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Freud's Secret Weapon: Dogs As Therapy Animals

The master of therapy learned early on that canines have an unrivaled therapeutic effect on patients -- and even turned to his own four-legged friends for solace.

Pets Contributor
Photography by: Mary Bloom/The American Kennel Club, Inc.
Sigmund Freud loved his chow.

As a psychologist -- one deeply aware of the powerful connection between humans and animals -- I wanted to share some little-known information about another "believer" -- one who provided therapy from a small Vienna office at the turn of the previous century. You may know him best as the father of psychoanalysis: a cigar-smoking Austrian by the name of Sigmund Freud. But what you may not know about this iconic mental-health pioneer is that he typically had one of his dogs present during client sessions.

While Freud’s own affinity for dogs was perhaps his initial reason for having them present as he worked, he soon witnessed the therapeutic benefit they bestowed upon clients. Freud was partial to chows -- dogs that, like pit bulls, are often maligned by erroneous media reports. Sadly, this often results in many chows landing in already-overcrowded city shelters. If only our current sensationalist media outlets could look to history on occasion and glean some wisdom from great thinkers such as Freud, perhaps fear-based actions could be minimized.

Freud noticed that a dog’s presence acted as a calming influence on his patients. Children and adolescents in particular seemed better able to disclose painful information with a dog nearby, and adults benefited in a similar way. It seems that the mere presence of a dog lowers the barriers of resistance humans put up to avoid painful subjects. And so dogs facilitate the therapeutic process, Freud found.

What Freud surmised from these observations was that the unconditional regard of a dog was healing. The steady canine presence in the face of what a human might experience as painful or embarrassing provided containment and a safe place of reassurance.

Freud often referenced one chow in particular, Jofi, whose response to clients offered him clues to their emotional landscape. Freud noted that Jofi would settle farther away from clients who exhibited anxiety and stress, but remained close to those who seemed depressed -- close enough to be touched by the client if he/she so chose. Jofi could also indicate the end of a 50-minute session with remarkable accuracy. She would yawn and walk to the door at that juncture. I can imagine this was of great help to Freud in maintaining rapport when having to bring a session to a close. Jofi’s internal clock allowed the transition to occur more organically.

Much of what Freud noted regarding a dog’s effect on clients seemed also to benefit him personally. Upon the death of his grandchild, Freud found comfort in the companionship of his daughter Anna’s dog, Wolf. And later in his life, as he battled mouth cancer, his dog Topsy suffered from the same disease. Making his way through this ailment alongside Topsy provided Freud with a vehicle by which to explore his own fears and mortality.

In Freud’s final days, it was his beloved dogs that he had on the bed by his side. They provided his only source of comfort. Freud eloquently reflected on the value inherent in a dog’s clarity and honesty: “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object relations,” he wrote.

One thing Freud admired most in dogs was their capacity for “affection without ambivalence. And the simplicity of a life free from almost unbearable conflicts of civilizations, the beauty of an existence complete in itself.” He pointed out that despite belonging to different species, “there is a feeling of intimate affinity, of undisputed solidarity” between dog and man. Like so many of us who share our lives with companion animals, Freud recognized this solidarity as one that united him with his beloved dogs in genuine friendship.

Anna even recruited her father's dogs to help Freud overcome his famed reluctance to celebrate his own birthdays. She would dress the dogs in party hats and seat them at the table for the celebration. Each dog had a poem hanging around his neck, which Freud would playfully read aloud, concluding each by giving that dog a slice of birthday cake. Whether it was due to Freud’s own complexities or the formality of the times, such playful expressions of joy and emotion seemed more acceptable in the presence of dogs.

To most people today, Freud was simply a cigar-smoking figure from the past -- a brilliant mind consumed by theories and his own academic pursuits. But as we learn of the love and deep connection he felt for his canine companions, we begin to see this seemingly infallible figure from a very different perspective: We see his humanity. While the therapist’s couch certainly has its place along the road to understanding ourselves, it is often the perspective from a dog bed that ultimately puts us in touch with our humanity. We owe our animal companions a debt of gratitude for so many things -- one of which is providing support beyond the 50-minute hour.