• jamesfeinberg

Imagine being a child and losing a parent, sibling, friend, or pet. Who would you talk to about your sadness and other feelings, and who would really understand your grief?


Understanding a child’s grief is complicated because a child’s age essentially determines his or her actual understanding of death. For example, a child 10 or older generally grasps that death is permanent whereas a child younger does not. Consequently, how to talk with a child about loss will be qualitatively different depending upon their age as well as level of development. And, one approach does not work with all children of all ages nor does the same approach work with children as they age and need to re-address this loss.


Further complicating matters is that grieving parents are often overwhelmed and unable to address their own grief as well as their child’s. Because grieving children (like adults) are at risk for developing depression and anxiety, and time does not heal all wounds, these children must have someone to turn to but whom?


At home, children often turn to their family pets for unconditional support and love. Their physical and spiritual presence provides children not only someone to talk to but that additional caring and support that we all need when grieving. However, loving pets are often not enough. That’s where Pet Assisted Therapy is the answer.

Dude our 2nd therapy dog, relaxing.

Combining pets with psychotherapy or Pet Assisted Therapy is an immensely powerful approach for facilitating the grieving process in children as well as addressing and resolving a number of other problems. Many years ago, I discovered this after incorporating my first therapy dog, Dr. G., into my practice. His divine presence put both children and their parents at ease and greatly facilitated healing.


After Dr. G. passed, Dude, my 9 year old German Shepherd from California, stepped up to the plate. He is a gentle and loving therapy dog who is highly trained and skilled as well as quite intuitive when it comes to interacting with grieving children. Consequently, children immediately feel at ease with him and are much more willing and able to visit their sadness. Sometimes, I combine play therapy with pet assisted therapy for much younger children who aren’t able to put their feelings into words.


Originally published on The Healthy Planet, Feburary 1st, 2011

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  • jamesfeinberg

Both Dude, therapy dog extraordinaire, and Grace, want-to-be therapy dog (i.e. in training) know that both a keen sense of smell and smarts are essential to knowing what critters they’re tracking. They also know that ADHD, Asperger’s, and Speech and Language Disordered kids, to name a few, all act differently. Similarly, child clinical psychologists know that you can’t successfully treat kids and teens if you don’t know what you’re dealing with first. However, sorting it all out is neither quick nor easy. In fact, it takes time, multiple contacts, observation, multiple sources of information (e.g. parent & teacher report, & Dude/Grace feedback), and then a great deal of education, experience, and skill to know what it all means never mind what to do with it all.



Photo by rrinna from Pexels

Still, parents often ask: why can’t you generate a diagnosis after one contact with a child or teen? Well, how a child may act in a first contact may not truly be representative of their actual functioning. For example, many years ago, in a first appointment, a child exhibited significant hyperactivity. However, in subsequent appointments, he didn’t. Generating a diagnosis based upon that first contact and then embarking upon treatment would have been disastrous for that child. Only over time do trends in functioning become apparent.


Others parents sometimes ask: why do you need multiple sources of information? Some children and teens act quite differently with psychologists than with their parents and teachers. Only when behavior is consistent across settings and people, do you really know that you’re on the right track. Even then, it’s complicated because in our attempt to make sense of the world around us, most folks (even psychologists!) overly simplify what they see and typically look for only one cause or explanation.


This results in some but not all contributing factors being identified. Such situations almost always result in treatment failures. Therefore, once you have completed this comprehensive psychological evaluation then, and only then, are you ready to embark upon treatment where the likelihood for success is high.


So, ask any dog that can hunt, and he’ll/she’ll tell you that you just can’t bark and chase without first having an exceptional nose and good sense!


Originally published in The Healthy Planet, December 6th, 2011

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  • jamesfeinberg

Ask any pet owner, young or old, about their dog and a large smile will come across their face, their mood will brighten, and they will offer to show you various photos of their dear ones on their smart phone. Those of us who live with dogs and other mammals know and have always known that their presence enriches our lives in a multitude of ways. Therefore, it is no surprise that medical and psychological research has scientifically confirmed that these divine creatures reduce our stress and blood pressure levels as well as contribute to us living longer lives.


Dude at work during a session.

Pet or animal assisted therapy as it’s now known, takes pet ownership a powerful step further by melding trained animals with skilled mental health practitioners. This approach can take many forms depending upon the target population and the presenting problems. For example, with Autistic, Asperger’s, Spectrum, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder children and teens, the primary focus is upon the quality of their connection with my therapy dogs, German Shepherds Dude and Grace. With ADHD boys, the typical focus is upon appropriate social interactions and related impulse control, observation, and then action on behalf of these kids with my canine assistants. Whereas, with depressed and anxious boys, the focal point is teaching these boys how to self-soothe by having them pet, scratch, and groom my 4 legged friends while noting the effects on their (i.e. kids’/teens’) emotional state.


How all of this happens is not as simple nor as straightforward as it sounds.First, a comprehensive evaluation is essential to accurately assessing problems. Second, effective treatment requires knowing when, where, and how to intervene. Third, therapy dogs and psychologists, who have spent countless hours and years training together, do their magic by providing a non-judgmental, nurturing, and healing environment as well as a tailored treatment approach for each individual child and teen. With ample opportunities for kids to get it right, and without fear of ridicule or rejection as is often the case with peers who expect a certain standard of behavior, these kids often overcome their problems and blossom over time.


Originally published on The Healthy Planet, December 29th, 2012

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