Nancy R. Goodman
A number of patients have brought their dogs to sessions. One dog drooled horribly and I was afraid the furniture would dissolve, I was not pleased. This dog seemed to own my patients distain, hatred, and unbearable hunger. Another teaching from a dog was when a puppy who had been in my office often spent one session noisily attacking my carpet and running in circles and causing chaos in the room. The patient kept saying this had never happened before. I had a better sense of the patients inner chaos than ever before. I have also had the experience with patients during phone sessions when their dogs command attention from their owner or begin to bark or play with loud toys. Projections and introjections aside, it does seem that something special is happening when dogs stir during therapy sessions.
I had a patient in a desperate depression so near absolute hope for death. He had been assaulted by numerous traumas and losses and the worst was the death of a beloved dog. I wondered how much he wished that his dog could be in our sessions. He described how she would approach the couch and put her head against his chest offering comfort. He began to sob and the grip of death lifted as he became able to speak to me about being bereft and distrusting of me. Once his parents lied to him that his childhood dog had run away. The parents had put the dog “down” because it was old and lied to him. The image of the comforting dog brought forth wishes for the analyst’s comfort and the negative transference fury that I was not his beloved dog making body contact with him.
I tried bringing my chihuahua to my office, as she was sweet and quiet ( in contrast to other members of her breed.) On the very first day, she jumped into my lap in the middle of my session with an adult female patient. The patient immediately began to talk about feeling jealous of my other patients, something she had never mentioned previously. This opened the way to a deeper discussion about her feelings toward me. Although this was helpful to the process, I never brought my dog in again. I found it too distracting.
What about Cats? I had an excellent Domestic Short Hair who played an active, very useful role in the therapy of more than one of my patients.
An example was a young male patient who needed to tell his mother how he really felt about things in his relationship with her. The mother was willing and able to come in to the session, but the child was not quite brave enough to address her directly. Luckily Maxwell, the cat, was there. The child grabbed a pad and pencil and while drawing pictures of Max he addressed in detail all of his feelings about his Mom to Maxwell, leaving out nothing. Maxwell sat the whole time listening carefully. His attention didn’t waver for a second. His ears were at attention. Not once did he lose eye contact with the boy, nor did the boy lose eye contact with him. His mother was able to listen to him too and when he was finished, the boy went over to his Mom, she put her arm around him. He let himself be close to her and it was a real turning point in his therapy.
I have several patients who have brought their dogs to treatment. One woman who was so depressed she only felt OK leaving house with dog– talk about bits and pieces! Another patient got a dog after her brother died from a nursing mistake after a successful heart surgery– he was 53. (This was this past May)She also had been house bound by a bad back and depression– withdrawn from a very full life. And had just begun to improve . Her elderly Father then died in August. And her back problem had begun after her mom’s death three years before. I also treated a young teen who brought his dog for me to control him without being mean. Kid would ramp up the dog– like his sister could ramp him up.— then it was “my job ” to contain the dog with kindness. Luckily I like dogs.
A patient called wanting a session right away. I had an hour open which I offered to her by voicemail. Having not heard from her all morning, I assumed she had changed her mind. Much to my surprise, I glanced at my phone minutes before her time, realizing she had in fact left me a message saying she would be here. I had two minutes to change my shoes and face my new patient.
I opened the door and to my surprise there was a woman and her miniature poodle, who she called “Rolls, shorthand for “Rolex.” Clara asked if she could bring Rolls in and with ambivalence, despite my adoration for dogs, I acquiesced. She exclaimed “Rolls is a service dog!” Feeling slightly bullied and guiltily recalling my beloved Gabi and Romeo,visiting my sacred office space, I invited them in.
Clara sat opposite me with Rolls on her lap. While holding her pup, she explained how she found me. “I read the article you wrote on Narcissism and I am here because my father and my grandfather were extremely Narcissistic and sociopathic.
With very little feeling she unleashes both “Rolls” and an unthinkable story involving her father, grandfather, and a dog. I am completely flooded by Rolls jumping from her lap to mine and the residue of the horrific story left on my psyche. My mind is hijacked and yet I manage to offer a transference interpretation. Clara becomes furious and tells me that I shouldn’t take what she said personally. She repeats “ I know this won’t work. I can just tell it’s not going to work.”
