Play therapist's secret weapon for troubled kids has wet nose, wagging tail

Play therapy is a way for troubled kids to heal emotionally after undergoing a traumatic experience.

There are only a few dozen registered play therapists in South Carolina and Ellen King at the Center for Counseling and Wellness in North Myrtle Beach is the only one on the Grand Strand to use a dog - her corgi, Bella - to help kids overcome emotional trauma.

"She's a great listener, as you can tell by the size of her ears," King laughs.

King says taking care of animals helps kids learn how to be kind and considerate to others. Along with that, dogs are non-judgmental.

"As parents and other adults, we tend to give lectures, advice, because we care," King said. "But sometimes children really do need that unconditional acceptance without feedback and I think animals do offer that."

King uses play time to help children recover from trauma, depression or other issues that may result from things like the divorce of their parents or sexual abuse.

There are no video games or brand-name toys in King's playroom, but there is a sandbox and toys that allow children to show nurturing, aggression or creativity.

"So it's a wide range of toys that you pick from each category, so that children can then pick what they play with as a way to express themselves."

King says she's seen countless examples of children who came to her with serious behavioral problems and play therapy turned their lives around.

"They're unhappy and this gives them a chance to express themselves and you can see it progress over the sessions," she says. "And I get the joy at the end of the sessions, at the end of their treatment, to see them happy."

King says play therapy can even help teenagers. Her clients range from two to 18 years old.

Helping kids do better in school, get along with family and friends, and get over behavioral problems are the goals for King and her able assistant, Bella.

"I sometimes feel kids really do come to see the dog and not me."

That's OK, King says. Whatever it takes to help a troubled child get better.