Pets and Mental Wellness: Ashley Reely of Meraki Dogs On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

An Interview With Wanda Malhotra

Wanda Malhotra
Authority Magazine

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Go beyond daily activities. A daily walk is great, but there’s so much more you can do with your pet. Consider including your dog in recreational activities like hiking, camping, boating, or patio dining. Including your best friend in your life’s adventures can be a significant mood booster and even spark new conversations with people you meet. This also helps to socialize your pet and expand your training practice, which always feels great when your pet behaves in public.

Pets have always been more than just companions; they play a pivotal role in enhancing our mental well-being. From the unconditional love of a dog to the calming presence of a cat, pets have a unique way of alleviating stress, anxiety, and loneliness. But how do we truly harness the therapeutic potential of our furry, feathered, or scaled friends? How can they aid in promoting mindfulness, reducing depression, or even enhancing social interactions? In this interview series, we are talking to veterinarians, psychologists, therapists, pet trainers, and other experts who can shed light on how to maximize the mental health benefits of having a pet. As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ashley Reely.

Ashley Reely, Founder of Meraki Dogs, is a seasoned professional with a profound dedication to the world of dogs, boasting a dedicated 12-year tenure in the industry. Her extensive experience spans diverse environments, including veterinary clinics, rescues, grooming and daycare facilities, and participation in dog sports. Ashley is highly skilled in behavioral modification training, obedience training, and advanced dog training techniques, making her a versatile and knowledgeable figure in the field.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

Thank you for having me! Growing up, I was utterly enamored with animals. I was that kid who would spend hours learning about exotic and domestic animals. My peers even started seeing me as their go-to “animal expert” — I was a walking encyclopedia to them.

People often assume I grew up with a house full of animals; however, I only had a cat and a couple of guinea pigs until I was twelve. That’s when I got my first dog and was more than ready for the responsibility. I had been soaking up dog knowledge for years and soaked up all the resources in anticipation of my new puppy, so I was more than prepared, even more so than most adults could ever be.

I got my first job at 16 at a local vet clinic, which I juggled through high school and college. That small vet clinic was where my passion for animals turned into professional, practical, hands-on experience. Initially, I had planned on going to school for Veterinary Medicine but working in the clinic made me realize it wasn’t my true calling. During my college years, while studying for my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I discovered my real passion for dog training. As I continued working towards my degree, I got involved in various aspects of animal care — volunteering with rescues, working as a grooming technician and daycare attendant, and training dogs as a hobby. I lived and breathed dogs and always looked for opportunities to include them or learn something new and applicable.

I decided to dive deeper into more advanced dog training skills in tandem with my college studies and attended the Michael Ellis School for Dog Trainers in 2017, an incredible experience. I even had the opportunity to intern there, which was incredibly enriching and one of the most memorable times of my life. As I finished my degree, I worked with a training company, further refining my skills, and in late 2018, I took the plunge and started my own training business, Meraki Dogs. Working with dogs and their owners over the years has been an incredible and rewarding journey, and I’ve made lasting relationships.

But as the years passed and dogs boomed in popularity post-COVID, I wanted to expand my reach. I wanted to share my knowledge and experiences with a global audience, not just a local one. That’s why I’ve focused more on my blog these days. I aim to connect with dog owners worldwide, share insights and resources, and spread dogs’ love and understanding on a much larger scale.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I’ve had many memorable moments throughout my career, but one summer stands out. I spent it “vanlifing” around the San Francisco Bay Area, working with private clients for dog training right out of their homes. What made this experience so unique was the diversity of the homes I visited. Each house had distinct architecture, adding a fascinating backdrop to my work.

The Bay Area is known for its strong dog culture, which was both a challenge and an inspiration. Working in the heart of city life, I had to be creative with my training techniques and make training adjustments on the fly. Each client had different needs and living environments, so adapting my methods to fit each situation was vital to succeed.

Those days were filled with complex yet rewarding challenges. Looking back, I cherish those times for the diversity of experiences they offered and the joy of positively impacting the lives of the dogs and their owners in such a vibrant city.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

While “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” (by Dr. Travis Bradberry and Dr. Jean Greaves) is not about pets, I think it’s relevant and worth mentioning for mental wellness. This book truly changed my perspective and taught me the importance of emotional intelligence in my personal and professional life.

Before this book, I didn’t know what it meant to be emotionally intelligent, and I heavily struggled with emotional dysregulation and didn’t know how to handle it productively. It emphasized self-awareness and empathy, especially in leadership. It offered practical strategies like active listening, which quickly became an excellent guide in how I approach my professional relationships and personal growth. I highly recommend this book, as everyone could benefit from it.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Can you share a personal story about how a pet has helped you or someone you know to improve mental wellness?

