For Rob Thibault and a group of area men, a regular Monday night walk with their dogs is crucial to their mental health.
Thibault, who runs a part-time dog training school called TBones K9 in St. Catharines, started Niagara Men’s Canine and Chat as a Facebook group in January. He organized the first group walk in early February, reaching out to friends, co-workers and students at his school, and hasn’t missed a Monday since.
The father of three adult children suffers from PTSD due to a childhood trauma. Thibault has been through more than five years of group therapy to deal with his emotional issues, but maxed out the time he could spend in the system. He was looking for a forum in which he could discuss mental health challenges when it dawned on him.
“I’ve got lots of friends,” says Thibault, “but nobody has any time. All of my friends have dogs, and lots of other guys have dogs, but don’t have time to go to a bar. It was really easy to just get a group together and go for a walk.”
A huge fan of the Outlet Collection at Niagara, the St. Catharines resident decided to hold the outings there. “It’s an ideal situation. There’s shopping, and shade, and water, and the whole thing is dog-friendly.” Though they have met up in other locations, most Mondays are spent at the Niagara-on-the-Lake shopping centre.
The group has felt welcomed since day one, though Thibault remembers a drone tailing them during one of their first walks. He assumed they were being observed out of curiosity by mall security, but there has never been an issue. In fact, he says, they are often left alone to walk after store closing hours.
The group meets Monday nights at 7 p.m. outside of Tim Hortons. The only rule is that dogs must be leashed. Some will stop in to pick up a coffee before walking. The dogs, of course, are central to the evening. The canine companions are what gets the walkers out of the house. But it’s clear these walks mean much more to the men involved.
Thibault himself suddenly lost his “heart dog”, Athena, a seven-year-old boxer-cane corso cross, to liver cancer in April. Talking about her brings tears to the 45-year-old’s eyes. “She was the reason I got into dog training”, Thibault says. “She was an amazing dog, and she totally saved my life. When I lost her, I knew I had to continue these walks.”
A week after losing Athena, Thibault found his current companion, an apricot poodle he named Evil. She is already a star in his training classes, having earned four certificates in just three months.
Word caught on about the Monday nights after Thibault left a message on HTZ-FM’s morning show answering machine. The Facebook group got a few hits after that, and since then, the walks have grown in popularity, though there has never been more than five walkers at a time.
“I’m okay with that,” he says. “It’s just marvellous to have a fluid, changing place for guys to come if they just need to vent, or need a place to hang. It’s nice to be able to be there.”
“It’s always a dynamic conversation,” adds Thibault. “We’ll talk about work, or whatever is going on in somebody’s life. Almost always someone has a way to relate, even directly. All sorts of emotions come up. Everything from having a great laugh, to the odd tear here and there. We’ve had a lot of discussion about struggling with finances during COVID, with guys feeling that they have to be the primary breadwinner.”
This past Monday my dog Cocoa and I were the fifth of each species to join the walk. The two of us were immediately welcomed and joined in step with the physically-distanced guys. While circling the mall three more times, the conversation was light, but it was clear that one other newcomer was thankful for some sympathetic ears.
Hoots is one of Thibault’s co-workers in his full-time job with an auto parts distributor. Having shared his relationship problems with Thibault, he was encouraged to join in for the first time this week.
“It’s hit me really hard,” says Hoots. “Rob told me I had to come out, and I’m glad I did. It’s exactly what I needed. I’m from Hamilton, and I live in the Falls now, so I’ve lost a lot of friendships. It’s hard to speak to people about what’s going on, but I feel I can talk to these guys.”
Adds Darren, who with his dog Jed were Thibault’s students, “you find common ground with people you didn’t know you had. With guys, we’re macho, we’re tough, we don’t want to talk about some things. But when there’s other guys involved, it’s easier, because you realize you’re not the only one that’s gone through something kind of difficult.”
Research backs up what Darren posits. A recent article in Harper’s Bazaar stated that about five percent of men are comfortable seeking mental health services, and also quoted a British study that found that 2.5 million men admitted to having no close friends. Shortly after Thibault’s first walk, he stumbled upon another article, this one about a British man who started a similar group for similar reasons, called Dudes & Dogs Walk & Talk.
“The thing that I’m trying to fight against is that norm,” says Thibault. “I go out of my way to be very open and genuine with everyone who comes. I want them to know this is the way that I am, this is the way that it is, and this is the place where people can share.”
Thibault says his girlfriend is very supportive of his efforts to create a forum for men to support each other. That same Harper’s article pointed out how common it is for women to feel heavily burdened with being the only emotional crutch on which their male partners can lean. Groups like this one can ease some of that burden.
What about the dogs? Evil, Mercules and Jed, as well as newbies Roo and Cocoa, are all well-behaved. After a brief sniff, they fall in line and walk calmly through the outdoor space. Curious on-lookers smile at the sight of five grown men walking their canines together.
Thibault, in fact, convinced Darren and Jed to join the first walk as part of their training. “I’ll be honest,” says Thibault, “it’s something I use very heavily. When I got my poodle, because of the COVID situation, this was one of the few opportunities to socialize her. I welcome that as another reason for guys to come out.”
Niagara Men’s Canines and Chat will be meeting this coming Monday at 7 p.m. at the outlet mall. Thibault encourages anyone interested to visit the Facebook group for more information.