Relational Creatures: The Selfobject Functions of Dogs in Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice
I am because my little dog knows me.
Gertrude Stein (In Curnutt, 1999, p. 291)
The canine-human bond has long been a strong, interspecies tie in the English-speaking world. And the number of households in which people currently share their life with a dog continues to swell; over eighty-seven million such families reside in the United States alone (American Pet Products Association, 2019-2020).
More than in the past, our psychotherapy offices seem to echo with narratives of patients’ relations with furry companions that sometimes underscore their unmet psychic needs with other humans. Clinicians may also share their homes or professional offices with dogs, presenting transferential and countertransferential opportunities or quandaries.
It seems an oversight then that throughout the history of psychoanalysis, no formal theory or even serious discussion of this important non-human interconnection has been attempted. Dogs have instead been impounded in the totems, amulets, metaphors and symbols of our Freudian and Jungian legacies. Perhaps, until the advent of the relational turn, writing about our intimate, interspecies relationships may have been deemed too sentimental, unscientific or prosaic. Many major theorists have privately shared their personal attachments to their dogs but have not written psychoanalytically about these important relationships - leaving us few words with which to discuss the human-canine bond.
As a starting point, 1 begin by discussing Winnicott’s theory of transitional objects and phenomena and Kohut’s development of selfobject function, two important tenets of relational theory. My thinking is augmented by new findings about dogs’ domestication, reflections on human-canine mergers in mythology and fetishisms, canine companioning, anthropomorphism, unconditional love, and with illustrative cases from among my patients.
Although, we cannot overlook the projections many people place on their pets, nor the psychotic elements that exist for others (see Akhtar and Volkan, 2005), our companion dogs, I suggest, can primarily be understood as the templates for unique, intersubjective and potentially structure-building experiences. 1 use the term relational creature, as a descriptive for those dogs that live closely with people. 1 also suggest that we adjust what Aron (1996) entitled ‘a meeting of minds’ for inter-human communications, to a meeting of affects to indicate the close, implicit interplay between our species.
Serious scientific examination of our remarkable history with dogs begins at the ebbing of the nineteenth century, when Darwin (1998) publishes The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872, a year after his Descent of Man unsettled the scientific and religious sensibilities of Western society. Anyone living with dogs can easily recognize their facial expressions from Darwin’s drawings in this text. He reasons that their barking ‘serves to express their various emotions and desires ...having been acquired through domestication...and inherited in different degrees by different breeds... owing to dogs having long lived in strict association with so loquacious an animal as man’ (ibid, p. 352).
‘Because humans, in effect, created dogs through domestication, the canine mind reflects back to us how we see ourselves through the eyes, ears, and noses of another species’ (Berns, Brooks and Spivak, 2012, p. 4). According to mitochondrial DNA tests, ‘the oldest uncontested. Palaeolithic remains’ (Botique, Song and Scheu, 2017, p. 1) of dogs and humans cohabitating are found in Germany as long as at least 20,000 years ago. These dogs were used by man for various tasks such as hunting or guarding, but it was not until the Victorian era in England that dogs were raised for express purposes like work or companionship, creating the standardized breeds we know today (Worboys, Strange and Pemberton, 2018) and elevating the potential for satisfying connections between dogs and diverse groups of people - such as police officers or the disabled.
Early psychologist, Francis Galton (in Heiman, 1956, p. 569) soon supports Darwin’s views, writing that dogs have ‘an inborn liking for man’ and that ‘dogs and people...are intelligible to each other...Every whine or bark of the dog, each of his fawning, savage or timorous movements is the exact counterpart of what would have been man’s behaviour, had he felt similar emotions’. Discussing Heiman’s paper, Linn (in Searles, 1960) makes a leap into interspecies intersubjectivity when he asserts that ‘dogs are capable of participating in emotional relationships with humans that seem almost as complicated bilaterally’ (p. 17). We may soon have biological proof about this correlation: neuroscientists at Emory University have recently trained dogs to lie still, unrestrained, during fMRI screenings, and compared their reactions to various emotive stimuli with those of human beings. Similar response patterns are found between them, particularly in their respective, dopamine-sensitive caudate nuclei (Berns, Brooks and Spivak, 2012).
Warwick University’s John Fletcher (2007, p. 1242) traces three worldchanging alterations of human narcissism first cited by Freud in 1917 ‘Copernicus’s decentring of the Earth in relationship to other planets’; Darwin’s theory of evolution that decentres humans from the animal world, and Freud’s ‘decentring of the individual to himself for with the discovery of the unconscious, the ego was no longer master in its own house’ (pp. 1242-1243). Freud encapsulates mankind’s predicament: we are each along the spectrum of narcissism, the final blow being the most basic for every psychotherapeutic investigation. We have not shed our understanding of the second, I argue - our relationship with other animals.
As an example of early unconscious decentring, Winnicott’s (1971) concept of the transitional object presupposes that exciting objects, such as I propose family pets, might be used as these way-stations between inner and outer reality- not only with the proverbial stuffed animals. They can act as ‘soothers’ (p. 7), as well as satisfying Winnicott’s requirement that the objects ‘must seem to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has a vitality or reality of its own’ (p. 6). After being decathected, the maturing child reinvests some of his narcissistic energy back onto his parents or other adults. She can also exchange, trade, or transfer them onto other non-human environments and can retain narcissistic ties with her relational creature, enjoying a sense of mastery and satisfying relationships with animals, who provide the experience of ‘instrumental empathy’ (Ulman and Paul, 2006, p. 47). When domestic animals are enjoyed transitionally, 1 speculate that they prepare the stage for later engagement and enjoyment. I watched our newly walking, year-old son chase our cat squealing protowords, ‘at’, ‘at’, before napping with his stuffed cat, ‘Kit’, another transitional object-word. His delight and ease with animals first lodged in this ‘intermediate area of experience’ (Winnicott, 1971, p. 2) during toddlerhood remains today. But when unhappy experiences with a pet occur early on, I believe, anxieties can later be activated.
