Matthew looked like a typical Dandenong thug – crew cut, tattoos, Adidas tracksuit pants – and he used to walk around with a bum bag strapped around his right shoulder, the pocket nestled under his armpit in the same position as a pistol holster. But instead of a weapon, the bum bag held dog treats.
After years of substance dependency and crime, Matthew had burnt through relationships with friends and family, and so his only companion in life was a six-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier. “This dog was his best friend in the whole world,” says YSAS Director of Services Ipsita Wright, who worked with Matthew in the mid 2000s.
Unfortunately, the staffy became very sick and had to be put down. The news was gut-wrenching for young Matthew. He’d been estranged from his family but had never mourned their absence – it didn’t seem to affect him. And yet the loss of his canine friend triggered thoughts about his own mortality and deep reflection on the relationships in his life.
In the past, Matthew had been selfish and disloyal. “He’d make friends with people, but when things got really hard, he’d leave them in the lurch,” says Ipsita. Through talking about why he had loved his staffy so much, Matthew realised that the values the dog had shown him – loyalty, affection and unconditional acceptance – were the very same values he needed to cultivate in relationships with people.
“It’s ironic that that work came about as result of death and loss, but I think that’s often when the greatest learning and reflection and can occur,” says Ipsita.