I have plenty of stories, but one worth mentioning is about a weekend with my dog and how he helped me during a tough time. After the COVID lockdown, I fell out of dog sports (a previously beloved hobby). After dealing with some harsh life events, I found myself struggling with depression and burnout and had lost interest in most of my hobbies, including dog sports.

One day, out of sheer guilt for putting my dog on the back burner, I pushed myself to look up local dog sports events, and there it was — a dock diving event happening that weekend. Despite my mental block, I decided to commit — and it was the best decision I could have made for my mental health and my dog’s need for exercise at the time. Being there, participating with my dog, and meeting other dog enthusiasts was rejuvenating. My boy was fantastic, and he even got an invite to Regionals!

The whole experience — the social interactions, the pride in my dog’s title achievement, the excitement we both felt doing something we enjoyed and the anticipation for future events — gave me a much-needed mental boost. It reminded me of the fun and inspiration I had missed in the previous months. It’s incredible how our pets can lift us up in many ways.

While human interaction is essential for emotional well-being, in what ways do interactions with pets offer unique benefits that human relationships might not provide?

One of the most incredible yet simple things about having pets is the unconditional love and acceptance they offer humans. They don’t care about our social status, how we look, or the mistakes we’ve made in the past. This kind of non-judgmental companionship is incredibly comforting and can be healing.

Pets can also positively impact our stress levels through the simple act of petting. When you pet an animal, your body releases oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone, while reducing cortisol levels, which aids in stress reduction.

And then there’s the way that pets communicate. Though they can learn verbal cues, their first language is physical, and they naturally rely on non-verbal cues from their humans. Understanding and responding to them can enhance our sense of perception and non-verbal communication skills. This is especially beneficial for people who find verbal communication challenging.

Can you explain how this works? How do pets, particularly common ones like dogs and cats, biologically and psychologically help to alleviate human stress levels and anxieties?

Biologically, physical interactions with pets (such as petting or cuddling) can trigger the release of oxytocin in our bodies, as I mentioned a moment ago. These interactions often promote relaxation and reduce stress levels.

Psychologically, pets provide invaluable companionship, combating loneliness and isolation, which is especially important for those living alone. Many people also find routine and purpose when facing responsibilities for their pets, which can offer therapeutic benefits for those with anxiety or depression.

Pet-related activities like play, grooming, or training sessions can encourage mindful interaction with our pets. There is also a unique dynamic in human-pet relationships, as pets are often susceptible to our emotions and provide support in ways humans can’t. I’ve personally felt this with my own pets, who are very in tune with my feelings and offer incredible support when I need it most.

In the backdrop of global events like pandemics or natural disasters, how have you seen pets playing a role in alleviating anxiety and providing comfort? Can you share some instances where pets have been integrated into therapeutic practices? How do they complement traditional therapeutic techniques?

Pets have often played an important role during times of crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of this. For many, they’ve been emotional anchors, providing a sense of normalcy and routine amidst chaos and isolation. Their companionship has been invaluable, especially with limited human contact, which would explain the dramatic rise of pet adoptions during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The integration of pets, particularly in Animal-Assisted Therapy, has been significant in various therapeutic settings to help treat conditions like depression and PTSD. They’ve also been incredibly effective in disaster zones, offering comfort to those affected or witnesses who must relive their trauma on the witness stand.

Therapists have also started including pets in counseling sessions, making the environment more relaxed and welcoming. This is particularly helpful for clients who might be new to therapy or hesitant about opening up.

A lovely client of mine, Madison Buchanan, MD, regularly takes her Black and Tan Coonhound, Georgie, to work with her. Though Georgie’s primary purpose is being a pet, she also helps support the patients and opens them up. Despite horrific trauma and grief one of Dr. Buchanan’s patients could speak on, the patient was unable to cry until Georgie offered support, a way of support that a human could never provide.

Not all pets are dogs or cats. From birds to fish to reptiles, how can individuals choose the right pet that aligns with their mental health needs?

When choosing a pet, the critical factor is your lifestyle and what kind of comfort you’re looking for. A dog might be the perfect companion for those with an active lifestyle, as they can join you on runs, hikes, and outdoor adventures, which can be great for physical and mental health.

On the other hand, if you’re more of a homebody, a low-maintenance dog breed or a cat could be ideal. Cats, for instance, are independent and can be quite comforting without needing constant attention or intensive care.

For those who aren’t necessarily looking for a cuddly pet, there are other options like birds, rodents, or reptiles. These pets can be fascinating and rewarding, but it’s important to remember that they often require specific enclosures and can be more maintenance-intensive than a cat or low-energy dog, depending on the species. It’s important to consider how much time and effort you’re willing to invest in pet care when making your choice.

How does the act of taking care of a pet — feeding, grooming, exercising — contribute to an individual’s sense of purpose and mental well-being?

Taking care of a pet can profoundly impact an individual’s sense of purpose and mental well-being because of the routine and structure that pet care tasks often bring to daily life. This routine is particularly beneficial for those dealing with mental health challenges, as it provides stability and normalcy and can act as a strong push for motivation. Knowing your pet depends on you to meet their needs can also add a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Basic physical activities like walking or playing with your pet are good exercise and, thus, great mood boosters. These activities also offer opportunities for mindfulness, allowing you to be fully present in the moment, whether working out with your dog or partaking in a basic training session.

The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. From your experience or research, what are your “Five Ways To Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet?” Can you please share a story or example for each?

Of course! Because my expertise is primarily with dogs, these points lean towards dogs, but they also apply to most pets.

1 . Go beyond daily activities. A daily walk is great, but there’s so much more you can do with your pet. Consider including your dog in recreational activities like hiking, camping, boating, or patio dining. Including your best friend in your life’s adventures can be a significant mood booster and even spark new conversations with people you meet. This also helps to socialize your pet and expand your training practice, which always feels great when your pet behaves in public.

My close friend, Katie Mayou, experiences significant mental health benefits with recreational activities alongside her dogs. She finds a valuable mental escape from the demands of her work week participating in activities like hiking and canicross, a running activity where the dog is attached to a bungee leash and pulls the owner on a jog — like land mushing, but without the sled. These activities allow her to be fully present and focused, providing a much-needed mental break and a chance to recharge. The physical exercise and the new scenery boost her physical and mental health while keeping her dogs mentally stimulated and satisfied.

Additionally, these activities have enabled Katie to forge connections with others who share similar interests, both in person and through online communities. This sense of community and shared passion contributes positively to her mental well-being. The bond she has developed with her dogs through these activities is another key aspect of her mental health journey. Her involvement in these recreational activities with her dogs signifies the profound impact such engagements can have on mental health, offering a blend of physical activity, community connection, and strengthened human-animal bonds.

2 . Jump into pet sports or shows. There are few things that are as exciting and rewarding as participating in sports and shows with your best friend. Getting involved in these pet-centered activities often provides an immense sense of pride, joy, and accomplishment. This is also a great way to find community and meet like-minded people, helping to aid social interactions with other people as well as other cool pets.

Dog sports and conformation shows (think Westminster) are incredibly easy to get involved in, and some sports have highly accessible clubs in many countries. Most sports are beginner-friendly and are open to all breeds. Some notable dog sports that are easily accessible and beginner-friendly in the United States are Fast CAT, nose work, disc, rally obedience, and dock diving.

Another friend, Candice Prior, loves participating in dog sports with her Rottweiler, Swayze. Candice feels that engaging in dog sports has been instrumental in helping her come out of her shell and manage her social anxiety. The focus and presence required in these activities allow her to concentrate on her bond with Swayze, providing a mental break from daily stressors.

Competing in scentwork, dock diving, and training for Rally/Obedience and conformation, Candice finds immense satisfaction in seeing the fruits of their hard work during trials. This process has strengthened her bond with Swayze and brought her joy in observing Swayze’s learning and excitement. Moreover, the supportive and caring community she has found through dog sports has been a source of comfort, reducing her typical nervousness and enhancing her overall mental well-being. Swayze’s evident enthusiasm for these activities further contributes to Candice’s positive experience, highlighting the reciprocal nature of the mental health benefits in their shared sports endeavors.

3 . Get involved in therapy work. If your pet is social and gentle, you can maximize your mental health by sharing your pet’s gift to put smiles on the faces of others. Therapy work is common in places like nursing homes, children’s hospitals, disaster relief centers, prisons, and courthouses. Doing this community service is incredibly rewarding and can give you a sense of purpose and motivation to do more good in the world.

Your dog needs to go through a therapy dog program to become certified. In most programs, you must accomplish milestones leading up to the certification. The accomplishments made along the way often bring a strong sense of pride in yourself and your dog for learning skills that positively impact others.

Angie Jung’s experience as a therapy dog handler with her dogs, Cody and Latte, vividly illustrates the mental health benefits of therapy dog work. Her involvement in various settings, from juvenile halls to assisted living facilities, has been deeply rewarding, offering her a unique mental boost and a sense of fulfillment. Her dogs’ joy and enthusiasm when preparing for work reflect their love for the job and their ability to provide comfort and support to those they interact with.

Angie’s work in therapy dog sessions benefits the recipients and enhances her mental well-being. She feels more inspired and uplifted after each session, a testament to the reciprocal nature of the human-animal bond in therapy work. This involvement has allowed her to witness firsthand the transformative impact of therapy dogs on individuals, fostering gentleness, compassion, and emotional healing, thereby underscoring therapy dogs’ profound role in enhancing mental health.

