Dogged Spirit Inspires Treats for Pups

Ashlyn Tilley with Rosemary McNair and mom Gayemell Shepherd. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot


When Gaymell Shepherd found herself wandering in Williams-Sonoma during the long-dragging months of COVID-19, she came across a pan that sparked her imagination. The tin pan was molded into the shape of 16 small dog bones. It would make for the perfect project for her daughter, Ashlyn Tilley. 

 “I love kitchen shops. And saw this pan, and I thought  this would be something that Ashlyn could do because they weren’t in school during covid,” said Shepherd. “And I just thought: ‘Man, this would be really cute!’” 

Ashlyn’s Homemade Dog Treats was launched.  

Tilley got to work trying out different recipes and holding taste tests among both human and canine companions. Her own furry friends, Murray the Havanese — so named for Bill Murray because he was born on Groundhog Day — and Bently, the mutt, gobbled up the samples. Ultimately the peanut butter treats edged out the pumpkin.

 “They are very good ingredients,” Shepherd said, adding that they don’t use peanut butter with xylitol, or anything else that is not safe for dogs. 

“I’ve tasted them myself. I mean in a pinch, I would eat them if I had to,” Shepherd added with a chuckle. “They smell pretty good when they are baking.”

Tilly approached her friends at Sandhills Winery with her tested-and-approved product. They are the exclusive seller of the dog treats which are made in small batches and restocked as needed. 

Each batch is hand mixed by Tilley and her sidekick, Rosemary McNair, in the warm Shepherd family kitchen. The pair then bundles four fresh-baked treats in a package with cute custom labels and stickers. Tilley, a dog lover, prices each bundle at just $2 and donates all the proceeds to Caring Hearts for Canines, a rescue in Moore County. 

Giving back to the community is just one way Tilley keeps busy since she has returned to her full calendar of activities, now that covid restrictions have been lifted. 

Her sweeping schedule includes the Arc of Moore County’s book club (which recently studied a Valentine’s joke book), attending classes at Sandhills Community College four days a week, singing with the Joyful Noise choir, participating in enrichment programs through Pinehurst Parks and Recreation, and enjoying meals out and shopping trips.

When Shepherd first moved to her house in Seven Lakes, there were very few opportunities for her daughter to get out and about. Shepherd became a determined advocate for inclusion in the wider community, helping to pioneer an education program at Sandhills Community College. “My goal is always to educate people about those with disabilities and their abilities,” Shepherd said. 

When Tilley graduated from Pinecrest, she made it known she wanted to go to college like her brother Ross who graduated with her. With an ever-enterprising spirit, Shepherd picked the phone and called the continuing education folks at Sandhills. 

“We really need something,” she told them. “We’ve got a lot of individuals in Moore County who once they graduate, they’re going to be sitting on the couch watching TV. Many of them are high-functioning enough that they need to continue to be in a classroom.” 

She says she didn’t stop at one conversation, but kept bugging them. Once the college was ready to put something in place, administrators warned Shepherd not to be surprised if the program was ultimately suspended for a lack of interest.There has been a waiting list ever since. 

Shepherd’s dogged enthusiasm, Tilley’s moxie and McNair’s nurture are ingredients for a stimulating well-rounded life, one that gives more than it takes. 

“As hard as we’ve worked to make her the best she can be, she has taught us more than we can even comprehend.” said Shepherd. “She has a sharp sense of humor with impeccable timing, loves everyone she meets and has a very active social life. We are so grateful for all the opportunities that are now available for her and her friends.”  

Tilley is known for coining a phrase which characterizes her pluck. “Ashlyn coined this phrase “be spirit!” said Shepherd. “And she would say that when she wanted everybody to calm down or to chill out. If she wanted an extra cookie, it was always: ‘come on, be spirit!’” Her family members, including brothers Talmadge and Ross and stepfather Dale, and all her friends started saying it too, embracing her invitation to “lighten up.” 

The phrase inspired a previous project of Tilley’s which raised funds for her Sandhills program. Tilley made and sold beaded bracelets with a charm engraved with her signature saying. The accompanying card stated, “It’s more than jewelry, it’s an attitude.” 

And while that project came to a natural conclusion, it’s clear the essence of it continues in her current endeavor to treat all the good dogs. “They’re good.” she says of her product. “They should all try them.” 

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