A unique Australian program aims to prevent anti-social behaviors by counseling children as young as six years of age who have committed animal cruelty. The BARK (Building Animal Relationships with Kids) program for young offenders in Malaga, a suburb of Perth, wants to stop what director Kedy Kristal calls the “cruelty connection” between children harming animals and then growing up to commit violence against humans.
The seven week program, designed for children aged six to 12, teaches empathy, trust, respect and responsibility toward animals. Most of the children are referrals from the Department of Child Protection after having been placed in foster care, or are from domestic violence shelters.“The children might have had a pet who they had to leave behind because they’ve left their home due to violence, or they’re starting to treat animals with cruelty because that’s what they’ve seen Dad do,” Kristal told the Australian news media. “Don’t just put it down to children not understanding what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s not OK just to leave it and say it’s just children messing around, because there usually is a deeper reason.“Young people are very open to role model and peer encouragement and learning new information. It’s about getting in there really early and re-educating them about how to treat animals and then how to treat other people.”The BARK therapy group is run by the Patricia Giles Centre, which also has “Safe Families, Safe Pets,”a fostering service for dogs when families have to go into a domestic violence shelter, and is held at the regional RSPCA office. Safe Families Safe Pets is funded by the Attorney General’s office and coordinates and supports families who need to have their dogs fostered for up to three months.