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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

One Dog's Impact on a Family,Our Friend, Kimba

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 18th 2007

On December 13th, 2007, our twelve-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, Kimba, died of cancer after a long illness. She was with our family from the time she was a small puppy until she passed away yesterday. Some people may wonder how people can take the death of an animal so seriously. Many religions relegate animals to living things that should be treated with respect, but that have no souls. There are those who have told me that they believe it is ridiculous that anyone could feel grief or sadness at the death of an animal, even though it's a family pet. One good friend of mine, who happens to be a clinical psychologist, cannot understand my family's passion for our dogs. His daughters raised two pet cats while they were growing up, but, in his own words, he could have easily gotten rid of them without any qualms. Another psychologist, Joel Gavrielle-Gold, wrote a wonderful book about the use of dogs in his practice with couples, individuals, and children entitled, When Pets Come Between Partners. The book is available in paper back at Barnes and Noble online and can be found at: http://www.bn.com. The book describes all the ways in which people and pets interact with one another and explores the impact of these interactions on relationships.

How Did Kimba Impact Our Family?

When my wife, Pat, celebrated her 50th birthday, she wanted a Labrador retriever as her present. She found a wonderful young couple who were learning the art of dog breeding from a fine breeder whom we came to know and respect. It was from this young couple that we purchased Kimba at eight weeks of age. Of course the moment we saw her, she captured our hearts. However, this tiny yellow pup grew at an amazingly rapid speed into the huge bear of a dog I had always wanted. Pat, however, started to have doubts because Kimba was a handful to control. In fact, she nearly gave up and sent Kimba to live with another family with more grit than she thought she had. Then she decided in a "last ditch effort," to take classes and learn how to train Kimba to be a good citizen. Success! Pat, Kimba, and I went on to become fast friends who could trust and rely upon one another.

Pat knew I was interested in using dogs in my psychotherapy practice. Impressed by all the positive attention Kimba drew when in public and how she loved people, especially children, she decided to become involved in the field of training psychiatric support dogs. After retiring from the school system where she was a high level district administrator, she took a an assistant instructor job with East Coast Assistance Dogs, an organization that trains service dogs to assist people with serious physical disabilities, many of whom use wheel chairs. That was a major turning point in all of our lives in this family.

The turning point had to do with the fact that Pat became fascinated with training dogs to assist the disabled. What was really neat about the entire thing was that the East Coast Assistance Dogs program focused on teaching at-risk teenagers who lived in residential settings to help train the dogs. There was a double reward for this in that learning how to train the dogs was extremely therapeutic for these children. In this way, the children benefited, the dogs loved the work, and the clients with physical disabilities were partnered with highly trained dogs. It was a “win – win” situation for everyone involved.

In the meantime, Kimba has become a registered Therapy Dog through Therapy Dogs International and I was occasionally using her in my office with a few, carefully selected patients who seemed to enjoy her presence and who benefited because she was able to relieve their depression and anxiety just by being there. Then, one day, something very strange happened. A wonderful elderly patient who loved Kimba became frightened when, for no apparent reason, the dog growled at her the moment she entered the office. Kimba knew the woman and had never acted that way with anyone before. I quickly removed the dog from the office and apologized to the patient. The very next day, this woman had a mini stroke and began to descend into a type of dementia referred to as Multi Infarct Dementia, a condition characterized by mini strokes. We believed that Kimba sensed a change or was alerting the woman and myself to the fact that something was wrong, but of course, couldn’t tell us what.

All of this led to Pat becoming interested in training dogs for the specialized task as either being "Alert Dogs" or Psychiatric Support Dogs. After we moved to Colorado, she established a non profit organization known as Golden Kimba Service Dogs (http://www.goldenkimbaservicedogs.typepad.com). Golden Kimba Service Dogs now trains dogs for people with a variety of psychiatric problems such as Bipolar Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, phobias and anxieties, depression, and even Epilepsy. The dogs are certified Service Dogs and have public access under state law and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The dogs are permitted to accompany the client anywhere the general public is allowed, including buses, trains, airplanes, restaurants, supermarkets, etc.

These accomplishments are a result of what Pat and I learned from Kimba. Did I also mention that Kimba was loads of fun? Every morning this huge and wonderful dog pursed her lips, folded up her ears, jumped into bed, and insisted on kissing and jumping on us. The more we laughed, the more she licked.

We will always miss Kimba and we know that she is at the Rainbow Bridge with her old friend, Daisy, who died last year. We lovingly say that Kimba never met a human or an animal that she didn’t like. And as our veterinarian, Dr. Rob Landry, says, “The feeling was mutual.”

Your comments and questions are welcome and encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

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