"The Canine-Human Bond: Loving a Narcissistic Dog."
Is Your Dog a Narcissist? Look In the Mirror!
Originally published in slightly different form on August 19, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
The term narcissism was first introduced in 1887 by Alfred Binet. Today’s usage stems primarily from Sigmund Freud’s 1914 essay, “On Narcissism.”
Freud felt that a certain amount of healthy narcissism—regularly engaging in self-reflection—was necessary for good mental health. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, most narcissists aren’t very good at true self-reflection because their own self-image is, for the most part, quite different from reality.
In Greek myth, Narcissus was a beautiful young man who rejected all potential lovers. Instead he fell in love with a reflection of himself that he spied one day in a clear pool of water. But when the reflection “refused” to return his affections, Narcissus—not understanding why his feelings had gone unrequited—fell into a deep sadness, then slowly pined away and died.
This is a sad story. And narcissists are ultimately sad people. We tend to forget this. We think of them as master manipulators, and, of course, they are. Yet beneath the bravado and egotism, narcissists are, at heart, children who were loved for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways. They weren’t loved for who they really were, but for how they reflected something about their parent’s emotional needs. The more the child satisfied the parent’s needs, the more the child’s needs went unfulfilled.
This brings us to the problem of the narcissistic dog, and the obvious question: can dogs really be narcissistic?
Characteristics of a Narcissist
According to the DSM, there are 9 behavioral characteristics of a narcissist. In my estimation only 5 of them could be applied loosely to dogs. However, the DSM also says that if a person exhibits only 5 of the 9 characteristics, the term still applies.
So if your dog...
1) needs to be paid attention to a lot,
2) seems to feel like he’s entitled to things that he’s not,
3) manipulates you or others into always giving him what he wants,
4) seems to lack empathy for you, other people, or other dogs,
5) seems disinterested in doing things that you want him to
...then you may have a narcissistic dog.
I have an interesting take on this because I’ve struggled with my own narcissistic tendencies for many years. Even though I was mostly unaware of the fact that I’d been, to a certain extent, over-narcissized as a child, when I began raising my dog Freddie, I wanted to make sure that he didn’t become spoiled. But since I was the more narcissistic of the two us, it was Freddie who helped me see myself for who I really am. It was only Freddie’s unrelenting ability to love me unconditionally that enabled me to feel worthy of being loved no matter what. Fred was not impressed with my need to be successful, to be brilliant, or to be admired. He loved me in spite of those shallow, unsatisfying objectives.
It was, and still is, a humbling experience. That amazing dog not only taught me how to love him properly, he taught me how to be loved for who I truly am. And that, I hope, is the key to undoing the spoiled nature of the narcissistic dog. Love your dog for who he or she really is. Celebrate your dog’s true nature.
So how do you do that?
Dog Owners Who Spoil Their Dogs
I think the first step is to look in the mirror.
When I talk to owners of “spoiled” dogs and hear them apply that sobriquet to their pooches, I sometime ask, with a wry smile, “And how do you suppose the dog got that way?” It’s a loaded question, so most people freely admit that it was they, not the dog, who created the problem. That’s because dogs are a reflection of their owners’ emotions.
We must also keep in mind that narcissism in dogs—just as in human beings—comes from how the dogs were raised as youngsters. This—and the fact that narcissistic dogs are so charming and “loving” at times (like when they want something)—makes it a very tricky, and often a very difficult problem to solve. But I think the primary reason for this is because it’s usually very hard for the owner of a narcissistic dog to look in the mirror and say, “I created this problem. I’m the one who made my dog this way.”
One thing that may help is to remember that underneath their charming behaviors, all narcissists—dogs included—suffer from a deep depression.
Two Sides of the Mirror: Grandiosity and Depression
In The Drama of the Gifted Child Alice Miller describes the two opposite forms of the narcissistic personality as grandiosity and depression. For the most part we recognize the grandiose nature of the narcissist but not its mirror image, depression.
The temporary satisfaction of being the life of the party, winning the love of a beautiful girl, scoring big in business, etc., eventually brings with it an attendant sadness or depression. By the same token, narcissistic dogs are only happy when they’re being made the center of attention, getting their own way, or being constantly fussed over. The rest of the time they’re very sad, because their real emotional needs aren’t being met.
On the surface this would seem like extraordinarily easy problem to solve. Just put the dog on an attention diet: don’t give in to his cuteness, don’t let him up on the couch or the bed, don’t lavish too much affection on the animal, etc., etc., etc. But it’s not that easy. In many cases the owners of narcissistic dogs can’t help themselves. They can’t impose structure on the dog or restrict their own need for garnering as much of the dog’s love, attention, and physical affection as possible
There is a real danger here, too, one that I would be amiss in not mentioning. And that is that some symptoms of a “spoiled” dog could also be applied to a dog who exhibits what I would call anxiety-related aggression (or what others call dominance aggression). Thus the average dog owner may not be able to readily discern whether his or her dog has been overnarcissized or has anxiety-related aggression. This is important because an over-narcissized dog is less likely to bite you. He’ll just whine and paw you to death.
Grief and Loss
Noted psychologist Alice Miller says that freedom from narcissism “is hardly possible without a deeply felt mourning about the situation of the former child.”
This would mean—at least potentially—that for the owner of a narcissistic dog, changing the underlying dynamics of the dog/owner relationship isn’t possible without some feeling of grief or loss over the way the relationship has been operating up till now. We have to cry, we have to let go. We have to give up a part of our emotional attachment to the dog’s spoiled nature in order to help the animal feel happier and more productive.
Dogs are designed primarily to work for a living, to put their instincts toward a group purpose. Being admired and coddled and fussed over is only secondary at best. So once the owner really understands the dog’s problem for what it is, and mourns the loss of the old relational dynamic, the next thing to do—which is equally, or more important than putting your dog on an attention diet—is to learn how to be a child with your dog. Get down on your dog’s level and simply play your heart out.
No matter what you do, though, remember that your dog’s love for you will never waver, no matter what. As dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan says, “Love is like gravity for dogs. They can’t not love us.”
I would only add that it’s how we love them that creates problems.