Pets and Mental Wellness: Lylalee Soley Of Smarten Up Pup On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

Pets and Mental Wellness: Lylalee Soley Of Smarten Up Pup On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

You don’t have to be limited to leash walks and obedience training anymore. Find activities that you both like, this is much easier to maintain long term. I love taking my dogs swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. I find driving 25 minutes out of town for a walk more rewarding than a walk around town, but sometimes I like to meet up with friends and walk with them.

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 Lylalee Soley.

Lyla is a professional dog trainer from Canada who specializes in rehabbing reactive, fearful, and aggressive dogs to calm, happy companions. She became involved in training after adopting her first dog and ending up with an extremely reactive, unpredictable pet. Lyla then studied dog behaviour, learned through trial and error with her own dog before seeing success and helping others in her small, rural community. Her business has grown from private training to group classes and online courses. In her free time, she enjoys coaching gymnastics or being outside with her three dogs, Sweetie, Goose and Murph.

You can check out the online course here:

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?

Igrew up on a farm in northwestern Ontario in Canada, we had horses, cats and dogs growing up. Living out of town, not able to bike to my friends houses after school or during the summer really encouraged me to be outside playing and bonding with the pets a lot. It wasn’t a working farm, so all the animals were pets and some of the horses even hung out by the garage and house a lot. My pets really kept me company and comforted me when I needed them.

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

Really, it’s just been so rewarding seeing people’s mindsets. I usually deal with reactive and aggressive dogs so pet parents are worn-down and frustrated when I meet them. Watching their dogs open up and overcome some of their fear or over-excitement brings so much hope and joy back to their relationship. I love seeing people be proud of their dog and themselves.

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?

Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding by Kathy Sdao. It’s a very thoughtful and enlightening book about how we live with dogs (and other pets). I am a very empathetic person and other people’s (2 or 4 legged) energy impacts me a lot, so being mindful of leadership, relationships and emotions is a big priority. This book, and the authors years of experience, dive into training ideologies and being compassionate to our dogs when we basically control everything in their lives.

When I adopted my first dog, Sweetie, I was really in over my head. I was young, grew up with dogs and thought I knew everything. When Sweetie tried to attack every person and dog she saw, I was clueless. I had never heard the word “reactivity”. I turned to aversive methods because I thought she needed to be told no, to smarten up. I thought everything needed to be earned with “good behaviour”. When punishment made things 10x worse, I looked to alternatives. I learned that her reactivity was a result of poor breeding and socialization, she was a stray in a northern community where aggression and resource guarding kept her alive until adulthood. Being held back by a leash, fence or window from other dogs was frustrating and overwhelming. She wasn’t choosing to bark and lunge; it was a stress response like jumping when you see a spider. She needed me to understand an acknowledge her feelings and give her outlets to express herself, do dog stuff.

To my surprise, giving her more freedom (long line walks, off leash walks away from the city and triggers, opportunities to explore) whether we had a bad day or not, has made her a more relaxed and well-adjusted dog. This is a pivotal step in training before the “training” even begins!

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?

Having a reactive pet has improved my patience and resilience. If anyone has a dog who not only pulls on walks, but barks and lunges at anything with a heartbeat, scratch that, anything that moves (hello Halloween/Christmas decorations!), then you’ve probably come home from walks in tears, frustrated and anxious about your next outing. Accepting and working WITH my reactive dog, and not against them, has taught me a lot.

First, to be patient. At ease with the progress of our training, understanding of reactions when I pushed too hard, and the ability to end a walk and go home when things aren’t going well without ruminating and holding a grudge. Our dogs aren’t trying to be like this, it’s a stress-response, not an attack on my character.

Next, to be resilient. To get back on the horse after I fell off (which actual riding lessons never instilled in me). To work harder and dig deeper into the why of my dogs’ fears and triggers instead of punishing the actions. To change my plans on the fly and be adaptable without anxiety. In life you can’t always get what you want, and when you start training a reactive dog, you rarely get what you want (patio dog, walks with friends, dog park exercise)!

In learning about my dog’s mental health, I learned a lot about my own. I learned about the physiological effects of stress, how pain and discomfort impact mental health, long term repercussions and how to identify problems. While managing my dog’s health and well-being, I can better manage my own and look for signs that I need help to.

Lastly, my dog and I are a team. We win together and we lose together, we are there for each other. She looks to me for support because she trusts me, and I feel her unconditional love. She’s there for me when I need it, with no judgment, just snuggles.

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?

Studies have shown that even just looking into a dogs eyes boosts dopamine and other feel good chemicals in our bodies. But they have so many other benefits:

Dogs listen so well. You can vent about work drama or tell them about your day without being interrupted once! They are never going to try to give you advice when you just want to be heard. This is especially beneficial to kids, or anyone practicing reading out loud to build confidence in their skills.

Pets help keep us engaged and accountable. You could go home after work, stream a show, start a podcast, and scroll through your phone just to try to escape from the pressures of modern life, then go to bed burnt out from screen time.

Or you could go home, be greeted enthusiastically by your pet who has missed you (what a good feeling), take them for a walk and be outside for some fresh air and exercise, then go home and play with them.

After a great evening of walking, training, and playing, you get to relax together. You can sit or cuddle with your snoozing dog, this physical contact can work like a weighted blanket, bringing you back and grounding you. Synchronizing your breath, so you don’t disturb them and being mindful helps to alleviate or recover from anxiety,

It is just the lack of judgement and social rules you have to follow around a dog that benefit us the most. You can be yourself without worrying about them gossiping behind your back, taking an unflattering picture then sharing it online or laughing at you when you’re around them. It is a special bond completely based on trust and unconditional love.

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?

