Sigmund Freud and Two Chow Pups
Do Dogs Have an Uncanny Ability to Retrieve Our Unconscious Desires?
(Originally published in slightly different form on April 21, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com)
Dogs as a Freudian Therapists
In my most recent blog post here I presented the idea that dogs may be telepathic, that is able to feel at a distance what their owners are feeling. This ability is also present in a very common phenomenon most dog owners are either unaware of or pay no attention to, where a dog has an uncanny ability to find and retrieve some of his or her owner’s unconscious emotional issues.
No, I’m not kidding.
I originally discussed this idea in my first novel, A Nose for Murder, published in 2002. In it, my protagonist, Jack Field, says jokingly, “I’ve often thought that if Sigmund Freud had allowed his patients to talk only about their pooches, instead of free-associating about their mommies and their potty training, they would have all been cured a lot faster.”
Dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan also writes about this phenemonon in his book Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves: “The emotional parts of us that we long ago cut off, the dog retrieves.”
Caleb Retrieves My Photographs
A few weeks ago I was boarding a Welsh springer spaniel named Caleb, who, if he doesn’t get enough fetch time every day, and you have to leave him home alone for a while, he’ll “fetch” things out of your closet, or your garbage can, or off your coat rack. It was raining hard that particular day, which meant that Caleb didn’t get enough fetch time.
Earlier, I’d found myself wondering where some of my old photographs were. Then I remembered I’d put them and some other items in some double-wrapped black plastic garbage bags during a bedbug scare, and had left them all in the front closet. The issue with bedbugs was long over with, but I didn’t feel like going through all those bags to find which one held the photos. Still I held on to a nagging feeling of frustration that I wasn’t able to find then as easily as I would’ve liked.
When it came time to leave, I put all possible items of clothing that Caleb might want to grab and fetch for me up on a high shelf, then left a few old socks lying on top of the hamper, hoping they would satisfy his fetch-a-holic nature. When I came home, the socks were undisturbed, but I found black plastic strewn everywhere. The dog had gotten into the closet and ripped open one of those garbage bags.
Initially, I was upset that he hadn’t gone for the socks, and that I had to clean up his mess. But as I looked around, I realized that he’d chosen the one garbage bag that I’d been wanting to open myself; the one with all my photos in it. Not only that, but none of the pictures were damaged. He’d just ripped open the bag to “fetch” them for me, pulled them all out of their folders, and had then left them lying in plain sight on the living room rug.
It was a “win-win:” Caleb got to play fetch, and I found my pictures.
Now, this might seem like nothing but a strange coincidence yet it happens all the time; it’s just that most people don’t pay attention to it when it does.
Here’s another example, from dog trainer and photographer Sang Koh.
Jackie Reminds Sang to Pay His Bills
“Last year, my wife got laid off. Let’s just say it wasn’t a happy time for us, financially. We had never been very good at managing our finances, but it wasn’t really too much of a problem because we were both working. But the fact that we had never gotten our finances under control was always an issue lurking beneath the surface.
“Enter my dog Jackie. She had always been very good about not destroying things when left alone. Then, when my wife lost her job, Jackie she started pulling out bills from our mail, and leaving them in the middle of the living room floor. They were never torn open or damaged. They were just placed right where I could see them. And she never touched anything other than a bill. No coupons, magazines, catalogs, mailers, or letters.
“Now here’s where it gets even more interesting. After Jackie had done this a few times, we started crating her. So then our other dog, Delta decided that she has to be the one to start pulling bills out of the pile!”
Here’s a story from another dog owner, in a similar vein:
Brownie Helps With Wardrobe Decisions
“Now I understand why my dog Brownie ripped a couple pairs of my blue jeans in the first few days after we first got him! I left one pair of jeans on the floor next to the bed, partially out of laziness, but also because I was irritated by a stain, and the fact that one of the legs twists a bit cause the fabric was cut crooked. So I didn’t care that he ripped them.
“But then he did this again, to another pair of jeans that were getting really faded. I’d been putting off buying a new pair. In fact, every time I put those jeans on I felt angry at myself for not following through the way I should have. So the next time I left some clothes out, Brownie went straight for those faded jeans, making them un-wearable, which forced me to buy a new pair. The odd thing is, he hasn’t ripped anything else since.”
Oddities and Anomalies or Hints at Something Important?
Most models of animal behavior can’t explain these phenomena so they’re dismissed as oddities or anomalies. However, since the primary, in fact the only, motivator for all canine behavior is to resolve the dog’s own internal tension or stress, it shouldn’t be difficult to see that a dog who’s emotionally bonded to his owner will not only act to resolve his own internal tension, but in some cases, his master’s as well. This is just one more reason why I think Sigmund Freud’s philosophy is deeply relevant to understanding canine behavior.
Freud says that uncanny events come “from something repressed, which recurs.” And that these events are not “new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged by repression.” (“The Uncanny,” 1919.) In other words, when we repress our feelings, and lose touch with them, our dogs may very well fetch those feelings for us. And this isn’t strange at all, but something familiar that we’ve lost through the act of repressing it.
Of course not everything a dog does is a reflection of his owner’s unresolved emotions—sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But the next time your dog does something odd or coincidental, but that also irritates or annoys you, take a moment to consider the most unlikely answer of all: your dog might have just done your unconscious mind a huge favor.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”