BackTrack founder Bernie Shakeshaft with his kelpies and border collies

Jumping Hurdles

Rehabilitation, Reconnection and Catherine Scott’s BackTrack Boys

Documenting the setbacks and heartrending successes of the welfare program it is named after, Catherine Scott’s documentary shines a light on the power of community programs – and canine companions – to rehabilitate youths whom society has left behind, writes Hanna Schenkel.

As the screen fades in from black in the opening of Catherine Scott’s BackTrack Boys (2018), Bernie Shakeshaft emerges as the calm centre of a storm of activity, surrounded by his mongrel mix of kelpies and border collies. The pack, working dogs in the truest sense, are a joy to behold – full of energy and joy, and always ready for a cuddle. Leading them out into the paddocks, Shakeshaft appears relaxed and confident as he directs his animals with quiet, one-word commands. Though simple, it’s an opener full of metaphorical meaning about Shakeshaft and the work he does with his youth program, BackTrack,[1]See BackTrack official website, <>, accessed 10 August 2018. which helps young people mostly aged twelve to eighteen when others have given up on them: teenagers who are homeless, struggling with addiction, disengaged from traditional schooling and often in trouble with the law. Here, too, Shakeshaft acts as a source of calm and consistency – but this time, for kids who may have never known anything other than lives in constant turmoil.

The underlying concept behind BackTrack originated during Shakeshaft’s time as a jackaroo in the Northern Territory, where he learned the art of catching dingoes from a group of Aboriginal elders. In the film, he reflects on his surprise that, wherever they went, a pack of wild dingoes would soon appear; through this experience, he learned the concept of ‘backtracking’. Rather than chasing an animal via the marks it left, as Western trackers would do, the elders would focus on understanding where the animal had been to anticipate where it would appear in future. As Shakeshaft muses:

10 per cent figuring out where the dog was yesterday, 10 per cent on where it is right now, 80 per cent on where they want it tomorrow. All those years ago, I thought those old men were teaching me about catching wild dogs. [But] they were teaching me about how to catch wild kids.

Shakeshaft now uses the same approach at BackTrack, encouraging young people to spend 10 per cent of their energy on reconciling with their pasts, 10 per cent on remaining on track in the present, and 80 per cent on focusing on where they want to see themselves in the future. Teenagers from all over the country come to Armidale in regional New South Wales to take part in his program. Integral to his approach are his dogs; they offer non-judgemental companionship and love, as well as opportunities for the kids to experience responsibility for another living being.

It’s an approach that is proving invaluable for boys like Russell, whose journey at BackTrack is chronicled over the course of the documentary. At just twelve years old, the drinking and smoking preteen is looking down a dark path when he first arrives at Warrah, BackTrack’s part-time residential initiative that houses up to six boys at a time. Back home in Condobolin, he has made it onto the radar of local cops since he started sneaking out at night at the age of nine. Foul-mouthed and explosively angry, he’s been struggling at school because he can’t bear sitting still. His mother died when he was an infant, and his wellmeaning dad admits he has no idea what he’s doing. But, at BackTrack, Russell quickly bonds with Arco, the program’s largest dog (he is nearly Russell’s size). Arco helps him to calm down and, through training the enormous dog to follow his commands, Russell gradually builds self-esteem.

Former participant (now trainee youth worker) Zac

In BackTrack’s low-stress classroom, the so-called Paddock, teacher Sarah encourages Russell and the other boys to let go of their fear of learning and works to slowly catch them up with the Australian curriculum. Perhaps most importantly, at Warrah, Russell gets to experience a regulated and loving family-like environment – not just with the other boys, but also with community volunteers, who come to have meals and go shopping with the kids.

Particularly moving is the fact that Russell’s roommate Zac, a seventeen-year-old who has been in the program for years, takes the new kid under his wing, forming a brotherly bond that seems healing for both of them. In Zac, we see what Shakeshaft and his team work so hard to achieve. Despite his youth and difficult beginnings, which were not dissimilar to Russell’s, Zac presents as a true leader among his friends, often acting as a spokesperson when they introduce their program to lawmakers in Sydney or accompany their fourlegged companions as they perform in dog-jumping competitions around rural Australia.

It is BackTrack’s dog-jumping program, Paws Up, that provides the primary focus of Scott’s documentary – and it exemplifies perfectly how Shakeshaft succeeds through his unusual, multifaceted approach to youth work. The film’s first footage of the boys’ participation in competitions is again deeply metaphorical, showcasing how the physical tasks asked of both the animals and the boys translate readily into allegorical learning. The wooden obstacles the dogs are jumping may, at first, seem impossible to overcome for a small creature; however, through consistent training, and with the support of their trainers, the dogs manage to get higher and higher – some, in fact, becoming worldrecord holders in their discipline. The boys aren’t asking anything of the dogs they wouldn’t do themselves: they, too, jump up the giant wooden obstacles when they can. Where dog or kid doesn’t quite make it, their team is ready to catch them from below.

Apart from affording instances for learning teamwork, tenacity and self-esteem, the competitions have some more immediate benefits. For one, dog shows usually happen on Friday and Saturday nights – prime time for troubled teens to get themselves into strife. Moreover, they’re a convenient way for energised boys to physically exert themselves and goof off with mates. And, of course, the success the boys enjoy at the competitions gives them a sense of community as well as the approval – even applause – of the mostly elderly audience members, something boys like Russell and Zac would have never experienced before. In turn, these audiences get to learn about the program, and are offered the chance to make much-needed donations.