Neurobiology sets the stage for transitional thought. Schore (2003) describes how at about age three, the left hemisphere takes control over the earlier developing, emotional, right brain, and the child’s conscious mind -with its symbolising capacity - commences development. Between the age of two and a half and three years, however, the right brain remains dominant as the left begins ‘its growth spurt’ (p. 244), as does the corpus callosum, both of which may enable an intermingling of the two sources of knowledge - feeling and language.
Although Kohut’s (1971) The Analysis of the Self seeks to show how narcissistic individuals can be treated by examining their archaic selfobjects - or those which became traumatically embedded due to early parental failures. His conception of selfobjects quickly extends Winnicott’s thinking to people without narcissistic personality disorders: they are objects that are ‘used in the service of the self and the maintenance of its instinctual investment, or
[are] objects which are themselves experienced as part of the self’; they are not necessarily people but can be “non-human” (Kohut, 1977, pp. 56-57)’. Under ordinary circumstances, these functions are first served by the parents who supply mirroring, or ‘I am perfect and you admire me’ and relationships with idealizable figures ‘you are perfect and I admire you’ (Goldberg and Mitchell, 2000). According to intersubjectivists, Stolorow and Brandchaft (1987), ‘they designate a class of psychological functions (authors’ italics) pertaining to the maintenance, restoration and transformation of selfexperience’ (p. 241), by means of affect integration. Gertrude Stein’s ‘little dogs’ are prime examples of selfobjects: her understanding illustrates how she counterbalances her growing fame with her self-definition in order to feel psychologically cohesive.
Being both interpersonal and intrapsychic, selfobjects argue against the dominance of drive theory and are embedded in the evolution of relational theory by notable luminaries as Jessica Benjamin, Lew Aron, Donnel Stern and Phillip Bromberg, who have developed theories about the third, selfstates, enactment, trauma and dissociation in innumerable books and papers.
Twinship selfobjects (sometimes called alterego selfobjects by Kohut, 1971, 1977, 1980), were added as a third selfobject category by Kohut; they provide the satisfaction usually attributed to our participation with other people, where we achieve the sense of being ‘a human among humans’ (1984, p. 200). With personally important animals, many people feel like a creature among creatures - and thus gain entrance to the larger world of beings. Although twinship and alter ego selfobjects are essentially alike, Detrick (1986) clarifies, they operate somewhat differently. The central function of twinship is the acquisition of skills, like opportunities to learn caring, nurturing, the containment of aggressive affects and a heightened awareness of the external world. When dogs provide an alterego selfobject experiences, they might proffer gratifying occurrences, like meeting other dog lovers at a park with implicit socialization opportunities.
Brothers (1993) amplifies Detrick’s conception of the alterego selfobject asserting that it represents the ‘hidden or disavowed aspects’ (p. 192) of patients and enables them to find self-cohesion. Virginia Woolf (1933) illustrates Brothers’ thinking when writing about the poet Elizabeth Browning’s relationship with her titular dog Flush. Browning, Woolf believes, admires Flush’s disobedience and self-serving ways, since she, a Victorian-era woman, must conform to her society’s gender restrictions. Woolf imagines Browning thinking, ‘There was an alikeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I - and each felt: But how different. Could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other?’ (ibid, p. 31).
Despite Freud’s continual confrontation with his unconscious, his enthusiasm for Darwin’s work and his love for his own dogs during the last two decades of his life, he has not included his personal feelings for his animals as part of either his metapsychology or in memoir. Freud ‘dog-sits’ for his daughter Anna’s Alsatian, Wolf, and grows so enamoured of him that his former analysand, Dorothy Burlingham, gives him his first Chow, Lin Yug (Gay, 1988). Freud is later ‘inseparable’ from another Chow, Jo-Fi, who ‘would sit quietly at the foot of the couch during the analytic hour’ (ibid, p. 540).
Psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte, a close friend of Freud’s, is the rare exception among his early adherents when writing about her own relationship with her dog, ‘Topsy’. In the foreword to Bonaparte’s poignant memoir about her Chow’s cancer treatment, Anna Freud writes, ‘what Freud valued in his dogs was their ‘gracefulness, devotion and fidelity’ (Freud, 1995, p. 301).
Praising their respective Chows in his letters to Bonaparte, Freud says that dogs’
simplicity... [is] free from the unbearable conflict with civilization, the beauty of existence complete in itself. And in spite of the alien nature of its organic development a feeling of intimate relationship - an undeniable sense of belonging together - exists between us. When stroking Jo-Fi, 1 have often caught myself humming a melody, which, though quite unmusical, I could recognize as the aria from Don Giovanni (Jones, 1957, pp. 225-226).
When describing the human-canine bond developmentally, Freud (1946) foreshadows Kohut’s twinship selfobject transference: ‘The child unhesitatingly attributes full equality to animals; he probably feels himself more closely related to the animal than to the...adult’ (p. 164). Author Margaret Rawlings’s young protagonist, Jody, expresses this idea in her Pulitzer Prizewinning novel The Yearling (1966), when with no friends near his home in the Depression-era Florida Everglades, Jody tells his mother about his unusual relational creature Flag, a fawn, saying ‘He don’t seem like a creetur to me, Ma. He seems jest like another boy’ (p. 227).
Anna Freud regards psychoanalysis as her ‘twin’ because she was born in 1895, the year to which her father attributes his discovery of the psychological relevance of dreams (Young-Bruehl, 1988); she later considers Wolf her twin, then Dorothy Burlingham claims this title until her death when Anna says her new Chow puppy Jo-Fi, named after her father’s favourite, inherits this role (ibid, p. 444). Through her dogs, Anna appears to complete a developmental quest for her own deeper twinship selfobject relationship with her father. In the Personal Tributes (Bulletin of the Anna Freud Centre, 1983) to Anna after her death, her dogs are frequently recalled, particularly Jo-Fi, whom Lampl-de Groot (ibid, p. 55) says is ‘a little lion...beautiful but wild’. Alice Colonna (ibid, p. 99) remarks that ‘Despite the difficulties of chewed legs, mangled furniture and escapades [Anna] continued to love Jo-Fi, and this may have contributed to her liveliness, even after she became very ill’. Anna disregards these relationships in her own theoretical work.