I think physical touch is very impactful. There is a lot of power in energy and being present. Like a hug from your grandma cheers you up more than talking to her on the phone (still love those though!)

Sitting on the couch with your cat on your lap, hearing the purr, feeling their heartbeat and warmth is so comforting. You can be so secure and at ease, letting go of tension and the stress of the day.

Let’s talk about play. I like to tell people to start play therapy with their dogs. This means getting on the ground with them, getting excited and being silly. Using play as rewards for training makes it more fun and engaging for everyone. It gives handlers the opportunity to be silly and let loose without being embarrassed. You will laugh as you play at your dog, at yourself, and really become immersed. This improves your relationship with your dog and your own self-esteem.

Getting outside and exercising has so many known benefits to our physical, mental, and social well-being. Our pets can encourage us to get out often, walk further, go to new places, get involved in activities and can help us make new friends!

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?

We saw a huge increase in dog ownership during the pandemic, as walking and training your dog were the only things you could do. I think that helped a lot of people get out of the house, away from their phones and media and maintain a healthy active lifestyle through it all.

Pets have been incorporated into many therapeutic practices. Therapy dogs, that is dogs who visit nursing homes and hospitals etc. bring so much joy to residents and gives them something to look forward to. It dramatically improves their quality of life. Having those positive associations during the recovery process for those dealing with illness, injury, PTSD, depression feel more supported and less isolated.

Many services dogs are trained to identify early warnings of anxiety or emotional distress and combat it with physical contact, nose boops to interrupt fixation and body pressure which can mitigate these events. The social support works alongside traditional treatment.

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?

You should always choose the pet that fits best with your lifestyle. Often pet parents choose high energy dog breeds in the hopes that it will make them more active, but you are usually left with a frustrated dog, and an overwhelmed and guilty parent.

Look at your work and family schedule to determine how much time you have, ask yourself if you like going on walks in the snow and the rain. If you don’t, that’s ok! Don’t get a puppy.

Do you like fur on all your clothing? Does cleaning a litter box daily horrify you? Maybe a cat isn’t for you.

Do you like a simple routine, and watching life’s simple artwork? You could be a fish person!

You don’t like hair but still want to hold your pets? Check out some retiles!

The best option to see if a pet works for you is to reach out to someone who has that pet. Meet them, maybe have a trial weekend to see if that animal fits into your life.

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?

Having a routine and a sense of responsibility is empowering and keeps you on track. It is easy to overlook your own needs unfortunately but having a pet to get you out of bed in the morning, on your feet and away from social media a few times day can get you into a better headspace. Taking care of something else, clipping nails that may be bothering your pet, cutting out a mat that’s hurting them, is gratifying and provides a sense of accomplishment. Remembering to clean your pet’s food and water bowls can keep you on track of your hygiene.

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?

1 . Find activities that suit you and your dog.

You don’t have to be limited to leash walks and obedience training anymore. Find activities that you both like, this is much easier to maintain long term. I love taking my dogs swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. I find driving 25 minutes out of town for a walk more rewarding than a walk around town, but sometimes I like to meet up with friends and walk with them.

2 . Meet everyone’s needs!

Pets can be super overwhelming, it’s important to set aside time for yourself. This can mean having them stay at a friend’s or family member’s house for a night so you can sleep in, or asking a dog walker to take them out after a long day at work when you need to sit down.

3 . Progress over perfection.

If your dog doesn’t walk in heel or pulls on walks, it’s ok it’s their walk too. If you’re working through reactivity and your dog barks at another dog, it’s ok, your journey is unique, and mistakes happen. If you can’t take them to a patio, don’t feel guilty as they are likely happier at home. If your dog has to wear a muzzle, it’s awesome that you are being proactive about safety!! Social media pushes out a lot of clips of impressive Malinois doing perfect obedience, but if that’s not your goal, that’s fine.

4 . Set boundaries but try not to control everything.

If you don’t want your dog in your bed, that’s a good choice for you. But do provide your dog with other sleeping options and choices, as dogs tend to roam throughout the day and night. Don’t let your dog jump all over you when you get home if you don’t like it but do use management (like baby gates by the door) to prevent it rather than getting upset or withholding affection, after all they’ve been waiting for you! Do walk your dog on a leash but give them an energy outlet as short leash walks are not sufficient exercise for most dogs.

5 . Get involved in a community.

Find friends and training groups who align with your values who you can discuss funny stories or bad talks with. You can have playdates, or maybe you can go on appropriately spaced, no contact walks with your reactive dogs.

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 is so tough, it’s losing a family member and a close friend. Reaching out to other pet parents for support is so helpful as they know what you’re going through, many grief counselors also specialize in pet loss. If you have another pet, it’s important to remember they are mourning as well, and you can comfort each other through it.

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?

More knowledge and support of ethical breeding. Many people have an idea of what a puppy mill is, a barn or garage overcrowded with puppies and pregnant dogs and the kind of person running it, but a lot of times it’s the person selling a litter of designer dogs on Kijiji or Facebook marketplace. If more people could identify and be critical of backyard breeding, our shelters and volunteer staff would be a lot less overwhelmed. This would allow more space for strays and rescues to be helped, as a lot of these poorly bred dogs are eventually given up for behavioural issues. This would lessen many people’s emotional burdens of constantly being reminded of abused and forgotten dogs in shelters on social media.

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. :-)

Susan Garrett! A fellow Canadian and a dog training icon. I have followed several of Susans programs, as well as her podcast and she is so creative and talented. I am inspired by her every day.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Instagram @smarten.up.pup where I share free tips and dog training information 5 days a week and check out my online course T.A.M.E: Blueprint to Overcoming Reactivity

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

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment