Human Fingers as Puppy Pacifiers?

Using Transitional Objects to Solve Behavioral Problems

Originally published in slightly different form on December 16, 2011 at

Inner Conflict in Dogs?

I’m not sure how Dr. Maisel’s article—in which he invited his colleague Dr. Judith Levy to discuss some of her ideas about transitional objects (a Freudian—ended up in the Animal Behavior section of the Psychology Today website recently, but I’m glad it did.

For over 20 years I’ve been exploring the idea that certain Freudian dynamics may be applied to dog training, and to solving behavioral problems in dogs. I believe that understanding how these dynamics operate gives us a clearer window into how and why the canine-human bond operates the way it does, and how and why glitches in the system (i.e., behavioral problems) develop.

Dr. Judith Levy: “Freud was the first to posit that what we construe as meaningful or valuable is determined by both conscious and unconscious factors, and that meaning-making is a subjective experience, invariably effected by inner conflict.”

Do dogs have “inner conflict?” I think so. I see a constant conflict between the dog’s predatory and social natures, between his natural aggressive, predatory energy and his desire for maintaining positive social connections with others. In fact, this conflict is also an integral social dynamic of wolf packs, which means it’s also a basic part of a dog’s DNA.

Transitional Objects

Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the term “transitional object” (often referred to as a “security blanket”), and stressed the importance of the “developmental trajectory influenced by the interaction between mothers and babies, and emphasized the importance of play.”

In human development a transitional object is something that enables very young children to move beyond the stage of needing the mother’s warmth, comfort, and especially the oral pleasure that comes from breast-feeding (or even bottle feeding). Common transitional objects include dolls, teddy bears, pacifiers, or blankets.

Puppies—like babies and young children—are also very oral. And they go through a stage where they’re weaned off their mother’s milk. Since pacifiers, thumb-sucking, and security blankets satisfy an infant’s need to stay connected, orally, to a primary source of satisfaction (i.e. the mother), and since puppies also nurse on mother’s milk, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that puppies also need to play with and suck on transitional objects in order to go through their normal oral development. Simply put, like babies, puppies need something to help them reduce their oral tension.

Puppy Development Periods

Of course puppies first nurse during their neo-natal period—from birth to 14 days—and continue to do so during the transition period—15 to 21 days.

Then comes the first socialization period of—22 to 49 Days—where the puppy is kept with his littermates and his mother. Next comes the second socialization period of 10—12 weeks when the need for socialization, and rough and tumble play begins in earnest

In the litter transitional objects—or “chew toys—might include a brother or sister’s ear, tail, or paw. Puppies who have numerous litter mates learn very quickly that soft chewing doesn’t stop the oral pleasure, but that biting down too hard causes stress and conflict.

Then, once the puppy comes home to his owners, he needs lots of new, and actual chew toys, of various types, made with varying degrees of hardness and softness. It’s also essential, in my view, that the owner use his or her fingers as transitional objects.

This is very natural, and usually quote easily done.

Never Teach a Puppy Not to Bite!

In his book, Natural Dog Training, Kevin Behan writes: “I’ve raised a number of puppies and I’ve never taught them not to bite. They’ve simply outgrown their oral phase in their own due time just as human babies outgrow their oral phase. I let them grab my hands and bite as much as they want while I stay perfectly still. It isn’t long before their teeth can exact an excruciating crunch. When that happens, I yelp in pain. The puppy is more shocked than I am, and his flow of pleasure stops. After the shock wears off, should [the puppy] persist, I simply stop interacting with him. ... The worst thing to do is to confront him, say “No,“ or hit him. This is only going to make him defensive and produce the very behavior you’re trying to inhibit. When I consult with owners who have a puppy that is biting too hard, it’s always because they fought him over this urge.”

To me this approach makes sense on many levels. From a Freudian point of view, saying “No” to a natural drive, especially during a developmental phase, is a sure way to create neurotic behavior later on. From a Pavlovian or Skinnerian standpoint, how better to reinforce your puppy’s desire to feel connected to you than by allowing him to softly mouth your hand? (Normally enjoyable for both parties.) And what nicer way to correct him for biting too hard than saying “Ow!” as if you’ve been hurt?

