Award for excellence in customer relations.

Sarah has plans for the future but not as grand as they once were. When asked where she saw herself in 10 years, she admitted that things have changed since Covid-19.

“I would have said before the pandemic that it's all about growth. That we would be in other states around Australia and growing and growing. As the company has had to go into hibernation a few times during the pandemic I have had a chance to reflect, and I don't think I need to conquer the world one therapy dog at a time anymore.  My focus now is to have a team that is administratively supported and well trained so they are confident in the work they do and can continue to help children. Whether that is a staff of 10 or 1,000 – it's definitely quality over quantity now.”

And her advice for budding entrepreneurs?

“Keep momentum up. Don't look for perfection, it will slow you down and you'll become scared of making mistakes. Mistakes in business are great. They teach you so much about where you should be going. Try not to make the same mistake twice though. Keep making different ones and keep learning from them,” Sarah said.

“Also seek the advice of a business mentor. I have had business mentors that have given me a totally different perspective about what is possible for my business but also for my work life balance. Friends, family and work colleagues are great to bounce ideas off, however someone who is outside of the company, who has experience managing and leading is really able to bring fresh eyes and give clarity.”

Sarah is the winner of the Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership Alumni Award in ACU’s Alumni Awards 2021.

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