Five Freudian Principles That Can, and I Think Should Be Used, in Dog Training

So What Happened to Annie?

In my previous guest post I wrote about how I discovered that Freudian psychology can and should be applied to dog training, a lesson I learned from a Wheaten terrier named Annie who was obsessively licking the doorknob of her owners’ apartment door.

My recommendations to Annie’s owners were that they “re-puppify” her: Take her back to the days before they’d punished her mouthing, and let her do what she’d been longing to do at the time.

“Let her mouth your hands softly when she’s in a quiet mood,” I told them. “Just pet her and stroke her head, then gently insert your hand into her mouth and let her nibble your fingers.”

I also suggested they play tug-of-war with her outdoors for at least 20 minutes twice a day, every day.

They thanked me and said they couldn’t possibly do either. Their veterinarian had been anxious to put Annie on Prozac, which was a new approach at the time. They followed his advice. She got better for a while but, sadly, the medication stopped working. I lost touch after that.

I wish that I’d had the convictions I have now about Freud’s importance in dog training. But I didn’t. So while I gave Annie’s owners what I felt was sound advice, I lacked the ability to convince them to follow through.

Luckily for the next dog that came along (and the next and the next), what I learned from Annie gave me more confidence in my ability to diagnose and solve behavioral problems using the following five Freudian principles.

Five Key Freudian Principles

1. Impulse Control

It was Freud’s view that the conscious mind, or Ego, had the job of deciding which external or internal stimuli should be acted upon and which shouldn’t. It performed this task by controlling, ignoring, or suppressing impulses from the Id, or unconscious mind.

Blood glucose supplies the brain with most of its energy. Recent studies have shown that when the human mind is engaged in a task involving willpower, delayed gratification or impulse control, blood glucose levels in the part of the brain involved in the “executive function” go down, which seems to prove Freud’s hypothesis from nearly 100 years ago. Two studies have been done on dogs which suggest that they may also lose some mental energy after doing an impulse-control task.

My observations have led me to believe that in a long-term dog/human dynamic—one where they’re so in-tune with one another that they’ve undergone a kind of Vulcan mind-meld—the human acts as the control mechanism for the dog’s impulses.

2. Sublimating Aggression and Sexuality

Through sublimation, human beings — and perhaps some other social animals — take the emotional energy behind their sexual and aggressive urges and transform it into socially acceptable behaviors. For example, if you take the anger you have toward your boss and invest it in creating new, innovative ways to make your department function better so that you can eventually take over her position, that’s a creative use of aggression!

Interestingly, wolves also sublimate their aggressive urges, primarily the urge to bite, into postures that scientists have called dominant and submissive displays (a lot of teeth-baring and submissive licking). Dogs have not only inherited this ability, they had to expand on it when they first became domesticated. Those who didn’t sublimate their urge to bite probably didn’t live long enough to contribute to the gene pool.

3. Repressed Emotions

As we saw in Annie’s case, nearly all behavioral problems in dogs come from emotions repressed during puppyhood.

When a puppy enters a human household, he’s always being stopped, scolded or pulled away from things that he feels emotionally attracted to. Not only that, but he also has to repress his urge to pee and poop anywhere he wants to anytime he feels like it.

So what happens to that energy when it’s repressed? It’s bottled up like steam building inside a pressure cooker. As a result of this unpleasant feeling of pressure, the puppy starts to develop behavioral tics and neuroses, which are generally categorized by the owner as “personality quirks.” In a worst-case scenario, the repressed energy evolves into severe behavioral problems, panic attacks, separation anxiety, intense “shyness” or aggression. But behind all those behaviors is the same general symptom: repressed energy that needs to be released.

4. Projecting Emotions onto Objects of Attraction

Freud called this process cathexis. It can be seen most clearly in how we fall in love. Our need to form a sexual connection with the object of our affections is at times so strong it’s almost as if we’re carrying around this magic cloud of energy, thoughts and emotions about the person we’re attracted to.

When we’re not in the first throes of infatuation, we still need to project some of our energy onto other things. So we invest our time and energy in hobbies, our jobs, and perhaps the occasional fantasy about someone other than our spouse. Dreams and wishes (the conscious kind, like when we dream of a vacation or buying a new car) are also forms of cathexis.

Dogs and wolves form cathexes as well. Wolves project their emotional energy onto their prey. Seeing a prey animal, particularly when a wolf hasn’t eaten in a while, stimulates strong feeling of attraction toward it. In like manner, dogs project their energy onto squirrels, their owners, their doggie pals, cyclists, skateboarders and their toys.

5. The Constant Search for Pleasure

Why do humans and dogs project our energies onto objects of attraction? Because it feels good. Why does it feel good? Because when emotional energy builds up to a certain level, it creates feelings of pressure. Projecting some of that energy onto objects of attraction releases some of the pressure, creating a pleasurable feeling of relief.