Jung (1989) speaks of his own childhood affinity for all ‘warm-blooded’ animals. Dogs are ‘dear and faithful, unchanging and trustworthy’ he says (pp. 66-67). These words echo his ambivalence in his description of his mother, who has a ‘hearty animal warmth and is companionable and pleasant...and a ready listener...But at night, [she] seemed uncanny...like a priestess in a bear’s cave...archaic and ruthless’ (Jung, 2011, p. 48).
Kohut relishes his ritual, nightly walks with his dog Tovey, according to his biographer (Strozier, 2001, p. 108). Tovey even ‘writes’ to Anna’s dog Coco, following Anna’s 1966 visit with Kohut in Chicago. Here, he reveals the pervasiveness of our culture’s often light-hearted anthropomorphism. And yet, Kohut never lives long enough to develop a theory to include his relationship with his beloved dog.
Today’s theorists feel increasingly comfortable with self-disclosures about their feelings for their dogs. Among the most moving papers is Marcus’s (2007) description of the dynamics - based on the work of the philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas - of his love for ‘Harry’, a rescued Cocker Spaniel.
Merger - between dogs and humans
Human imagination has created mergers between animals and humans for centuries. Merger-hungry societies have drawn on myth or religion as people sought to comprehend the unknowable and to alleviate anxiety. Needs for strength, protection or the avoidance of fear-inducing others encourage the belief in human-animal mergers or chimeras. Dogs are mated in myth with demigods and with humans to produce ‘dogmen’ according to Atsma (2000-2019), who demonstrates that Hesiod writes of Cynocephili, half dog and half man, born of relations between Gaia, the Earth and Zeus’s son Epaphos. Variations of this theme continue among later writers; in 1911 Greece, Brill (1943) tells of hearing a commonly known myth of the Kuno-Andros, the product of an isolated woman having sex with her dog.
Freud, Jung believes, is oblivious to his own mother fixation when he adopts the Oedipus story as the central metaphor of drive theory (in Beebe, 1997), and Jung characterises mothers as ‘double beings’. He asserts that Freud fails to see the powerful example of the mythological Sphinx - which is part woman and part dog - calling it ‘a fear animal’ and a ‘mother derivative’ (ibid, p. 5).
Undaunted, Freud (1961) embeds his description of the fetish within the oedipal story and his theory of sexuality. To summarise, the little boy learns that his mother has no penis and then fears his own castration by his father. He substitutes an object for her missing penis, and under intense castration anxiety over his own sexuality, uses this fetish object symbolically. This interplay of absence and presence is central to the understanding of the defence of disavowal, which Freud introduces within his explanation of fetishism, making it paradoxically ‘both a defeat and a victory’ (Bass, 1991, p. 309).
Fetishes can be understood as mergers between a person and any object representing the maternal phallus. Winnicott (1971) urges that the word fetish be limited to the ‘normal’ and
universal ... persistence of a specific object or type of object ...linked with the delusion of a maternal phallus, and it should be used solely to describe the infant’s experience in the transitional field, although it can develop as an adult fetish if the illusion persists (p. 9).
Freud limits his use of the fetish to males but Greenacre (1955) suggests the possibility of a female fetishist. Later (1969), she stipulates that whether or not a mother has been ‘good enough’, there is some kind of problematic object relationship in fetishism. It is often an acute experience of seeing the mother’s injury, she asserts, and is connected to a ‘female body part, another child, or a pet’ (ibid, p. 160); Richards (1993) agrees. While discussing her female patient population, she includes animals as one fetish choice used during masturbation. Freud (1962) limits his ideas regarding animals as sexual object choices for limited access to appropriate objects on farms.
Narcissistically disordered individuals (Kohut, 1971) often form selfobject mergers (an extremely primitive form of the mirroring need) with their analysts, using the clinician as a fetish object. Wolf (1988) repositions merger more prominently as another part of the selfobject family. Patients, Wolf asserts, craving a merger selfobject, demand the experience of a complete fusion with the mirroring selfobject or hegemony over an idealised selfobject. ‘Merger hungry personalities.. .need to control their selfobjects because they use them in lieu of self structure’ (ibid, p. 74); in the transference, the patient needs the analyst to ‘be totally subject to [his] initiative’ (ibid, p. 124).
Merger hunger patients and animal fetishists can coexist, as illustrated next.
Baker (1984) reports the case of a young man who masturbates against his dog and at other times ‘growled’ and ‘snarled’ at Baker in sessions, reminding me of Evie. Her small dog, Leonardo, serves multiple selfobject functions - as a sole companion, confidant and fetish. Evie’s complex interactions with Leonardo offer an opportunity to look at selfobject splitting, a reminder that as with any object choice, there can be a range of functions.
At age thirty-two, Evie has never had an intimate, human relationship. She grudgingly attended thrice-weekly sessions with me for just over three years during an early phase of my analytic training, ending when I could no longer accept her low fee.
Evie is very tall and grossly obese - with the unfinished facial appearance of a toddler. Her flat affect, demeaning attitude and pungent body odour are off-putting to me countertransferentially, the latter of which earns her the
Relational creatures 33 label, ‘the smelly lady’ by denizens of the clinic. She is also rageful, refusing to consider any mutuality between us.
Evie outlines her lonely, fantasy-driven childhood and insufficient, parental attunement; television, she says, particularly old sitcom characters, provide her with access, albeit superficially, to a peer group experience; she recites whole episodes from ‘Friends’ and ‘Charmed’, within which she considers herself ‘the fourth witch’. Growing up in a lower-middle-income, immigrant family, Evie blames her mother’s early death and her father beating her for this object wasteland, which accounts for her feeling entitled to avoid employment. Her narcissistic rage is directed toward any authority figure -and now me.
