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'Dudes and Dogs' program aims to help men talk about mental health

When Rob Osman feels anxious or depressed, he takes his dog for a walk. He realized dogs could help other men, too.
/ Source: TODAY

When Rob Osman feels the anxiety creeping in, he laces up his shoes and puts a leash on his Hungarian Vizsla, Mali. As the two walk, he feels his body relax as the tension melts away.

“I’m not saying anything new when I say going into the fresh air makes you feel better,” the 38-year-old from Bristol, England, told TODAY. “Just the realization of just how beneficial that time with the dog has been.”

Rob Osman says dog Mali has helped him with both his mental and physical health. He's using his experience to help other men grappling with their mental health by pairing them with dogs and a walk. Courtesy of Rob Osman

At the beginning of 2019 Osman’s life was in transition. He gave up his corporate job and started walking dogs, focusing his family and studying psychology at a local university. He soon realized that walking Mali or other pups helped him when he experienced depression and anxiety, something he's dealt with since his 20s.

"I’ve had demons throughout my life," he said. "I still had suffered with depression since I lost my dad."

Dogs are like four-legged antidepressants.

Medication didn’t help. But Mali did.

"She has helped me mentally and physically, her love is unwavering and no matter how you feel when you come home she instantly makes me happy," he explained.

Mali is a high energy dog but when she joined Rob Osman on a visit to his father's grave, she seemed to know it was an emotional place and laid down to rest. Courtesy of Rob Osman

Osman started taking friends on walks with Mali. Sometimes they’d chat but often they’d just hang out. He soon realized that his friends were also benefiting from the dog and fresh air and he wondered if he could expand this model to help others.

This inspired "Dudes and Dogs Walk and Talk," an organization that pairs men with a trained volunteer and a dog. Men can talk about their feelings or simply enjoy the fresh air.

“They need someone to listen,” Osman explained. “The idea of using a dog gives people an hour away from the family and gets them out.”

Men are notoriously resistant to seeking mental health treatment, but dogs seem like an easy entry point to talking for many guys.

“Dogs are like four-legged antidepressants,” Osman said. “When people are around the dog they drop their defenses. They play with the dog.”

While Rob Osman hopes that taking dogs on walks will help men experiencing mental health challenges, he also wants to normalize mental health and encourage men to speak about it more. Courtesy of Rob Osman

Osman’s instinct is right: Being around a dog — or any animal — boosts mood and helps connect people, says Rustin Moore, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the Ohio State University.

“Walking a dog is a conversation waiting to happen,” he said. “People come across the street to pet the dog and then you start having a conversation.”

Research shows that interacting with animals has a positive impact on people with PTSD, autism and dementia, he adds.

Mali inspired Rob Osman to use dogs to help others. Courtesy of Rob Osman

What’s more, people who own dogs recover faster from heart attack or stroke. While “some of that is exercise related,” Moore says pets support stress relief.

“People’s heart rate, their blood pressure go down as does stress hormones, such as cortisol, and actually there’s a feel good hormone called oxytocin that actually goes up,” he said. “It doesn’t even to be your own pet.”

While the project is in its infancy, Osman plans to work with psychologists to create a robust training for the volunteers so they can guide the men toward more help if needed. While he’s working on getting Dudes and Dogs right in his hometown first, he hopes to have it spread throughout the United Kingdom and, one day, in the United States.

Rob Osman has experienced depression and anxiety throughout his adult life. His dog, Mali, helps him through dark times. Courtesy of Rob Osman

Osman also hopes that "Dudes and Dogs" can help normalize mental health care for men.

“It gives people the opportunity to realize that it’s not unusual to feel that way,” he said. “This is giving them a free space and a relaxed place to talk.”