“How Man Creates Dog In His Own Image, Part II.“
Domesticated Dog as Psychotherapist? Published on June 16, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.
Misinterpreting Dog Behavior
None of us are complete human beings. We all have unresolved issues.
In a recent article here, Stanley Coren wrote about the health and psychological benefits dog ownership can have. He cites research showing that owning a dog (or other pet) reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and decreases one’s chances for heart disease.
There’s another benefit that not many people are aware of; dogs can also be great psychotherapists if we let them. In Part I of this series, I wrote that dogs read us and react, read us and react, over and over. We then interpret their reactions to “mean” something important to our world view or our identity, which we then unconsciously project back onto them and their behavior.
Years ago I saw a woman in Central Park call her dog to her in a stern tone of voice. The dog had been doing something he shouldn’t have; I don’t remember what.
He came to her nervously, head down.
She grabbed his snout and shouted in his face. “Do you have any idea how irresponsible you are when you do that?” she yelled at him. “Do you? What would make you even think that that kind of behavior was acceptable?”
The dog looked “guilty,” which satisfied the owner momentarily.
“All right, then. But you’d better never let me catch you doing that kind of thing again.”
Working Out Our Own Emotional Issues on Our Dogs
What I took away from this encounter (other than that the owner was completely unaware that she was talking to a dog, not an unruly child) was that some of us seem to use our relationships with our dogs to work out emotional issues of our own, which we then project back on to the dog’s behavior in a circular fashion.
How could a dog act “irresponsibly?” How could he have “thought” his behavior was acceptable or unacceptable? His owner seemed certain that he felt guilty when she chided him. But did he?
A recent study done by Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard College shows some pretty solid evidence that the “guilty look” we sometimes see in our dogs is a figment of our own imaginations, and is actually the result of the way the dogs have been treated, not an awareness of any misdeed on their part. (Some of the dogs in the study exhibited a “guilty look”—or so their owner’s imagined—even when they hadn’t done anything wrong.)
So clearly dogs don’t feel guilty, but people often imagine that they do.
Does this have anything to do with the callow supposition I made years ago, that some dog owners use their dogs as surrogates for their own emotional issues?
The Dog as Owner’s Inner Child
Yes. I still think that’s true. In my first mystery novel, A Nose for Murder, Jack Field—an ex-cop turned dog trainer—describes the kind of relationship one of his training clients had with her Airedale, Ginger:
“She was using Ginger to work out emotional issues she had with her parents. It’s not uncommon. The owner engages in a kind of psychodrama, with the dog playing the role of the owner’s inner child and the owner in the role of a parent or authority figure.”
Jack also thinks it’s possible to determine a person’s complete psychological profile by how they interact with their dogs: He said, “If Sigmund Freud had allowed his patients to talk only about their pooches, instead of free-associating about their mommies and potty training, they would have been cured a lot faster.”
These are jokes, of course. And yet Freud said jokes are often a way of telling the truth.
Our dogs love us to pieces. They also read us and our emotional lives in ways we can only imagine. I’m convinced that they know, on a purely unconscious level, what our issues are. They feel them. And it seems to me that if we can learn how to pay attention to what our dog’s behaviors reflect back to us about how we feel, if we can tune in to how their actions might trigger whatever unresolved childhood issues we may have, particularly at times when we get frustrated and angry over minor issues, I think we could save a lot of money on therapy.
Or we could just talk to our therapists about our dogs. Either way, there’s something about the nature of the domesticated dog that can get to the heart of the matter like no other animal on earth.
Anyway that’s how I see it.
By the way, about 4 years after I wrote the passages in my first novel I’ve quoted above, I found out that Kevin Behan, who originated the training methods I use and the philosophy I subscribe to, felt the same way. He's even written a book about it titled Your Dog Is Your Mirror.