Case Study

Lort Smith

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Lort Smith

Project Overview

Lort Smith
Melbourne | 2019

Key Achievements

  • 2019 VicHealth Award finalist. The VicHealth Awards are the state’s accolade for health promotion, recognising the efforts of local grassroots projects to state-wide campaigns and everything in between.

Key Services
Theory of change | Impact measurement and management | Evaluation | Research

Lort Smith has a legacy of showing compassion towards pets and people in their community. They do this by providing world-class animal healthcare and wellbeing services and advocating for the human-animal bond. Lort Smith’s Pet Therapy program is an example of this. Volunteers, accompanied by their own specially assessed pets, visit hospitals, aged-care facilities, disability services and other centres to improve the wellbeing of those experiencing illness, adversity, loneliness and provide relief to visiting family and facility staff.

About the pilot program

In 2018, a Parkville College staff member approached Lort Smith with the concept of introducing their pet therapy program into the Parkville Youth Justice Precinct. Well-designed animal assisted prison programs have been shown to reduce recidivism and equip offenders with social, life and employability skills (McDermott 2016). Lort Smith, the Department of Justice and Community Safety (DJCS) and Parkville College subsequently worked together to pilot having volunteer-dog teams visit juvenile offenders on remand or sentenced at Parkville College. The aim of the pilot was to collect preliminary evidence into the impact of dog presence in the precinct.

'This program offers comfort and combats loneliness. When the dogs visited yesterday, two of them gravitated towards a student who had a series of bad days and was not in a great headspace. It was as if they knew he needed support and love. I watched his face light up and his armour drop in a way I'd never seen before. This program demonstrates how little things make a difference' – Parkville College teacher

About the evaluation

Lort Smith commissioned our evaluation services to understand outcomes for young people on remand and sentenced at the facility as well as secondary beneficiaries such as Parkville youth workers and Lort Smith volunteers. The project involved data collection from various stakeholder groups including the young people, volunteers, observers and Lort Smith volunteers to tell a holistic story of the impact of the pet therapy program. The project also worked to align outcomes determined from the evaluation to those from the Department of Justice and Community Safety to demonstrate how the project fits into the broader outcomes for justice in Victoria.

Evaluation findings

The evaluation findings revealed outcomes for young people on remand or sentenced at Parkville College, Lort Smith volunteers and Parkville College staff. As a result of the pilot, young people experienced increased happiness and compassion, improved interactions and communication skills and improved self-regulation and engagement with educational activities. Volunteers experienced an increased sense of enrichment and staff experienced improved workplace satisfaction.

'The dogs calm us down. We all respect them and like having them here. If we are calm and happy, they are too. We treat each other better when they are around' – young person

Critical success factors

The evaluation also revealed three critical success factors that contributed to the success of the pilot:

  • Lort Smith volunteer neutrality in a non-neutral, often adversarial space helped young people feel more at ease and able to let their guard down.
  • Given the volatility and institutionalised nature a youth justice facility often embodies, having volunteers who are flexible, open-minded, passionate and empathetic proved to be critical.
  • Because of the unpredictable nature of the facility, it was important that visits were flexible and responsive to the day-to-day happenings.

References: McDermott, C. (2016), To explore animal therapeutics in the rehabilitation of youth in the juvenile justice system, Churchill Fellowship Report, pp. 1-47.

'Because of our role we aren’t met with hostility. If we were trying to do anything that was therapeutic, we would be met with resistance. We aren’t trying to do anything. Volunteers have a neutral stance. They understand you are there with the dogs and just normal members of the community, not paid' – volunteer

Our collaborators in impact