The Curious Case of the Dog Who Licked Doorknobs
Originally published in slightly different form on April 8, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.
“Happiness is a warm puppy.”
---- Charles Shultz
“What we call happiness comes from the (preferably sudden)
satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.”
Dogs Operate as a Natural Energy System
In my last article here at Psychology Today, I made the claim that understanding some of the basic principles of Freudian psychology can help us—dog owners and dog trainers alike—understand our dogs better, and that Freud’s ideas may be more relevant to dog training than those of Konrad Lorenz, Ivan Pavlov, or B. F. Skinner.
I also pointed to some of the latest research in neurobiology, which validates Freud’s views that the psyche is divided into the Id, Ego  and Superego, which relate to specific structures in the unconscious, pre-conscious, and conscious parts of the mind. Neurologically speaking, these correlate with the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.
In other articles here I’ve presented the idea that a dog’s behavior operates more along the lines of a natural energy system than it does either as part of a dominance hierarchy or solely as the result of reinforcement schedules.
When we examine Freud’s view that the ego’s primary role is to suppress unbound energy contained within the Id (the impulsive and puppylike unconscious part of the psyche which responds directly and immediately to basic urges, needs, and desires), we can see that there’s also a direct correlation between some of the basic precepts of Freudian psychology and how canine behavior also operates as an energy system.
Freud likened the mind to a horse (Id) and rider (Ego), but he could just as easily—and perhaps more aptly—have compared it to a puppy and owner.
People Have a Tendency to “Dam Up“ Some of Their Puppy’s Desires
When sleeping, puppies have almost boundless energy and curiosity. They’re always sticking their noses (and teeth), into places they don’t belong. The owner’s goal is to prevent the little guys from doing too much damage to the owner’s clothes, furniture, skin, or to the pup himself.
This is often a matter of the owner’s Ego constantly repressing the puppy’s desires. We worry what our friends or relatives will think of us when they come to visit. What if we take the little cutie to the bank and he does his business right there on the floor? Our self-image is often inextricably bound up in our pup’s behaviors. (We also often channel our inner parent when we interact with our puppies.) So we do everything we can to repress, and put a lid on—or as Freud puts it “dam up”—the puppy’s desires.
There’s almost no way around this. In most cases we’re just trying to keep the puppy from danger. And when we’re not, we’re unable to see the link between the childhood battles we may have fought with our parents and the battles we’re now having with our pup. They’re locked deep within our own unconscious while the puppy just does what all good dogs do, he fetches these battles for us and brings them to the surface for us to deal with.
Think of some of the words we commonly associate with training: leash, collar, harness, “No!” “Bad!” “Wait!” “Down!” “Stop!” “Stay!” etc. Almost all of them are designed to put a lid on a dog’s or puppy’s energy.
Over time, the puppy learns to repress some of his impulses on his own. This is a matter both of conditioning and an outgrowth of the symbiotic relationship that develops between the pup’s mind and that of his owners, a form of embodied, embedded cognition. The two begin to share a single mind: the puppy is almost pure Id while the owner is a control mechanism.
Do Dogs Have More Impulse Control Than Other Species?
The thing is, though, that while puppies may have difficulty learning impulse control—at least initially—as a species dogs are actually more capable of doing this than any other animal on earth, except humans and dolphins. In fact, impulse control may be an evolutionary artifact, a direct outgrowth of the dog’s shared evolutionary history with the wolf.
A recent study on dogs, “Common Self-Control Processes in Humans and Dogs“ shows that dogs exert impulse control in exactly the same manner as humans. And that this ability to suppress one’s own desires (alternately called “self-control,” “delayed gratification,” etc.), is measured through the depletion of blood glucose levels in the pre-frontal cortex, or “executive-function” portion of the brain. The more impulse control, the more blood glucose is depleted, so the less energy the dog (or person) has at their disposal for new cognitive tasks.
However, once those levels are restored, the pup’s ability to learn new tasks and to control his impulses, is restored as well. (The dogs in this study were given commands that involved impulse control—they weren’t put into positions where they had to do this on their own—which reinforces the idea that this may involve a shared consciousness between the dog and owner.)
The authors say that their study offers “the first evidence that exerting self-control depletes energy in nonhuman animals.” (Miller, Pattison, DeWall, Rayburn-Reeves and Zentall, Psychological Science, March 2010).)
How Dogs and Puppies Sublimate Their Urges and Desires
Actually, this idea comes from a 1998 study done on humans (“Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” by Roy E Baumeister, (1998), which was heavily influenced by Freud’s psychology (which in turn was heavily influenced by the idea that the mind is an energy system which has to obey the laws of thermodynamics).
In it the authors write that the “...theory that volition is one of the self’s crucial functions can be traced back at least to Freud, who described the ego as the part of the psyche that must deal with the reality of the external world by mediating between conflicting inner and outer pressures. Freud also seems to have believed that the ego needed to use some energy in making such decisions ... [and] he recognized the conceptual value of postulating that the ego operated on an energy model.”
If you’ve read some of the articles I’ve written, you’ll see that when I talk about behavioral problems in dogs, I tend to describe them in terms of internal pressures and stress. And that the best way to solve them is by giving the dog an alternative outlet for those feelings, specifically through rough-and-tumble outdoor play, which releases tension and also increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs).
You’ll also find several articles where I talk about how when wolves evolved to form packs (for the purpose of hunting large prey), they learned to sublimate their urge to bite one another into social behaviors. And that during the domestication process dogs expanded on this ability to sublimate their urge to bite in order to secure a place within the human household.
