I opened a dog cafe. Customers say it has changed their lives

Growing up in Malaysia, I had seven dogs. Among them were Chihuahuas, Dobermans, and German Shepherds. My dogs gave me so much joy because when I came home from school feeling stressed, they would comfort me. Playing with them made me happy. The only way I can describe it is that I felt pure joy in their presence; I have never felt lonely.

In 2014, she moved to London, England, to study Business Administration in college. I was an international student, didn’t have any friends or family around me, and couldn’t speak English very well. This is when I started having anxiety attacks. I felt very lonely, became homesick and fell into depression.

At the time, I didn’t have any of my dogs around me, which was hard. I asked my dad if I could get a dog in London but he was against the idea, as we didn’t know if I was going to stay in the UK or come back to Malaysia after college.

Opening up about my mental health

After struggling with my mental health, I reached out to Student Union Services at my college, and they put me in touch with a college counselor.

Alicia Ong opens a dog café
Alicia Ung is opening a pet-friendly café, Pawsitive Cafe, in 2021.
Alicia Ong

At first, I was afraid to talk about my mental health, and I felt anxiety or depression were a weakness. But my friends and family let me realize that sharing my problems meant I was one step closer to recovery.

I saw that in Malaysia, things were different for me. When I lived there, not many people around me would speak up or admit their mental struggles, so I thought it was only natural to keep quiet.

But with the help of a counselor, I began to realize what I was feeling.

A business plan changed everything

That same year, I was taking an entrepreneurial management class in college and was asked to come up with a business plan that had to be unique. It took me a few months to think of an idea that would work, but then I came up with the Pawsitive Café

I wanted to facilitate a space where people feel comfortable talking about their mental health, and a place where they can be around dogs and different pets. After doing some research, I saw that having pets around a person can improve their mental health, which made a lot of sense to me.

The idea of ​​Pawsitive Café was that it would be a pet-friendly café where we would focus on mental health by doing different activities that enhance creativity and boost endorphins.

While in college, I always wished there was a place I could be around dogs. Although I found a few cat cafes in London, I never found a dog cafe.

Alicia Ong opens a dog café
Domino (pictured) is Alicia Ong’s dog. He’s eating off a menu made for dogs at Alicia’s Pawsitive Café.
Alicia Ong

At the same time, I’ve noticed that many people are also opening up about their mental health Instagram and TikTok. I understand that some people do not feel comfortable talking to a psychologist and that others may not be able to afford it. This is why I felt Pawsitive could be beneficial for them.

In 2021, I welcome Domino’s, Dalmation, into my home. It brings me so much joy and happiness.

Whenever I come home from work and see it, it makes me instantly happy. He is always running towards me and wagging his tail. Domino is also a sweet, calm dog and I think somehow he can sense my feelings too.

When I’m feeling down, he’ll sit quietly with me, but on days when I’m happy and energetic, he’ll run around and play with me.

Changing customers’ lives

I opened Pawsitive Café in London in 2021 after working on it for a few years. So far, we’ve facilitated painting, pumpkin carving, and gingerbread making lessons. Our goal in doing these activities is to help those who long to be present while giving them a sense of community.

We also have several dogs in the café and a special menu just for dogs. Domino is around every day for a few hours and, along with many other dogs, has changed some of our customers’ lives.

One of our clients told me that she struggled with depression at a very young age and is still trying to recover from her past trauma. Even though she is currently seeing a therapist and has friends and family around her, she still feels lonely.

Alicia Ong opens a dog café
Alicia Ung has a dog menu at her Pawsitive Café.
Alicia Ong

This customer lives near the coffee shop, so she visits often. The atmosphere, the bright pink colors and the friendly and welcoming environment of the café improved her mood. She really loves dogs, but because of her mental struggles, she doesn’t think she can own a dog because she doesn’t feel confident enough to take care of one.

But being in the café gives her a sense of joy because she can be around so many dogs. She also loves to play with dominoes. After I spoke with her, she told me that the coffee shop really helped her with her mental health; She no longer feels alone.

It is reassuring to know that people have a place where they can relax, unwind and enjoy their time. It’s exactly what I want for every client. My goal is for everyone to leave the cafe with a smile on their face. This is more important than anything to me.

Alicia Ung works in the field of real estate investment. She is also the owner of Pawsitive Café in London, England. You can learn more about the cafe here.

All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

As told to Newsweek editor Karen Harb.

Do you have a unique experience or personal story that you want to share? Email the My Turn team at myturn@newsweek.com

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