How Happy Paws Happy Hearts builds Defence family bonds

Belinda Crossman 17 June 2024
  • Health & wellbeing

This unique program helps veterans, their families, and rescue animals bring out each other’s best.

Once a week for 10 weeks, a small group of veterans and their families gets together at the RSPCA in Brisbane.  

Strangers at first, they’re quick to become friends, chatting and laughing amidst a flurry of barks and wagging tails. 

The group is taking part in Happy Paws Happy Hearts’ Defence Families Program, training rescue animals to help them get adopted. In doing so, the group also strengthen their own connections, communication skills and self-confidence. 

When Army veteran (now Reservist) Eloise heard about the program through her local RSL Sub Branch, she knew she had to join.  

Happy Paws Happy Hearts Eloise

Army veteran Eloise loves participating in the Happy Paws Happy Hearts Defence Families Program  

“I thought that is for me; I absolutely love rescue animals,” Eloise says. “At the time, I had two of my own, so it ticked that box for me. The fact that it was Defence families really appealed to me as well. Although I do really appreciate being in touch with other veterans, I also appreciate meeting the veteran support network as well.” 

Eloise served with the Intelligence Corps from 2017 to 2021, when she transitioned to the Reserves. “I feel very fortunate to have had a relatively easy transition back into civilian life,” she says.  

“I felt like I had constant social touchpoints, but I understand for some people that is more of a challenge.  

“You've gone from a system where you are surrounded by people. You work with your team day in, day out, so when you transition out and suddenly that is lacking in your life, that is a very challenging thing for somebody to go through.” 

Building connection and trust 

Social isolation is one of the key concerns that national not-for-profit Happy Paws Happy Hearts (HPHH) aims to address.  

“The other concern is animals in shelters all over Australia that are also facing social isolation,” HPHH Partnerships Training Specialist Justin Palazzo-Orr explains.  

“We started working with older Australians and then moved into working with people living with disabilities, veterans, first responders, and injured workers.” 

The HPHH Defence Families Program is a seasonal 10-week program designed specifically for veterans, current serving Defence members, and their families. It's funded by RSL Queensland, so there’s no cost to participants. 

Happy Paws Happy Hearts Justin and Eloise

Happy Paws Happy Hearts Partnerships Training Specialist Justin has seen the positive impact rescue animals can have on veterans

While particularly beneficial for those feeling socially isolated or wanting to improve their family connection, the program welcomes veterans and families of all kinds.  

“I was really hoping to get to know some other Defence families, and I was lucky to do so,” Eloise says. 

“I really enjoyed seeing mostly families, but particularly the children engaging with animals. I don't have children myself, so it was really nice to be in that space with them. It was incredibly supportive.  

“The whole time just felt like I was becoming a part of that community. That felt really special.” 

Happy Paws Happy Hearts Defence Families Program

By connecting them with rescue animals, Happy Paws Happy Hearts brings together veterans and their families 

Held over weekly two-hour sessions, the program works alongside the RSPCA to connect participants with shelter animals.   

“We work with a whole range of animals. It can be dogs, cats, kittens, puppies, goats, sheep, alpacas, snakes… Whatever animals the RSPCA is looking after, we get them involved in the program – as long as people are comfortable working with them, of course,” Justin says. 

“Everything we do is about connection and trust, whether that's between a human and an animal or humans and humans.” 

It’s a win-win for all involved. 

“We see some amazing results. We’ve had times where in week one, family members are sitting at complete opposite sides of the room and then as they go through, they're getting closer and closer, and then in the last week they're sitting on the same couch together. For me, there's no joy greater than seeing those family connections.  

“We also see families keeping that time that they put aside for the Defence Families program to do something together after the program’s over.” 

The program’s relaxed, inclusive and engaging atmosphere appealed to Eloise, who enjoys that it’s “for Defence, but not about Defence”. 

“It need not to be about the Defence experience,” Justin adds. “It's a way for them to come together and just focus on kittens and puppies and having a good time.” 

Changing people’s and animals’ lives 

The program hasn’t just built Eloise’s social network and dog handling skills. It’s also benefited her emotionally – especially when she needed it most. 

“During the program, I got to have lots of doggy cuddles, which I really loved, and when I went home, it gave me a new appreciation for my own dogs. I didn't know it was possible to love them more.  

“Sadly, we lost one of my rescue dogs right in the middle of the program, which was a real blow. Being able to go back to the program to see other animals almost felt like a legacy for my own dog.”  

Happy Paws Happy Hearts

RSL Queensland is a proud sponsor of the Defence Families Program

The experience inspired Eloise to become an RSPCA volunteer. 

“Now I volunteer every week, and it’s something I look forward to. I wouldn’t have known that was an avenue I could have pursued without going to Happy Paws, so I'm incredibly grateful for that.”  

“When Eloise came in, she was pretty shy and reserved,” Justin recalls. “Then she came out of her shell more and more. And then she found her love for volunteering, which is absolutely fantastic.” 

A veteran’s best friend 

For anyone in the veteran or Defence community, Eloise can’t recommend Happy Paws Happy Hearts highly enough.  

“I think animals can provide that social connection, the emotional support that sometimes humans can't, especially if you're feeling socially isolated yourself, which can be a common challenge for veterans,” she says.  

Happy Paws Happy Hearts Defence Families Program RSL Queensland

“Animals never let you down. Animals are just always there when you need them, always happy to see you.  

“I would definitely recommend involvement with a rescue animal organisation as a great way to foster connections with people, and I encourage everybody to take advantage of the programs supported by RSL Queensland.”  

Learn more 

Happy Paws Happy Hearts’ Defence Families Program is one of many programs offered by RSL Queensland and its partners. 

Learn More