Emotional GPS, Part 1.
How Dogs Retrieve Our Unconscious Emotions
Originally published in slightly different form on April 21, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.
Dogs Retrieve More Than Tennis Balls
In two of my most recent articles I talked about how lost dogs find their way home, using an emotional GPS system, and that the human/dog relationship can be fully and accurately described as a manifestation of a Freudian dynamic, with the dog in the role of the Id—full of unrestrained drives and impulses—and the owner as Ego—the system’s control mechanism. These two ideas dovetail nicely into a common phenomenon most dog owners may be unaware of, 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 discussed this idea in my first novel, A Nose for Murder, published in 2002. 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 in his book, Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves: “Before remedial training can take hold, an owner must first acknowledge the message his dog is bringing him [through its behavior]. ... The emotional parts of us that we long ago cut off, the dog retrieves.”
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.
Caleb Fetches My Lost Photographs
Earlier, I’d found myself wondering where some of my old photographs were. Then I remembered that I’d put them—and some other items that were possible hiding places for bedbugs—into some double-wrapped black plastic garbage bags, and had left them all in the front closet. The bedbug scare was long over with, but I didn’t feel like going through all those bags to find which one held the photos, yet still retained a niggling 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 up on a high shelf, then left a few old socks lying on top of the hamper, hoping they would satisfy his need to fetch things.
When I came home, the old socks were undisturbed, but I found black plastic strewn everywhere. Caleb had gotten into the closet and ripped open one of those black 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 out of their folders, and had then left them lying in plain sight on the living room rug.
This was extraordinarily strange and amazing. Caleb got to play fetch, and I found my pictures.
Now, this might seem an odd coincidence, but I’ve found it actually happens fairly often; it’s just that most people don’t pay attention to it.
Here’s another example from dog trainer and photographer Sang Koh.
“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 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:
“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 unwearable, which forced me to buy a new pair. The odd thing is, he hasn’t ripped anything else since.”
Dogs Feel What We Feel
Behavioral science can’t explain these behaviors; they’re not a function of conditioning, so they’re dismissed as oddities or anomalies. However, since the primary, in fact the only, motivator for all canine behavior is not to get rewards but to resolve a dog’s own internal tension or stress, it’s not that difficult to understand 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 internal tension as well. This is just one more reason why I think Sigmund Freud’s philosophy is a lot more relevant to understanding canine behavior than behavioral science is.
Freud says that uncanny events (like a dog going through the mail and picking out bills to leave in the middle of the living room floor, or only chewing on pairs of pants that the owner has been putting off replacing, etc.) 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, our dogs may very well fetch them 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: as Freud said, 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 favor.