Sleeping most of the day, Evie survives on fast food supplemented by Hershey bars. She lives with her aging dog, Leonardo, a male, mixed breed, whom she says, looks up at her admiringly, confirming that she is the focus of his life - or to paraphrase Kohut ‘the gleam in the dog’s eye’- which indicates Leonardo’s mirroring and twinship availability, so that he is essential to her wellbeing. She showers him with praise about his appearance and talents and tells me that Leonardo is better than a man: ‘He chose me; just wandered up to me near my train stop and followed me home’. When I ask her if she had looked for his owner, she shrugs and says gleefully, ‘He’s all mine now’.
Evie’s messy apartment, she says, is piled high with old books about witchcraft and the occult, which seem to help fortify Evie’s efforts to feel as if she knows more than other people - particularly her therapist. She currently rents a basement apartment in a neighbour’s house in the same New Jersey suburb where she grew up. Evie cites specific dates and places as she relates her history, acquainting me with her childhood landscape and documenting when and where important events occurred; She grounds herself in the facts and rigorously limits her answers during my detailed inquiry - as if she has been captured by terrorists and gives only her name, rank and serial number.
When Evie is two, her mother dies in childbirth delivering her sister Leona, who then becomes ‘Pop’s obsession; I was basically told to get lost. 1 was a kid and couldn’t leave, so I just stayed in my room and watched the old black and white TV’, Evie moans. But Leona proves to be compensatory. Evie enlists the little girl as her ally, teaching her how to shoplift from nearby stores. ‘I could set her up, get Dad to catch her with some toy in her pocket, and yell at her. He liked her anyway. But Leo liked me best’, Evie boasts. ‘We were inseparable, even taking baths together and having sleepovers in each other’s beds’. ‘Leo’? I ask, confused.
Oh, that’s my sister’s nickname. Leo was what I called her when we were alone. She liked it better than Leona. Stupid name. 1 would just run my hand along her little arm with its blond fuzz, and she would hum.
When Evie and Leona are eight and six respectively, living in the ‘horrible Meadowbrook house’, their father finds the girls in the bathroom, theirunderpants on the floor and Evie’s hand on Leona’s crotch. ‘Pop freaks out’, Evie chortles, but the incident triggers her numerous beatings.
I promised myself that I’d get back at him if it was the last thing I ever do. You know what he said, he called me a ‘lezzie’, said 1 liked girls not boys, so I needed payback and tried to make him think he was losing his mind.
‘How’? I ask.
Just stuff like pouring salt into the sugar bowl. What’ya think I could do, use arsenic? I was just a kid. He finally died when I was in high school, and we were sent to live with his sister. Good riddance.
Although the sisters remain like ‘Siamese twins’ into early adolescence, Evie feels that they had been banished from the Garden of Eden - because now Leona understood that what they had been doing was ‘dirty’. ‘Then,’ Evie grimaces, ‘Leo leaves home for college and marries a jerk she meets there; I went to a local college. My sister teaches fifth grade now and has two brats of her own’. ‘What kind of relationship do you have with Leona now?’ I inquire. ‘Her husband’s an A-hole. That enough for you, doc?’ Leona’s abandonment of Evie leaves her with a significant object void - a twinship derailed - that she now fills with Leonardo, her dog. When I wonder again about her choice of the same nickname, Leo, for both her dog and her sister, Evie bristles but acts surprised before she quickly reverts to her characteristic ire at my drawing attention to her blatant verbal connection between her most important selfobjects.
Working with Evie does encourage her ongoing font of dream images, past and present; she brings in multiple journals she had written as an adolescent when she was ‘dragged to therapy’, Evie scowls. Her school had told her father that they thought she was ‘troubled’. ‘The psychiatrist just wanted me to talk about my mother. I don’t even remember her.’ I ask Evie, ‘what’s that like not remembering your mother?’ Evie shrugs indignantly.
Any request for her dream associations also causes Evie to crinkle her nose and growl at me like Baker’s aforementioned patient. She barks: ‘I just told you a dream story. That’s all there is. You tell me, you’re the fucking analyst’. Her ability to recall details in dreams feels embroidered as if she has reviewed them many times so that they sound more like stories than dreams. As such, they remain narcissistic fantasies that serve the purpose of excluding intrusions of an unempathic world. Leaving me outside of these soliloquies concretizes Evie’s illusory world of which she maintains magical control.
Evie’s dreams primarily involve stray dogs and cats, or Leonardo, who takes on a supernatural aura with powers that defy gravity: he might shoot into outer space or dive deep into the Hudson River for hidden treasure.
A dream typically plays out as ‘I see Leonardo looking up at the North Star, and he tells me that he is going there to visit our grandparents. And then, switching the dog’s genders back and forth, she says, ‘I tell her that she can’t go tonight because she has the flu. We’re in the old Meadowbrook house, so 1 really start to worry. Then she just disappears, popping up on the moon. It’s huge, full, like a Hollywood moon. Like that old Cher film, ‘Moonstruck’, where her grandfather walks his pack of dogs to the East River, and they howl at it. Then everything turns dark; the moon goes out like a light’. Evie’s eyes are wide with childlike fright. ‘I take a running jump, trying to grab Leo, but he’s gone’.
Evie’s association with her idealized, alterego superdog can be seen as a needed identification, for he had ‘chosen her’. She is special. But at the same time, Evie feels unsafe in the dream when Leonardo leaves home without her like Leona has done. The moon even leaves her alone in the dark -in the house where her father discovered the girls’ incestuous proclivities that had initiated Evie’s beatings - a loss of twinship opportunities and accounting for decided developmental disruptions. Evie cannot hold onto Leona/Leonardo, nor does she have an opportunity for having more mature sexual satisfaction.
In our third year together, Evie’s dreams that she is the fourth witch on ‘Charmed’, and she begins to include men.
Last night, Leo and I were touring the Milky Way. Cool, huh? I was free to do whatever I wanted. I see this hot guy, and he starts to take off my clothes. But then I find out that he’s really a zombie. I’m scared shitless and go home. Leo’s relieved too, but he has been hurt; he has a little mark on the middle of his forehead.
