Why I became a Dog Dude - Nick Poulton
Twelve months ago, I hadn’t heard of Dudes & Dogs, and here we are towards the end of one of the strangest years ever and I find myself a trained walk host and qualified Mental Health First Aider. I’ll be honest – I didn’t see that coming!
Six months before I first got inspired by Rob’s initiative, young Otto (our beloved Wirehaired Vizsla) had come to live with the family and I had just embarked on a long-planned career break from an intense corporate world.
As part of my time out from work, I set myself the challenge to push my comfort zone, but in a way that could give something back, helping others. For a natural introvert, who suffers with some social anxiety, the prospect of being a Dog Dude ticked both of those boxes.
As soon as I heard about D&D it resonated with me. I reached out early to Rob to register my interest in hosting walks and, as COVID took hold and we entered the first lockdown, I quietly watched the Dudes & Dogs Online Community grow and grow, building my confidence before adding my first post, and then more, gradually feeling part of things.
Now, here we are at the end of the year, and following my Dog Dude training with Rob, I’ve been hosting walks in Oxfordshire since September. I’ve met some great guys, not to mention giving an interview on local radio to promote the cause. And it’s been an amazing experience.
I remember distinctly, turning up to host my first walk, feeling nervous, with the single, overriding ambition of simply ‘not screwing it up’. I am someone who struggles with small talk and meeting new people, and so my aim of pushing myself was beginning to go into overdrive.
Two chaps turned up, and I introduced myself and some basic house rules (no mobiles, maintaining confidentiality, mutual respect etc.) and then off we went.
One of the key pieces of training as walk hosts, is how to create a ‘safe’ environment, in order to help guys to feel comfortable enough to share whatever they want, but also keep it relaxed enough for the stroll to be enjoyable. I felt my best bet was to talk about why I had got involved in Dudes & Dogs – to set an example by sharing openly, but at the same time establishing a positive mood, and one where silence is not just okay, it can be gold.
My concerns about awkward ‘tumbleweed’ moments quickly dissipated, and I was amazed how open the conversation was. The two dogs on the walk played and ran, quickly becoming mates and made us laugh. We spent about 75 mins walking, and it flew by.
Each week since I’ve turned up with the same feeling. Looking forward to seeing who will join, and happy to greet familiar faces when they do, and welcome new faces too. It’s a great way to start each Sunday (we walk at 10am) and I often leave with a spring in my step and a sense of wellbeing. After all, it feels good to support others, and be supported back.
I’d love to have seen more guys turning up (imagine that for someone who is nervous of meeting new folks!), but know it’s difficult with uncertainty around COVID, regional lockdowns and complicated tier systems.
…more significantly, we need to remember that we are trying to unpick centuries of men being actively discouraged in showing emotion, being open, or talking about much other than sport and bants. This is going to take time (the best journeys always do). While many of us are quickly learning the benefits, it’s something that will require steady and meaningful progress, as opposed to a quick and superficial overnight fix. That’s what Dudes & Dogs is all about; sticking to our principles, pushing out walks across the country and further (as COVID allows). After all, creating safe and empathic spaces for guys from all backgrounds and cultures to take part is not a quick win, but it’s vital.
So, in my little part of the world in Oxfordshire, as a man who is becoming more confident in being open, and meeting people, I’m excited to keep walking and talking. And I look forward to meeting many guys in the coming months and years, to help them do the same.