Sigmund Freud & the Case of Annie, the Doorknob-Licking Wheaten Terrier, Part 1

This Is Not Annie

Freud is back!

Thanks to recent breakthroughs in neurobiology, much of modern psychology, which for years had minimized Freud’s contributions, has been forced to admit that Freud was right. Not just about some things, but a whole lot of them.

Freud started as a neuroologist, publishing several important and influential papers, and coining terms for psycho-neurological defects such as agnosia (the inability to know things) among several others. In time, though, he turned his attention to psychological problems.

In a 2004 Scientific American article, neurosurgeon Mark Solms tells us that many of Freud’s key theories about how the human mind works have been proven valid by modern neuroscience.

“An increasing number of neuroscientists,” writes Solms, “are reaching the same conclusion drawn by Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University … that [Freudian] psychoanalysis is ‘still the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind.’”

Solms also says that “Freud’s broad brushstroke organization of the mind is destined to play a role similar to the one Darwin’s theory of evolution served for molecular genetics—a template on which emerging details can be coherently arranged.”

So just as Darwin had no idea what role genetics or DNA played in the process of natural selection, Freud only had inklings of what future generations would discover about the brain and consciousness. In fact, Freud predicted the discovery of endorphins, dopamine, and other neuro-chemicals that affect our thoughts and emotions. (The Freud Reader, “Civilization and Its Discontents.” 1930, p. 730.)

“That’s all well and good,” some might say, “but what does any of this have to do with dog training?”

Good question. The first part of the answer is that one of the key features of Freudian psychology is the notion that many, if not all, human impulses operate through older parts of the brain, neurological structures that we share with all other mammals, including dogs.

“The instinctual mechanisms that gov­ern human motivation are even more primitive than Freud imagined,” writes Solms. And “the func­tional anatomy and chemistry of our brains is not much different from that of our … house­hold pets.”

The Dog Who Licked Doorknobs

I first discovered Freud’s importance to solving behavioral problems in dogs back in 1994 when I met Annie, a soft-coated wheaten terrier who was licking the doorknob of her owners’ front door. They reported that she did this obsessively whenever someone left or entered their apartment, it didn’t matter who. Also, Annie was small for a wheaten, so she had to jump up in the air each time she licked the doorknob. And she’d do it over and over, unable to stop until she’d completely exhausted herself. Then she’d lie next to the front door panting heavily for a half hour or more.

I’d been told about the behavior over the phone, but it wasn’t until I came over and observed Annie engaged in this strange compulsion that I came up with a theory about what was going on: This was a case of transference!

According to Freud’s definition of transference, it starts with a repressed emotion that’s “denied a motor discharge.”

I immediately thought, “No, that can’t be true!”

It was too stunning and strange to think that a dog’s behavior could be explained through Freudian psychology. And yet, as I watched Annie (after trying and failing to get her to stop for food, by gently restraining her, etc.), and I went through all possible explanations for how the behavior could have developed in the first place, I could see that, if I was right, Annie had probably been severely punished for mouthing her owners as an expression of her love for them while she was going through her oral development phase. That had to have been the first step.

Mind you, this was all hypothetical until I asked the question: “Was Annie ever punished for mouthing when she was a puppy?”

The answer was yes. Annie’s owners had been taught that “puppy teeth should never touch human skin,” and that if they wanted to avoid raising an aggressive dog, they had to cuff her hard under the chin and shout,“No! No bite!” anytime she used her mouth on them.

So Annie learned how not to express her emotions because doing so had gotten her in trouble. The problem is, the urge to bite is very strong in dogs. It’s probably one of the most important features of canine psychology. For puppies, mouthing and licking are the only means they have of expressing their affection for one another and for us.

Repressed Emotions, Missed Love Connections

Puppies are also in a constant state of cathexis, another Freudian term: They unabashedly project their emotional energy onto numerous objects of attraction, from their toys to old socks to human hands. The more attraction they have for an object, the more they want to put it in their mouths to see how it feels.

In addition, puppies pay very close attention to two main features of the human anatomy: our eyes, which reflect our emotional states, and our hands, which are able to do things that seem quite magical.

So Annie projected her loving feelings onto her owners’ hands by gently mouthing them whenever she had a chance. And since she was severely punished for doing it, a very important part of her psyche was prevented from developing fully. Annie was also prevented from making the kind of “love connection” that dogs are designed to make.

My next hypothesis was that, since the oral impulses in dogs are so strong, and since the need to make emotional bonds just as strong, if not stronger, Annie probably developed a habit of obsessively licking her owners’ hands and faces, especially during moments of high emotion, like when she was left alone for a while and they came home through the front door. (Wheaten terriers are actually famous for their “wet greeting.”)

I hypothesized that she was probably punished for licking them as well.

It turns out I was right about that too.

So there all that unexpressed oral energy sat, all that wonderful puppy love, bubbling under the surface of Annie’s psyche, until one day, some unknown stressor came along (it could have been something as simple as a change in the family’s schedule), and it all came rushing out in this crazy jumping-in-the-air, licking-the-doorknob behavior.

In effect, Annie had transferred all the energy, all the love and need to feel connected that wasn’t being returned by her owners (at least not in a way that she understood), and focused it on an object that had a very important place in her life: It was where her owners put their hands every time they left the apartment or came home. The doorknob.

All the unhappy feelings of being left home alone, and the excited feelings she couldn’t express naturally about how happy she was to see her owners come through door, became focused on that roundish piece of metal. She didn’t know why she had to lick the stupid brass doorknob, she just knew she had to do it and keep doing it until all the unpleasant feelings she’d been bottling up inside went away, at least for a little while.

Lee Charles Kelley

"Life Is an Adventure--Where Will Your Dog Take You?"

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.