4 . Foster or volunteer at a rescue. Whether you’re looking to adopt or want to help your community’s homeless pets, fostering or volunteering can significantly boost your sense of purpose and mental health. Volunteer work is massively rewarding, knowing you’re helping make a difference in many four-legged lives. Volunteer work with shelters and rescues typically consists of cleaning kennels, walking, playing with, grooming the pets, and more.

Dawn Bridger’s involvement in volunteer work with rescues and shelters has had a significant positive impact on her mental health. She has found a profound sense of purpose by engaging in activities like fostering, walking and playing with dogs, and socializing with cats at the shelter.

This work has been gratifying for her, especially when she sees pets find new homes and thrive, and has also allowed her to make lasting connections with fellow volunteers and adopters. Witnessing the joy and happiness of these animals in their new homes continues to inspire her and reinforces the value of her volunteer efforts.

5 . Train your pet. Taking the time to train your pet goes much deeper than simply teaching commands. Training involves working out a communication system, teaching new skills, and building a stronger bond. Many people only think of obedience training when they picture training their dog, but training can become more advanced obedience, tricks, socialization, and practice for a sport. Short training sessions on a near-daily basis can quickly add up, and before you know it, you have a well-trained, happy dog; thus, you’ll find yourself more content when you can do more with your dog and show it off. Let’s be honest — compliments about your dog’s behavior are the best.

My clients, Rebecca Garcia and Cody Riker, can attest that training their dogs has had a significant positive impact on their mental health. They’ve developed a strong bond with their Dobermans, Cali and Odesza, through comprehensive training that includes puppy socialization and obedience training, as well as advanced concepts like off-leash training and recall. This consistent training has allowed their dogs to thrive, be less reactive in public, and enhance their daily lives.

The training has benefited both them and their dogs, facilitating smoother public interactions and fostering a sense of pride in their pets’ behavior. Their well-trained dogs have become a catalyst for forming positive connections with others, inspiring friends to recognize the value of professional dog training. This journey with their dogs has contributed to a fulfilling and harmonious lifestyle, showcasing the profound, reciprocal benefits of investing time and effort into dog training.

The loss of a pet can be deeply traumatic. How can individuals navigate this grief, and how does it compare to other forms of loss in terms of mental health impact?

Losing a pet can be as profound and painful as losing a family member. For many of us, pets are family; losing that unique connection can be tough.

This kind of loss can significantly impact your mental health. It leaves a void that’s hard to fill. Grieving is a personal process that varies from person to person, but it’s important to allow yourself to feel and express those emotions. Crying it out and focusing on self-care is crucial during this time.

To navigate through this grief, there are a few things that can help. Talking to a friend who understands and won’t judge is so important. Engaging in self-care activities, like going for walks or practicing mindfulness through journaling, can also be beneficial. Creating a memorial for your pet can be a therapeutic way to honor their memory, and taking time to reflect on and be grateful for the moments you shared together can also be a comforting way to cope. Remember, it’s a journey, and taking it one step at a time is okay.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of peace to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

In our society, there’s so much emphasis on external validation — our appearance, material possessions, and even the breed of our dogs can become a status symbol. It’s easy to get caught up in these superficial measures of worth.

If I could inspire a movement, it would focus on cultivating internal validation, like mindfulness, gratitude, and a deep sense of self-worth. Although I’m not an expert in this area, I’ve been practicing these concepts for about a year now, and the transformation in my own mindset and sense of self-worth has been incredible. I only wish I had these resources sooner.

Just imagine if more people embraced mindfulness and gratitude. What if everyone had access to resources that help in building self-worth? The ripple effect of inner peace and contentment could be enormous. Shifting focus from external validation to internal peace and self-appreciation could bring many a profound sense of peace, changing our societal values for the better.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

Without a doubt, it would be Dr. Temple Grandin. As someone deeply involved in the world of pet training, I’ve always been inspired by her groundbreaking work and humane approach to animal behavior. Her unique insights, especially her connection of autism to the way animals think in pictures, have profoundly influenced my training techniques in the best ways.

Understanding the dog psyche through her lens has allowed me to train dogs more effectively and compassionately. Even though I learned these concepts years ago, her teachings still resonate with me, especially when I take the opportunity to pass those insights on to my clients. Meeting Dr. Grandin would be an incredible opportunity to discuss these ideas further and thank her for her significant impact on my professional life. It would be an honor to share a meal and a conversation with such an influential figure in animal behavior and welfare.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow my work mainly through my blog, Meraki Dogs.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com.

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Wanda Malhotra
Authority Magazine

Wellness Entrepreneur, Lifestyle Journalist, and CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living.