‘How did Leonardo get the mark’? I wonder to her. She ignores the question. I add, ‘You asked me about my birthmark a few weeks ago’, 1 continue. Evie never mentions my presence in her myriad dreams. Am I perhaps the scary zombie? Am I hurt like Leo? Evie is silent as I tap the birthmark on my forehead. She shrugs, perhaps embarrassed by what I feel is our growing intimacy. In the transference, does Evie see me as a new relational creature, ‘a new kind of animal instead of a new object’ (Akhtar and Brown, 2005, p. 30).
Leonardo dies during Evie’s last few months of our work together. For the first time, she calls me, weeping, and allows me to express my sadness for her loss. Her dreams become littered with images of Leonardo, of Leona, and of flying dogs. She states matter-of-factly that she wants to tell me a ‘secret’ that feels to me like a reward amid her newfound candour. Evie says that she has surreptitiously frozen Leonardo in her landlord’s old freezer in her basement apartment. ‘He said I could use it for stuff’. Then, Evie confides tentatively that she misses Leonardo late at night when she masturbates, the time when she would stroke the dog and fantasise. ‘He wants me to’, she adds. This sexually addictive behaviour seems like a revival of Evie’s narcissistic fantasies while stroking little Leona’s arm for comfort and as a residue of her childhood need for affect regulation in a chaotic home. Leonardo the dog, like Leona, is dutifully transitional, ‘soft, smelly, furry, pliable, warm, and concretely available’ (Tolpin, 1971, p. 331).
Evie soon reports, more defiantly, that she is spending nights examining computer pornography, ‘there’s stuff for girls, too’, she tells me knowingly. But Evie acknowledges that she feels empty and depleted afterward. 1 notice how she has begun to lose weight due to her refraining from binging at night. These nocturnal forays are futile attempts to resurrect a twinship and her traumatic losses of her mother and Leona/Leonardo in succession. But her resulting vulnerability to lifelong loneliness does contain, I feel, a ‘forward edge’ (Tolpin, 2007), a plea for more human interaction, indicative of our budding relationship and the hot guy. When 1 tell her what I think, she retorts, ‘maybe’. It is Evie’s first ‘maybe’ in our three years together.
I suddenly realize how Evie no longer leads with her repellent body odour, allowing me to resurrect questions about her phobic responses to bathing, and her enormous weight gain after Leona left for college. She explains, ‘Pop always stipulated, only one bath a week’, she starts to sob quietly, looking heartbroken.
Evie’s animal dreams fall off precipitously; although she remarks that she misses ‘seeing’ Leonardo, she likes her dreams about ‘boys’. A few weeks before Evie and I terminate our work, she makes a surprising announcement: ‘I made out with that guy who was eyeing me at Mass’. (Evie has resumed attending her childhood church.) ‘He kissed me, and I kissed him back. No sex though. I thought nobody would ever kiss me again.’ Evie and I sit in silence, aware of the import of our closeness and of her newly found romantic stirrings.
Our ongoing transference-countertransference deadlock is broken in this third clinical year as mutuality and trust enter our sessions, decreasing frequent enactments and expanding Evie’s opportunity for growth, as seen in her newfound dating. Albeit initially unnerving to her, the kissing holds the promise of a more mature sexual self-states to emerge and for Evie’s greater self-cohesion. Deficits like an absent mother figure, Tolpin (1971) purports, create a lack of the secure base a caregiver provides and the search for a transitional selfobject seeks to replace the missing mother. Leona, then Leonardo, became transitional selfobjects supplying integral mirroring opportunities, but both not only become twinship selfobjects but are fetishized. Left alone, Evie could not grow into adolescence, seemingly trapped in childhood forever. Leonardo’s death, however, sets into motion Evie’s risking greater human contact with me and with her emergence into an expanded social setting, which relieves her shame over her fetishistic behaviour and encourages her emotional growth. As we part, I realize how sorry I feel to never hear about Evie’s next achievements.
The overused trope, 'man's best friend’, encompasses camaraderie rather than merger; it is instead a kind of twinship selfobject experience with an idealizable canine. Rudyard Kipling’s short story classic, ‘Garm - a hostage’ is an example, depicting a hardened soldier’s philosophically astute dogs, Garm and Vixen, who, he says, are ‘two of the happiest “people” in all the world’ (in Teasdale, 2010, p. 60). These relationships may resemble, or act as surrogates for, the unique feeling of closeness with fellow humans that Robert Grossmark (2018) describes in his innovative treatise on 'therapeutic companioning’.
Grossmark’s (2018) conception of companioning, influenced by Kohut, the Boston Change Study Group, the Balints, and particularly Stern’s unformulated experience and neo-Bionian field theory, is a new register of thirdness within the traditional relational matrix and illustrates his insightful psychoanalytic meditation on working with dissociative, frustrating or baffling patients. It is largely dependent upon the difficulty and its overcoming in analyses of borderline symptomology, with insights gleaned from the contemporary interest in unrepresentational states. In companioning, the clinician accompanies the patient in a ‘self-effacing manner into the worlds of inchoate pain, emptiness, darkness and illusion’, instead riding a ‘flow of enactive engagement’ (p. 40) in search of new meanings as the analytic couple surrenders to places unknown and unforeseen. The analyst remains ‘unobtrusive and yet deeply involved,’ says Grossmark (ibid, p. 40), as he swims the emergent field.
Canine companioning is instead about being ‘man’s best friend’. It only shares with psychoanalytic companioning the ‘flow of enactive engagement’, which can comfort traumatic losses unable to be reached by traditional technique. But it remains devoid of Grossmark’s analytic thought, intent or intellectual rigour.
Because an adult patient’s childhood history with animals, whether with pets, strays or even or idealizable, television canines like Lassie, is embedded in the context of her family and cultural milieu, making inquiry into her child-animal relationships can reap substantial clinical information that better explains her affective states than does memory per se. An example is my former patient, Eric, who tells me why he rescues and rehabilitates pit bulls. When he is twelve, Eric brings home an abandoned puppy; his father snatches the clumsily tied rope leash, goes to a nearby wood and shoots the dog. The boy, now a man, remains inconsolable and fantasises about retaliation with his now-deceased father. Meanwhile, he struggles with long-time drug abuse, clinging to his fantasy of each new dog as a panacea. Initially uncomfortable with Eric’s violent past, I am mollified by our mutual comfort from dogs and could relax into a more companionable stance.
