A special dog-walking group is helping men to finally open up about their feelings and emotions while they spend quality time with their canine companions.
By, 9 Jan 2020
Men's mental health has for a long time been a taboo subject. Many men continue to suffer in silence despite experiencing intense feelings of anxiety, sadness and loneliness. Just over 12% of men in the UK experience a mental health issue, while suicide is the biggest cause of death for men aged under 35.
It's good to talk
A new support group is hoping to change that by getting men to open up and talk about their emotions. But what makes this group different is that it is focused on dog walking.
While he was experiencing his own complicated emotions, Rob Osman from Bristol would take his beloved Hungarian Vizsla called Mali out for long walks across fields and parks and found that walking Mali really helped him to clear his head and work through his emotions.
“The dog doesn’t care that I feel like crap today. She doesn’t care that the weather is rubbish, she just wants to get out,” Rob told inews.
Having realised how helpful it was for him to get outside and spend time with Mali, Rob felt inspired to help other men. He set up a group called Dudes and Dogs to help men who might be also struggling with their mental health or just need to talk. It provides a safe space where people feel comfortable to open up.
“I think that this is riding the crest of a wave,” Rob said. “I’m doing nothing unique by any stretch. The only difference is that I’m taking the conversation to an open space, rather than making everyone sit down, face to face, in a circle.”
Talk and walk
The group started with just two other men but has now grown to a large number of dog walkers.
“It’s easy to say, ‘let's go for a walk’,” he added. “When you say ‘let's sit down and talk about it’ people tend to clam up – particularly my friends, who are all typical blokes."
"Outside, you're giving them this open space with no-one around. They can look at their feet if they want. They can throw balls to distract themselves. It's got them talking in ways they haven't before.”
There's no pressure for any of them to talk, they can take it at their own pace.
“It might be that they come along for five weeks and don't say a word. We’ll just chat about the rugby. But at some point, they will talk,” Rob said. “One of the first men I walked with is an ex-military guy with 20 years of service. He opened up about his best mate who took his own life.”
Pressure of expectation
While his goal was to support others, Rob has found that the group has also helped him. When he was younger, he felt like he needed to be a loud, confident guy who was passionate about sport. But he admits that this wasn't really him.
“I didn't fall into the ‘typical man’ category but I spent a lot of time in my late teens and early 20s trying to prove that I did. There was a certain way I was expected to behave, but I had very bad social anxiety – to the point where I threw up in almost any social situation.”
It was after breaking a disk in his back during his mid-20s when says his life nosedived but led him to find help.
“I went to an acupuncturist I explained everything that had happened to me. The first thing he said was ‘that must have been tough,’ and as soon as he said that I trusted the guy. It was the first time someone listened to me and sympathised. It really turned me around.”
Rob worked for medical companies as a business development manager for a decade until he decided to quit and start a psychology and counselling degree. While he looked for places where he could volunteer, he found that none of them really offered the type of environment he was looking for.
Nature, time and canines
This led him to start Dudes and Dogs.
“This is a way I can help people and give them what helped me: that time out, that time away, with no signal, no noise – just nature and time,” he said.
Rob is hoping to create a training programme based on the Dudes and Dogs group and roll it out around the rest of the country. Maybe even the world.
“I've had messages from Australia, even Peru, saying ‘we need this too’.”
He plans to finance that side of it by offering courses and talks on mental wellbeing in workplaces.
Rob credits Mali with helping him work through his feelings. “Hungarian Vizslas are known as the Velcro dogs because they stick to you,” he said.
“I've taken antidepressants once in my life, but they didn’t work for me because it stopped me feeling. And actually, what I need to do is feel and connect – and Mali's a big four-legged antidepressant.