I try to understand what has made her equally flooded. I responded by inviting her to use the rest of the hour to tell me about what she was looking for in a therapist? With insistence, she explained her attraction to Narcissists and that she needed help spotting them ahead of time. “I need help revamping my life because I have gotten rid of all of my narcissistic friends.”
I wondered out loud whether she had seen the title of my article which was called,”We are all a little narcissistic: Where do you fall on the spectrum?” I had a dilemma. My patient held the belief that her difficulties are,”on the outside.” Rolex was a manifest, projected part of Clara in vivo, much like a mother and her infant in session.. As rolls ran from lap to lap sniffing each corner of the room , I found myself distracted by the search for meaning.
Towards the end of the hour Clara said that she had problems with boundaries. I braced myself knowing that it would be difficult for Clara to leave my office. After I said that it was time to stop, Clara spoke as if she was doing me a favor and said “ We might as well set another time to meet.” I told her that she would have to call or email explaining that we had gone over the allotted time and that we would need to stop. Upon exiting, Clara said that if she started therapy with me she knew that it would be short because as she put it, “she had a lot of insight.”
After she left, the stench of cheap doggy cologne remained on my clothes and throughout my day, I was plagued by our encounter. Why did I offer her an “on-demand” appointment and what unconscious communication was I responding to in Clara’s psyche? I had a sense that Rolls expressed her internal bouncing and Chaos and her wish to roll over me. Upon reflection, I was to experience a kind of obliteration of my functions or needs, like I imagined she experienced as a youngster. In the end, I found myself feeling sorry for Rolls because after all “she is a service dog.”
A young man with DID that I treated long after I met Emma, Cliff, brought his dog to therapy sessions every week. Cliff’s dog was very well trained, a lovely dog, a mutt named Alf. When the adult Cliff was present, usually at the beginning of a session, he would always instruct Alf to sit quietly in the waiting room, the door slightly ajar so he would not disturb our process or become upset with changes that Cliff might go through. Alf, ever obedient, stayed out of sight in the waiting room. But as soon as the adult Cliff switched to a child self-state Alf nosed the door open and moved into the office nuzzling “Cliffie,” a younger part-self of the adult Cliff. Alf would never have done this as long as the adult was present. Alf could not see Cliff from where he lay, nor could he see me, so he could not detect even a subtle shift in posture, he did not hear the child self-state because Cliffie didn’t speak right away, nor did I. Although out of sight Alf somehow sensed the change and acted accordingly. Cliffie would not chastise him and more than likely Cliffie would need the comfort of a nuzzle at the moment Alf came in the room.
Whatever sense Alf possessed we undoubtedly possess as well in a diminished form, and it is that doggie sense that knows with uncanny certainty that “someone else is here now.” Therapists may or may not be trained to refine this sense, to pay attention to hunches, to resonance, to something activated in the body, so subtle identity switches are not always recognized. I have heard therapists say: “every time the client came in it was as if she was completely different person, it was very hard to get a bead on things.” My response: “well it’s possible she was present in a different self-state each time, and that’s why you are bewildered. In a way she was a different person.” Without the paradigm of DID embedded in awareness therapists, will miss this. We are not always as sharp as Alf.
Abstract: The therapeutic use of pets has usually involved institutional visitation. Noting Freud’s comments on the discovery of the profound connection between himself and his dogs, and recent research on the regulatory functioning sustained by a libidinal pair-bond, this paper reports the therapeutic uses of the clinician’s companion animal, a Labrador retriever, in a psychoanalytically oriented private practice. Patients were sitting up and seen once or twice a week. I argue that the containment of the treatment setting, attachment theory and a number of Winnicott’s concepts – the good enough mother, the True and False Self, and the development of concern – are pertinent to an understanding of this approach to treatment, and that the right companion animal may contribute to the emergence of a True Self. The companion animal has the qualities of ‘devotion’, offers expressions of love and acceptance, tactile opportunity and responsiveness. I make a distinction between a ‘corrective object relationship’ and a ‘corrective emotional experience’, and take into account analytic debates about the ‘corrective emotional experience’. Through clinical vignettes I demonstrate the value of a trained companion animal as a psychotherapeutic addition in a private practice.
[From “The Therapeutic Use Of Pets In Private Practice.” British Journal of Psychotherapy, November 2008, 24:4, pp 501-521. Available online here.]