The instinctive centre of canine companioning, or some dogs’ seemingly unschooled ability to sit with a human ‘side by side’ can be seen in therapy modalities that employ dogs. Our family dog, Duffy, has this remarkable talent, seasoned with self-styled seduction: if a guest feels anxiety with dogs, Duffy remains determinedly composed and quietly companions the visitor, blinking benignly, but moving methodically closer, paw step by paw step. By the visit’s end, Duffy’s large furry body is inevitably draped across the smitten friend’s lap - no words are necessary.
Unlike any matrix of companioning between humans - where detours or cycles of discord inevitably occur to threaten the relationship’s survival, we may feel frustrated with a dog’s undesirable behaviour, but we can rest upon our knowledge of their positive regard. Until the animal dies!
Unlike Eric, Todd is sophisticated and well-educated, with extensive experience in psychoanalysis. Like Eric, Todd requires my ‘implicit relational knowing’ (Stern et al., 1998, p. 907) because he ‘harbour[s] self-states that contain earlier, undeveloped, unspeakable and non-related parts...that can find no expression in language’ (ibid, p. 3). He too camouflages unformed states of illusion and merger intrinsic to his imagined narcissistic relationship with his dog.
Five years ago, when Todd was thirty-seven, his German Pointer, Siggy, dies, and I receive a referral from his now-retired analyst. Todd describes a major depression that lingers following Siggy’s loss. As Todd’s ‘best friend’ Siggy had accompanied Todd to his canine-friendly office, run with him every day along the river, and in summer, retrieved the sticks Todd threw into the Atlantic Ocean’s choppy waters. ‘Siggy,’ he brags wistfully, ‘swam like Michael Phelps.’
A hip looking, creative director at an advertising firm in Manhattan, Todd is always well dressed, immaculately groomed, with hair that is prematurely greyed at the temples, giving him a substantial presence that defies his years. He has an outsized, throaty laugh, which I find appealing. Now living alone, Todd wanders in and out of relationships with amiable women who mean little to him other than as a brief sexual encounter or as a date for a work event. He complains of fatigue and worries that his peers have all married, while he remains alone - without Siggy. His father’s serious cardiovascular condition causes Todd inordinate stress, and he worries about his mother’s becoming emotionally reliant on him in the future.
Todd’s former analyst characterizes him as ‘deeply intelligent but narcissistic’. The remark makes me initially feel protective of Todd, although he can be unquestionably grandiose. He earned his narcissistic stripes within a consistently unresponsive family system. His father is at times verbally vicious, and his mother is continually disengaged and passive. His privileged background gains him admission to a prestigious arts programme at an Ivy League college, where he finds psychic refuge for both his intellectual curiosity and athleticism, but the women he meets are conventional and incurious like his mother. Upon returning to New York City, he begins psychoanalysis and now sits slumped in my office.
‘Siggy required enormous exercise, as do I. He was a real jock, what my father praised as a “manly” dog, a rare acknowledgment,’ Todd stifles a sob. ‘He slept on my bed and always knew whenever I had a gruelling day at work. He’d just dose if I was watching TV, his head in my lap.’ Todd’s tearful recounting seemed to bring both of them alive. Now, he tells me, he frequents a nearby dog run - ‘looking like a paedophile at a playground’.
Todd confidently relied on Siggy’s canine companioning with its all-purpose twinship relevance, seamlessly fitting into Todd’s life. Due to Todd’s insecure attachment style, he found it difficult to build and sustain ties with romantic companions, and he was initially suspicious of me. Todd’s mother stifles any show of affection for him, seemingly anxious about his father’s dissatisfaction with her, and his early warning to her - within Todd’s earshot - that ‘women like you inadvertently create homosexual sons’. ‘At least she had the good sense to hire a caring nanny’, Todd remarks wistfully. His selfobject experiences throughout his life - with teachers, colleagues, and his analyst - were ways in which Todd constructed emotional scaffolding outside of his family, and he remains remote from his formal, unwelcoming parents although they live in the same city.
I worry that I am now a designated nanny or perhaps a new Siggy, which is more to my liking. I need to ‘companion' Todd, listening with dogged empathy as he tells me innumerable ‘Siggy stories’ of unparalleled feats. Siggy was named for Dr. Freud, whom Todd describes as a kind of‘uber-nanny’. Beyond unwavering attention, can 1 be companionable enough to form a bridge to some future human partnership?
Todd is seriously dating Janna before Siggy’s death, but he feels in no shape to discuss marriage with her. We talk about Janna’s ability to provide him with Siggy’s seemingly incalculable functions, and I think to myself that they are well-matched after Todd introduces us at one of his sessions. The couple marries and decides to have children right away, largely because Janna is in her late thirties, and Todd is fixed upon a fantasy of his own re-parenting.
Fast forward: Todd is now forty-two and looks very worried. Marriage to Janna has proven ‘astonishing,’ and, ‘more than he could hope for’. She is a doctor who is taking time off to care for their daughter, Amy, aged two. The couple is adopting two Pointer littermates, to ‘round out’ their current family system, and Todd insists that he feels happy and able to successfully ‘love and work’. But instead of experiencing a lift in his spirits at the thought of finally having everything he had missed as a child, he begins to have disturbing dreams in which Siggy demeans Janna, in words and behaviours - like barking incessantly at her so that Todd awakens. Janna, herself in therapy, feels perplexed by Todd’s mood change, and urges him to, ‘go talk to Ginny. I haven’t seen you like this since Siggy died. You’re not sleeping, you’re barely eating and you’ve lost that client who you felt was solid. I’m worried’. Todd now heads up a small, multinational ad agency. ‘Sounds impressive, right’ he had grinned stoically at me. I roll my eyes and laugh gently, but wonder with questioning eyes about what anxieties have raised Siggy from the dead?