Should You Allow an Adult Dog to Mouth Your Fingers?

Most trainers would probably say no. However, I discovered, quite accidentally one night, that allowing an adult dog to mouth your fingers can also solve behavioral problems in dogs who’ve been punished for their oral urges when they were pups.

Roughly ninety percent of my training practice involves helping people solve behavioral problems in adult dogs. And ninety percent of all behavioral problems in adult dogs stem from puppies being punished for using their teeth during their oral phase. So whenever I take a case history from a potential client, I always ask about the pup’s oral phase, and what was done to control and manage it. Then, when I first meet the doggie, I always look for indicators that the dog’s urge to bite has been repressed.

What are some indicators?

The primary one is an adult dog who has forgotten how to play.

If they’re raised properly, puppies never forget how to play. If they’re not raised properly, they either “don’t like to play,” or they play too rough. And the one game that puppies who’ve been punished for mouthing is usually tug-of-war. The feeling of biting down hard on a toy, held in the owner’s hand, becomes extremely unpleasant for such a dog. This is a shame because playing tug should provide the ultimate pleasure for your puppy as it it provides the maximum release of feelings that have been, as Freud puts it, “dammed up to a high degree.”

How did I discover the therapeutic value of letting a dog use my hands as a “transitional object,” transitioning him from a troubled doggie who’d forgotten how to play, to one who plays like a puppy again?

I had the help of a dog named Tippy.

Tippy and the Tipping Point

Years ago, I got a call from a family who’d adopted a black lab mix puppy with behavioral problems. I went to their home and met Tippy, so named for the white tip on the end of his tail.

Tippy greeted me at the door, in a fairly normal way, making friendly eye contact and jumping up to say hello. He was a very sweet, but very energetic dog. He was biting his leash, and sometimes his owner’s arm when she was walking him to and from the park.

We all went into the kitchen to discuss what was going on and as we talked, Tippy began panting and pacing the floor, occasionally coming over to mount my leg. This continued for about twenty minutes: Tippy would pace, pant, come over, mount my leg, and if I used a behavioral science technique—where I tried ignoring him until he stopped humping me—he’d escalate by biting my blue jeans.

I continued my discussion with his owners—doing my best to ignore Tippy’s interruptions—until I finally said, “It’s not normal for this kind of humping behavior to go on for this long. He needs some kind of release!"

Tippy came over again, but before he could start mounting my leg, I scratched his cheek with one hand, and put two fingers into his mouth, encouraging him to mouth me. He bit down gently. And I softly praised him for doing so, petting him the whole time. After about thirty seconds of this, he let go, sighed, then went off to the corner to lie down.

A few seconds later he was fast asleep.

Fingers as Transitional Objects

As I walked home, I thought about Tippy’s reasons for humping my leg and biting my clothes. I didn’t think he was trying to dominate me. He just seemed frustrated. My feeling was that he desperately wanted to make positive social contact but didn’t know how, probably because he’d been punished for mouthing as a pup. By satisfying that repressed oral impulse—using my fingers as a “transitional object”—I was able to calm him to the point that he fell asleep almost immediately.

That said, I don’t think just anyone should do this with just any adult dog. It can be dangerous. I seem to have a very calming and relaxing way with dogs, based on years of experience, yet there are definitely some dogs whose teeth I would never let come near my fingers. These are usually rescue dogs who’ve been living on the street or in someone’s back yard long enough that the domestication genes in their DNA don’t seem to be operating properly. They’re well-meaning doggies, they just don’t have the same behavioral filters in place that dogs raised in a human household do. You have to work with such dogs very slowly, and take your time, so that those domestication genes can start functioning again. Only then can you start re-teaching them to play.

In her writings here Dr. Judith Levy talks about the importance of play in human therapy. “I see my work as being about bringing my clients to a place in which they can play more fully.”

That’s a good description of what I do; I just do it with dogs.


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