How Freudian Psychology Helps Us Understand Dogs
Originally published in slightly different form on March 15, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.
Dog Training and Object Relations Theory
I’m a Neo-Freudian dog trainer. It says so in my bio.
I first discovered this fact while working with a Rhodesian ridgeback who had fear issues; she was scared of the construction noises in her lower Manhattan neighborhood. After one of our sessions—where we were able to get her to have fun walking past the jackhammers by using a favorite toy to build her prey drive—her owner, a psychotherapist, asked me if I’d ever studied object relations theory.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“It seems to me that your ideas about dog training are based on it.”
So I went to the bookstore and did some research. I found that the term “object relations” was first coined by Ronald Fairbairn (in 1952), but that Freud used the term as early as 1917 to identify the people in a person’s sphere of influence as “objects” of their deep-rooted drives or desires.
Freud wrote a paper titled, “Mourning and melancholia“ in which he examined the unconscious work of the two to propose and explore some of the major tenets of a revised model of the mind which later would be termed “object‐relations theory.“
Generally speaking, object relations theory is a variation of a psychoanalytic concept that diverges somewhat from Freud’s belief that humans are primarily motivated by sex and aggression. Instead, object relations theory says instead that humans are motivated by the need for contact with others, the need to form relationships. And that’s exactly what some dogs need too, especially those with fear and aggression issues.
This made sense to me because I often referred to toys as “prey objects” and treats as “food objects,” though I didn’t know why. I also work a lot with a dog’s prey drive, for inducing obedience and for healing wounded emotions. That’s because when a dog—for whatever reason—begins to exhibit either fearful or aggressive tendencies (or both) it’s usually because they’ve experienced some form of trauma or punishment which interferes with their normal behavioral functioning. And if I can convince the dog that it’s okay to bite down as hard as he can on a tug toy, he's usually able to release a great deal of his internal tension and stress.
Hostility Toward Freud
Meanwhile, poet and novelist Siri Hustvedt writes: “Whenever someone mentions Freud, I see eyes roll and listen to the nasty remarks that follow. The received knowledge, even among some highly educated and informed people, is that Freud was wrong and can be relegated to history’s garbage can. ... the general attitude is one of out-and-out hostility.”
Hustvedt then points out, however, that modern neuroscience is starting to validate Freud’s so-called “outmoded” ideas. “No neuroscientist today would say that the unconscious does not exist. No one working in the field would argue against primal emotional drives in human beings either. [As a result] Freud is no longer dismissed as quickly as he once was.”
This is a kind of poetic justice, because before Freud began working on the content of people’s minds and emotions, he actually studied neuro-anatomy at the University of Vienna under German physiologist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke. And it was Brücke, who first proposed the concept of “psychodynamics,“ which emphasizes the psychological forces that underlie human behavior, feelings, and emotions, and how they might relate to an individual’s early experiences (1874). Freud, worked with Brücke from 1876 to 1882, and considered him to be the most highly respected teacher and the greatest authority in the field he had ever met.
Another influence on the young Freud was Hermann von Helmholtz, a physician and physicist who made significant contributions in several scientific fields. In physics, he was known for his theories on the conservation of energy, and was important in framing the second law of thermodynamics, which became a springboard for Freud’s psychology.
Modern Neuroscience Validates Freud
A new paper by R.L. Carhart-Harris and K. J. Friston, published in the Oxford University neurlogical journal, The Brain, posits that Freud’s view of how the conscious mind is designed to monitor and, if necessary, suppress impulses coming from the unconscious, is, in fact, grounded in actual physical brain structures, as well as types of brain waves that are found in different parts of the brain, such as the limbic system (which controls emotion) and the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of executive function).
They write, “Freudian concepts have a real neurobiological substrates [that] could be usefully revisited in the context of modern neuroscience.”
They go on to say that new advances “allow us to recast Freudian ideas in a mechanistic and biologically informed fashion.”
Pavlov, Skinner, Lorenz and Freud
However, a neo-Freudian dog trainer? Do I really think of myself that way? I mean, yes it’s true that Freud was a dog lover. But seriously, when we think about canine behavior, Sigmund Freud is not the first name that comes to mind. (Does Pavlov ring a bell?) And most modern dog trainers trace their philosophy back to either Konrad Lorenz or B. F. Skinner. Very few would consider Freud a major influence.
However, even though Freud is now considered old-hat, every single one of Lorenz’s views on canine behavior have been proven invalid.  And while Skinner’s ideas still hold sway in most animal training circles, holes and cracks in his philosophy began showing themselves from the outset.  Meanwhile, Freud’s philosophy and ideas are, for the most part, still valid.
So even though no one thinks of Freud as being relevant to dog training (no one except me, perhaps), I think they’re much more helpful, and much more relevant, than the Lorenzian or Skinnerian models.
Next time: how understanding Freud can 1) be of immense benefit to dogs with PTSD, 2) show us that by punishing a puppy for mouthing or soiling the house we create neurotic behaviors later on, and 3) help us learn that teaching puppies obedience skills before their brains are developed, can create social, emotional, and even neurological disorders.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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1) Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, in their book, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding... report that when they met Konrad Lorenz he told them right off the bat, that “everything I ever said about dogs was wrong.”
2) a. Psycho-analytic psychology deals with the manifestations in behaviour and in subjective perception of motivations of the biological organism as a unit. Such motivations, or some of them, are commonly called 'drives', 'instincts' or instinctual forces. b. They are properly termed 'forces' because they activate the physical behaviour of the organism and because they arise from the chemistry and physiology of the protoplasm, acting through cells and organs of which the human organism is constituted. In other words, the subject matter of psycho-analytic psychology, the fantasies and motivations which underlie feeling, thinking and behaviour, are subjectively perceived as reflections in the mind of the chemistry and physiology of the body. Sex urges and the fight-flight reactions are examples.
4) "Emotional Thermodynamics" video. https://vimeo.com/231898264