Todd and Janna both want a dog. She had had dogs in her Midwest childhood and wants another, ‘I think more than she wants another kid’, Todd teases, when he tells me she is again pregnant; this time with a boy about whom he is thrilled as much as he enjoys Amy. ‘These dreams make no sense; how can I think that Siggy is displeased with Janna? Siggy had liked her, wagging his tail at her emphatically.’ But Todd knows that these dreams are his own psychological constructions, and his underlying worries or defences belie his distrust that life can continue purposefully and contentedly with a human partner.
After Todd’s father has a serious heart attack, a pacemaker is inserted but keeps malfunctioning, causing his mother to ‘fall apart’. She tells Todd that she had always acquiesced to his dad because ‘I didn’t think I could live without him - I guess I really can’t. But please let me make up for what I didn’t do for you as a child’. Todd blows up, warning his mother that she cannot manipulate her way into his good graces. ‘I spent all of this time thinking that it was all him’, he tells me. ‘She’s a manipulating bitch! No wonder Father came home late every night’, sounding un-Todd-like. ‘Yeah, that was harsh’, he admits. ‘Dad probably wanted to marry a pretty girl from a prosperous family, and she was that’. We delve into Todd’s feelings around his anger, so long restrained and finally unleashed.
In a later session, I take a deep breath and check Todd’s mood to see if he has calmed down enough to hear me. ‘I’d like to mention something that I’ve been wondering about and if it makes sense to you. I don’t believe that Siggy could dislike Janna any more than you do. And I think your expectation that the puppies will ‘round out your family’ may be worrisome, causing you to search for reasons to project your unconscious fears about them onto your wife. What if the puppies disappoint you or the children? What if they’re unable to be wonderful companions like Siggy had been? What will happen if one dies? Will you experience the complex mourning that you felt after Siggy died? You know intellectually that it will be an entirely different experience. Janna seems to provide you the closeness and comradeship like Siggy’s, plus a healthy dose of sex’, I smile. ‘The feeling of Siggy is always with you Todd - he’s not replaceable. Does that make any sense?’ He nods. When we reconvene, Todd simply smiles at me and replies, ‘You were right on’. The puppies arrive and are raucously silly, bringing the expanding family much laughter. The couple’s son, Evan, is born, and Todd and Janna dream of a third child and perhaps a move to the country.
Todd’s Achilles heel is his mistrust of becoming dependant on people, having early on disbelieved his parents’ caring about him. Only Siggy, a non-human, could be emotionally unswerving and companionable. This case illustrates an often-missed element in classical analyses: that of‘being with’ in a distinctive empathic and intersubjective manner as opposed to concentration on symbolically restructuring preconscious experience. It highlights the intensely affective requirement in a relationally shared space or third (Benjamin, 2004). In this treatment, we co-create access to early deficits, work through inevitable enactments in the therapy and among family members, but not necessarily in that order. ‘Companioning' stays in the moment to moment evolution of Grossmark’s ‘flow of enactive engagement’, a resoluteness that can be critical in complicated mourning like Todd’s.
Humans have participated in anthropomorphic mythologizing since ancient times - when dogs were sometimes sacred ancestors or totems. The early Greeks’ three-headed dog, Cerebus, guarded the underworld’s doorway and a dog is the only being to recognize Odysseus when he returns from his legendary travels. Nearly as myth-like, Snoopy, the enigmatic beagle in the Peanuts’ comic family, exhibits his artist’s anthropomorphising, and innumerable other animals parade through each New Yorker issue.
Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human qualities to non-humans and anthropopathism is the granting of human feelings to nonhumans: each is ubiquitous. This behaviour literally animates conventional lives and offers metaphoric benefits to us. In today’s perplexing world, it is common to name your car, or to curse your malfunctioning computer for failing to obey your commands. Anthropomorphising stokes creativity and denial concurrently, so that although we consciously understand that anthropomorphising our dogs is self-indulgent and irrational, our wanting to know and not know simultaneously is not uncommon. Like a child listening to a fairy tale, we know and don’t know if the witch will eat the children.
Ferenczi (1956) claims that ‘the child passes through the animistic period.. .in which every object appears to him to be endowed with life’ (p. 193). Without this capability, a child, say (Ulman and Paul, 2006, p. 338) can ‘suffer a serious developmental arrest’. Ideally, their ‘capacity for mastery’ (ibid, p. 339) over non-human objects can later be reinvested in the adult world, morphing into the ability to play, create and appreciate cultural phenomena. But it differs from transitional experiencing however because childlike animism can continue ‘to endow spontaneity.. .far beyond infancy’ (Akhtar, 2003, p. 4). The ‘capacity for mastery’ Grolnick, Barkin, & Muen-sterberger, (in Akhtar, ibid, p. 5) say, is decathected and over time lies in ‘limbo’, instead of being forgotten like a transitional object.
Infantile animism may be re-established with an autonomous animal for which one also cares -a pet. Freud (1946, 1955) believes that as a child matures, he begins to accept anthropocentrism, the philosophical view arguing that people are the principal animals on Earth and our status requires us to act as guardians for the so-called lesser species, which is of course a Biblical precept.
Animals who speak in children’s stories provide ‘safe spaces’ (Fustich, 2016, p. 13) for young minds because children perceive them as equals says Freud (1946, 1957), although they are designated purveyors of important adult-initiated, ethical principles and complex ideas. Approximately half (to my count) of Caldecott Medals, the children’s literary prize, include dogs or cats as significant characters.
Most adults, particularly those having a close relationship with a relational creature, readily anthropomorphise to varying degrees - simply because it is pleasurable. For our patients, ascribing disproportionate anthropomorphic qualities to their relational creatures can, however, become a clinical facet of the treatment. Freeman (2005) talks of‘pets as transference objects, [that] can symbolically represent characteristics of idealised or demonised self or object representations ...projections of dissociated aspects of one’s self... aggressive impulses ...assertive impulses and wishes...or sexual impulses... not-me scapegoats...surrogate victims, or trickster figures’ (ibid, p. 34).