Paws Up is just one of several concurrent initiatives run by BackTrack for at-risk youth. Shakeshaft hopes his approach to rehabilitation and re-engagement can offer an alternative to incarceration, but, expectedly, he does not always succeed. Seventeen-year-old BackTrack participant Tyson’s story illustrates the destructive cycle many kids can find themselves in, and how jail can serve to prolong rather than break it. Tyson grew up in an abusive home. At the age of ten, he called the police on his violent father; they then locked up his dad, and split up Tyson and his siblings, who were sent to different foster homes. Shortly after, he became addicted to ice, and has been in and out of detention since he was eleven. At the time of filming, Tyson had been involved with BackTrack for three years, but was recently locked up again.

BackTrack is a voluntary program, and Shakeshaft explains that, much like the hunting technique it is named after, it is designed to draw in rather than chase. The teens are free to leave, but will hopefully choose not to, or else return when they know they need to.

Encouraging the boys to focus 80 per cent of their energy on their future, as Shakeshaft does, is a lot harder when they are locked up, and Tyson struggles to feel hopeful or positive. Still, even here, the BackTrack method shows its effectiveness. Ronald, a jail-based youth worker who has watched Tyson fall into his destructive cycle over and over again, acknowledges the profound change he has seen in the young man. Like Zac on the outside, Tyson is establishing himself as a leader and role model for the other boys behind bars. He’s started a group in which the kids can vent their fears and frustrations, and help one another reframe their negative thoughts. Rather than just sit in his cell, he volunteered to work long days in a local café for no pay. He’s determined to break the cycle once and for all.

Notwithstanding its achievements, BackTrack is not a magic bullet. Teary-eyed, Shakeshaft admits he’s visited too many of his kids in jail and attended too many funerals. Even Zac, who seems confident and determined beyond his years, withdraws after a setback: despite all his preparations, he does not get a job he’s set his heart on, and subsequently disappears to Gunnedah. A few weeks later, he re-emerges – but, after a night out on the town over Christmas, fresh assault charges hang over his head and a court date looms. And, if it’s not the boys, it can be their families – Russell is doing well at BackTrack, but his dad can’t bear being apart from him and takes him home against advice. In just two weeks, Russell amasses eleven charges before returning to Shakeshaft’s team, his own trial date approaching.

BackTrack is a voluntary program, and Shakeshaft explains that, much like the hunting technique it is named after, it is designed to draw in rather than chase. The teens are free to leave, but will hopefully choose not to, or else return when they know they need to. When they do come back, the doors are open and the team is ready to help them get back on track, no matter how wrong things have gone in the meantime. As Russell is relieved to learn, ‘You can’t get kicked out of BackTrack.’

The benefits the boys enjoy as a result of being in the program are plain to see, but its success is not merely anecdotal. In ten years, more than 1000 young people have had their lives touched by BackTrack, and nine out of ten of those who have completed the initiative go on to further education or employment.[2]‘BackTrack – Giving Kids a Second Chance’, Social Ventures Australia website, 7 May 2017, <>, accessed 10 August 2018. Meanwhile, youth crime in its local Armidale has dropped by 55 per cent,[3]ibid. a fact that has earned Shakeshaft and his team the support of many local community members and businesses.

Unsurprisingly, with its mix of compassionate, evidence-based youth work and proven effectiveness, plus its plentiful cute dogs, BackTrack resonates heavily with those who come across it – and Scott’s documentary has garnered the same goodwill from viewers thus far. At both the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals this year, it took home the Audience Award for documentary, and also screened at several of Australia’s other large film events. As a documentary, BackTrack Boys is unlikely to achieve the mainstream success or awareness it deserves, but, much like Shakeshaft’s program, it will be available to those who need it – teachers and young people, social and youth workers, lawmakers and law enforcers can all benefit from reframing established approaches to schooling and rehabilitation. BackTrack demonstrates an alternative model to working with youth that not only keeps kids alive, off the streets and out of jail, but also creates confident and ambitious community members and leaders capable of breaking the cycles of poverty, addiction and abuse that often span generations.

Around the BackTrack campfire

BackTrack Boys ends as it begins. We watch as a calm, happy man plays with a storm of puppies and, in a nearby paddock, a bunch of anxious, exhausted boys learn to calm themselves and their dogs. But, this time, the man buried by playful pups is no longer Shakeshaft – it is Zac. And it is Russell out in the fields teaching his peers to connect with their animals. The art of backtracking regards an animal’s past and present movement patterns to predict and guide where the tracker wants it tomorrow. Through BackTrack, Zac’s and Russell’s old cycles are breaking and a new trajectory is emerging. With 80 per cent of the boys’ focus still fixed on the horizon, it’s safe to assume that, for them, the best is yet to come.

1 See BackTrack official website, <>, accessed 10 August 2018.
2 ‘BackTrack – Giving Kids a Second Chance’, Social Ventures Australia website, 7 May 2017, <>, accessed 10 August 2018.
3 ibid.