I know that in the strictest sense of the word, sublimation refers to a means of redirecting the energy behind raw sexual urges into other, more acceptable social behaviors, such as art and culture. This was one of the primary focal points of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. However, Freud also made a distinction between Eros—the energy inherent to all natural drives and desires—and the libido—the reflection of that energy as it manifests in the form of personality. So while we may not think of a dog’s urge to bite as having its origins in sexuality, it does. That’s because there is, beneath the surface of both sexual and aggressive urges (in both dogs and humans), an overpowering drive to connect with objects of one’s desires. This as true for your new puppy as it is to yourself.
So how does this Freudian dynamic play out in terms of a puppy’s development? In his book, Before and After Getting Your Puppy, Dr. Ian Dunbar writes, “The more dogs bite as puppies, the softer and safer their jaws in adulthood.” I agree, but would modify that statement as follows: “The more dogs are able to use their teeth to softly and gently mouth their owners, or to engage in rough-and-tumble play, the happier and better behaved they’ll be as adult doggies.”
This brings up a seminal event in the development of my ideas on dog training. Years ago, I got a call from a potential client whose dog had a very unusual problem. Annie (not her real name) was a small wheaten terrier who liked to lick doorknobs. In fact, she would obsessively lick the knob on the front door of her owners’ apartment every time someone came in or went outside. And she would continue licking it for at least twenty minutes or so, no matter what they did to try to stop her.
I knew that licking was one way a dog has of sublimating her urge to bite. So my first question wasn’t about how the behavior might’ve been reinforced. Nor did I waste time supposing that Annie was licking the doorknob so as to dominate her owners. No, my first question was this:
“What was Annie like during her oral phase?”
“Oh, she was terrible. Always mouthing us and biting our clothes.”
“And did you punish her for it?”
“Yes. We were told that whenever she mouthed or nipped, even in play, we should give her a smack under the chin, and say, ‘No! Bad dog!’”
“Well, that may be why she can’t stop licking the doorknob.”
Damming Up a Puppy’s Energy
The simple lesson is that when a puppy is going through a developmental phase, and you “dam up” the energy behind those impulses, you’re guaranteeing that the pup will develop some kind of behavioral problem as a result, simply because she needs to find a way to release those feelings.
In “Neurosis and Psychosis (1924),” Freud writes: “The transference neuroses originate from the ego’s refusing to accept a powerful instinctual impulse existing in its id, and denying it a motor discharge.” For Annie the impulse denied was mouthing, the discharge was obsessive licking.
The powerful instinctual urge in this case was the puppy’s drive to connect to her owners through her teeth, i.e., by mouthing and nipping in play, which are both harmless impulses, but that are, nevertheless, as Dr. Dunbar points out, important for proper social and emotional development in dogs.
Annie's owners, in the role of the ego, denied her that impulse its “motor discharge,” and as a result the impulse was transferred to another object—the doorknob—which represented another form of connection to the owners, as it was the focal point for where the puppy saw her owners—the objects of her desires—leave her alone each day, making her feel disconnected. It was also the focal point for where she saw them come back home, re-establishing the feeling of connectedness that she’d lost.
Note: the doorknob could not have been operated in any other way than by the hands of the owners, the same hands that had punished the dog for using her teeth in what, to her at least, was a positive social gesture.
Repression of Developmental Urges Cause Misbehaviors
In some cases, like with Annie, the through-line is fairly clear (though it would’ve been clearer if she’d become a biter rather than a licker). In other cases, like with my dog Freddie’s panic attacks, the dog seems totally fine until an emotional stressor brings the dog’s repressed feelings to the surface. (People used to tell me how “calm” Freddie was; but then, when we moved to a new apartment, things changed, and shortly after that his panic attacks started.) In both cases, the course of action was to teach the dog to bite as hard as possible while playing tug or fetch with its owners outdoors.
Of course the repression of developmental urges isn’t the only way dogs can develop behavioral problems. It can happen both through trauma, neglect and other things. However, traumatic experiences always foster fear, which automatically represses a dog’s natural drive instincts. As for neglect, that’s simply the flip-side of repression with the same general result; a lack of proper development in the dog’s prey drive increases the amount of energy directed toward the dog’s survival instincts, and, consequently, away from the sex and social instincts, both of which are related to the prey drive, and both of which are important to normal behavior in dogs.
Now, I know that Freud has fallen out of favor for some time. And, in some respects, there’s probably a good reason for that (though Freud was the first to admit that his theories might be proven or disproven by future scientific inquiry). And I seriously doubt if you’ll find many other dog trainers, if any, who base their work, even in the smallest way, on Freud’s philosophy, as I do. It’s also doubtful if my little polemics here will have enough weight to sway other trainers to my way of thinking. In my opinion, we all approach dog training more through the unconscious emotional connections we feel with our dogs than through our only slightly more rational conscious minds.
But for both trainers and owners, there may come a time when neither positive reinforcement nor dominance works. If that happens, I hope some will remember what I’ve said, and think to themselves: “Maybe it’s time to take another look at the man with the cigar.”
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1) The ego is the organized part of the personality structure that includes defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive functions. Conscious also awareness resides in the ego, though not all of the operations of the ego are conscious. In fact, Freud originally used the word ego to mean a sense of self, but later revised it to mean a set of psychic functions such as judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory. The ego essentially separates out what is real. It helps us to organize our thoughts and make sense of them and the world around us.