I treated Mary, a newly widowed young woman, who presented with passionate feelings about her two small Cocker Spaniels. She feels socially insufficient in the United States having lived in Beirut for six years after marrying a Lebanese man whom she met at university in England. Soon after her husband’s sudden death, Mary fled Lebanon. Her administrative job at the American Embassy had ended, and currently, she has no desire to seek employment.
Mary’s mischievously endearing pups accompany her to our sessions and vie for our attention creating chaos in their wake. They take turns on and off and under the couch while nipping at one another and leaving a trail of fur behind them. Although I am sometimes annoyed with the dogs’ behaviour, Mary’s insistence tells me how important it is for her to show me her pride in them and her good ‘mothering’. Mary is often consumed by her childless situation. It helps when acquaintances chat with Mary as she sits with the dogs at outdoor cafes and during their daily walks in Central Park, helping her to feel less alone. They are her twinship and alterego selfobjects.
Mary’s unceasing conversation with her dogs, called Lucy and Desi, leaves me in reverie about a satirical canine-inspired reality show - for this is indeed Mary’s reality. The pups are costumed in an extensive array of fashionable coats, booties or Halloween costumes. Pink bows are fastened to Lucy’s ear so that she is always known as the little girl dog.
When Desi becomes ill and must remain at the veterinarian’s, Lucy, much like Mary, is noticeably upset when they arrive one afternoon for a ‘crisis’ session. Sitting uncharacteristically upright and still on Mary’s lap, Lucy captures my eye contact and barks, no ‘talks’, with great distress, seeming to recount her worries about her brother. Her ‘language’ mimics Mary’s cadence, rhythm and urgency, woof, woofing her grave concerns as Mary and
I sit dumfounded and immobilized in amazement. Our projections perhaps, but the dog’s ‘speech’, sounding so much akin to Mary’s, even via canine vocal apparatus, is unmistakable. So, with a little forethought, Lucy and 1 have a session; I address Lucy but try to respectfully explore Mary’s anxiety, while she sits like a ventriloquist armed with a small furry dummy. During our multi-subjective, folie a trios I allot Lucy more attention than I often give Mary. As the interpersonalist Edgar Levinson often asks (2018, personal communication), ‘what’s going on around here?’
When Desi returns home the following day, the dogs re-establish bedlam in my office - as if nothing has changed, but Mary and I remain astonished, having co-witnessed something neither of us entirely understands. This scenario offers a breaking through of unidentified barriers in our work, formerly established by my eccentric boundaries and Mary’s excessive an-thropomorphising, and it opens up new dialogue sprinkled with laughter.
1 tell my colleague Ellen about this experience after she adopts a new terrier named Zoe. She dismisses my story, saying congenially, ‘Oh Zoe does that too. It’s adorable’, ‘Sure Zoe does it’, I think sarcastically. But then Ellen mails me a video of Zoe ‘talking’ to her cat when Zoe ‘demands’ attention; the cat responds by hissing and running off.
Is anthropomorphism de rigueur due to the state of our shared disquiet in the world? Perhaps, but it is also a blind spot in the analytic investigation. Stam & Kalmanovitch (1998) explain that the wide acceptance of experimental animal psychology during the advent of the last century altered animals’ status - becoming abstractions and ‘organisms of convenience’ (p. 1135) calling E. L. Thorndike’s introduction of measurable data replaced ‘anthropomorphism, anecdotalism and introspection’ (ibid). His application of‘scientific,’ ‘mechanistic’ and ‘progressive’ (ibid) properties to laboratory animals moved his research with children into the ‘laboratories’ of mass educational settings, creating a hierarchical research ladder from an animal to a child to an adult. As lab animals became fundamental to twentieth-century modernism, Darwin’s ideas slid into slumber, and anthropomorphism’s subjective meanings are now seldom explored.
The rap icon, Tupac Shakur’s (1999) song ‘Unconditional Love’ speaks to the universal human longing for unconditional love:
(What y’all want?)
Unconditional Love (no doubt)
Talking ‘bout the stuff that don’t wear off
It don’t fade
It’ll last for all these crazy days
These crazy nights
Whether you wrong or you right...
Shakur is correct; unconditional love is what we all want, but it cannot be scientifically authenticated. Those of us who are lucky enough to ‘feel’ its close proximity - whether from man or beast - are indeed fortunate.
Individuals like Mary often crave the unconditional love that her dog supplies. A twinship selfobject relationship with a relational creature jumpstarts the potential for renewed emotional development (Tolpin, 1997), or a dog can act as a placeholder, as Siggy actively does for Todd and Leonardo does as a fetish for Evie. When severe relational malattunement or abuse is the norm in childhood, or when grief blindfolds the possibility of risking human relationships as it does for Mary, unconditional love can feel indispensable. However, its longing often indicates an inability to entertain and endure the limitations and disappointments inherent in all important relationships, human or canine, although during a period of complicated grief, it can maintain the psyche’s equilibrium. If unconditional love is insisted upon, however, as it is with merger selfobject demands in therapy, it ensures one’s belief in a singular, magical self-worth - as Eric hopes for as he rescues pit bulls.
While literary minds - from Thomas Mann and Anton Chekov to Jack London and John Steinbeck - have constructed numerous and important ways to illustrate the human-canine bond, our lack of available psychoanalytic language regarding these important attachments, I feel, increasingly interferes with our clinical discourse. I have recommended the use of relational creatures to refer to our canine companions and our communication with them as a meeting of affects. New means of explication are necessary if we are to understand these interspecies alliances.
And so 1 borrow Anthony Bass’s (2015, p. 701) query to clinicians, which also serves to encapsulate the human beings’ desire to comprehend their relationships with their dogs: Bass asks, ‘Why [do] analysts and patients seem so regularly to have experiences of such deep, even uncanny points of connection, challenging ordinary assumptions about what we are capable of knowing and perceiving about each other?’ Rephrasing his question, 1 ask: Why do humans seem to experience these same inscrutable and enigmatic states of being with their relational creatures? Can we please begin a discussion?
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