This is probably the most important Freudian principle because it’s not only the underlying process behind the other four, but behind the concept of positive reinforcement as well. In fact, positive reinforcement is a clinical outgrowth of Freud’s Pleasure Principle, the idea that all behavior is driven by the desire to seek out and repeat pleasurable experiences and to avoid painful ones. The primary difference, though, is that Freud defined pleasure as the sudden release of unresolved emotions.

It works like this: a stimulus – such as a feeling of hunger (internal) or the sight of a squirrel (external) – creates an uncomfortable feeling of physiological pressure in a dog’s body. Nature has designed animals to feel this pressure so that we’ll act, so we’ll do something. A dog’s behavior is almost always an attempt to get rid of that feeling. If he finds a way to get rid of it, he experiences a pleasurable release. This explains why giving a dog what should be a pleasurable experience – say eating a liver treat – doesn’t always reinforce a behavior, but giving him a way to release his pent up emotions does.

Case Study #2: Tippy, Who Was Biting His Owner’s Arms

A few weeks after I met Annie I was called in to see Tippy, a black-Lab mix named for the white tip on the end of his tail. Recently adopted, he’d developed a bad habit of biting his owner—a wife and mother of two—on the arm when she took him for walks. The owner knew it was mainly exuberance—there was never any blood, just a lot of bruising—but she wanted my help in getting him to stop.

As I sat in the family’s kitchen, discussing things, Tippy kept pacing, lying down for a few seconds, pacing again, and occasionally coming over to hump my leg. Each time he did, I kept answering his owners’ questions, and followed a behavioral science protocol: I ignored Tippy’s behavior, waited for him to stop, then praised him softly.

After more than twenty minutes of this pattern, I finally realized that simply ignoring the behavior wasn’t working, and probably wasn’t going to. Then I remembered Freud, and what I’d told Annie’s owners to do to help solve her obsessive licking. So the next time Tippy came over to hump my leg, I scratched his neck with one hand, and put two or three fingers of my other hand into his mouth, encouraging him to use them as a pacifier.*

He complied happily for about 30 seconds, softly mouthing my hand, with a blissful look on his face. Then he went back over to his spot in the corner, lay down and put his chin on the floor, completely relaxed for the first time that evening.

His owners didn’t quite know what to make of this. When I recommended that they do the same thing with him every evening, they were hesitant.

“Are you going to pay for my wife’s doctor bills?” the husband asked.

“I don’t think you have to worry. Look at him now!”

Tippy was sound asleep.

I convinced them to follow my advice (which included playing fetch and tug-of-war outdoors, and letting him play with other dogs during off-leash hours in Central Park). Tippy’s behavioral problems didn’t disappear overnight of course. But with the idea firmly in mind of giving him a pleasurable outlet for his oral urges, one that didn’t involve bruising his owner’s arms, Tippy’s owners were able to bring him back to normal fairly quickly.

Q & A

Why was Tippy humping my leg? What was reinforcing his behavior? Why didn’t ignoring him work? And how come letting him nibble on my fingers did?

The way I see it, Tippy felt a social attraction to me—as dogs do to any potential “pack mate.” By entering his “den,” I aroused strong emotions in him that created feelings of pressure that he could feel in his body. He projected those emotions onto me (he formed a cathexis), but because of repressed emotions (probably caused by being punished for mouthing, chewing and nipping during his oral development phase), his desire to connect to me wasn’t given a satisfying outlet. As a result, it took the form of a displaced sexual behavior (the pressure he felt in his teeth and jaws was literally pushed down toward his hips). But humping me didn’t fully relieve the emotional pressure he felt.

The reason he kept repeating the behavior wasn’t because I was reinforcing it (I wasn’t), nor was it because the behavior was reinforcing itself (well, it was, sort of). The reason he kept doing it was that it felt good, but not quite good enough to get rid of all of the internal pressure he was feeling (this is also why Annie kept licking the doorknob).

Meanwhile, mouthing my hand for 30 seconds did relieve his feelings of pressure because, underneath it all, he didn’t want to hump me, he wanted to connect to me through his teeth, the same way he wanted to connect to his owner by biting her on the arm while they were out walking together. Allowing him to mouth my hand helped begin to re-puppify Tippy, the way I believe it could have helped Annie.

* I was enormously lucky that Tippy didn’t bite down on my fingers as hard as he’d been biting his owner’s arms. At the time I hadn’t yet clarified in my mind the difference between a dog who needs re-puppification and one that needs re-domestication. The first can usually be helped, fairly safely, using the “fingers-as-pacifiers” ritual (among other things). With the second type you can’t re-puppify the dog until you re-domesticate him first. And that takes a tremendous amount of time and patience. I was lucky to be able to sense that Tippy was in the first, not the second category, or I wouldn’t have been able to type this blog post today!

So if you want to let your dog use your fingers as a pacifier, be very, very careful!

Lee Charles Kelley

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

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.