A Dog in the Room: Interspecies Intersubjectivity in Relational Psychotherapy

Sean Meggeson

From Freud to the present day, therapists have had a tendency (and maybe a need) to either sentimentalise dogs and anthropomorphise their part in the therapeutic process or assign them the role of objects of identification, projection and displacement (Ponder, 2019). Both perspectives are limiting and unfair to dogs, making it seem like they are some kind of therapy toy: at best on the periphery of psychotherapeutic action, dogs are denied a sense of self and thereby excluded from the intersubjective field. Even though the past fifty years of Animal-Assisted Therapy has afforded a more agentive role of animals in the therapeutic process as authentic objects of attachment, and even as sole therapists (Levinson, 1984), I believe that more thinking, listening and development is needed on this topic and that relational therapists who include dogs in their practice can start thinking more radically about dogs in the room as participants in the intersubjective field.

The need for a ‘dog turn’ is especially relevant within the field of relational theory where the Zeitgeist of the nonverbal, as interpersonal theorist D.B. Stern puts it, has made it ‘a little quaint to characterise psychoanalysis as the talking cure’ (Stern, 2019, p. 68). For at least the last forty years, cognitive ethnologists, psychologists, philosophers and sociologists have done extensive research and analysis of inter-species intersubjectivity, concluding that a form of interspecies intersubjectivity is possible (Aaltola, 2013; Bekoff, 2003, 2006; Irvine, 2004, 2007; Jerolmack, 2009; Jurgens, 2017; Rowlands, 2019; Shapiro, 1990, 2003; Zlatev et al., 2008). This chapter will relate relational/intersubjective theory and clinical practice to some of the research on inter-species intersubjectivity, emphasising the importance of ‘kinaesthetic empathy’ (Shapiro, 1990, 2003) and the nonverbal. I will discuss how some unformulated (Stern, 2019) clinical moments in the client-canine-therapist triad become affected by the awareness of difficult shadow states of primal being. Finally, I will present a clinical example with my canine co-therapist, Tao-Tao (‘Tao’ for short; pronounced ‘taow’).

First, a few words on my co-therapist. Tao is an 11-kilogram Swedish Vall-hund, a rare pure-bred herding dog that supposedly reaches back to the times of the Vikings. She has smiley lips, short legs and looks like a Corgi

A dog in the room concept: an analysis 49 mated with a Husky. Tao is friendly and extremely calm, and while she can definitely bark if she wants to, she never does so while working in the consulting room. She has her own ‘canine therapy’ business card, but she is not a trained therapy dog. In sessions, her subjectivity is ever-present, encouraging clients’ subjectivity to emerge. For example, when paying for a session, one client tried to tuck the cheque under Tao’s collar, saying, ‘Here, take this to the Master.’ Another client broke some dog treats into little bits, laid them out like a buffet for a drooling Tao and said, ‘Time for my interspecies love session’. Other clients have said things like: ‘Well, at least Tao-Tao was a good listener today’, ‘Where’s my little baby?!’, ‘Tao-Tao and I are having a staring contest—she’s very aggressive’, ‘Oh, to be like Tao—so relaxed and care-free’, ‘I hope she doesn’t vomit on the carpet again’, ‘She’s so thin! Are you feeding her enough, Sean?’ And on and on...While every verbal statement by a client might be worth analysing, interpretation that seeks understanding, of course, is not enough (Levinson, 1972).

Tao has taught me much about the value of being a non-invasive, kinaes-thetically embodied dweller of nonverbal integrative therapeutic spaces. This kind of dwelling involves what psychologist and co-founder of the Animals and Society Institute, Kenneth Shapiro outlines as canine-defined bodily experiences made up of ‘paths to be traversed, of territory staked out, of felt relations—all known implicitly and bodily’ (Shapiro, 2003, p. 90). In other words, a canine therapist asks us to follow their example and de-emphasize verbal dyadic interchange, and to focus on what’s happening in the body, between bodies. This is the canine-human intersubjective modus operandi. In the nonverbal territory of body-with-body, Tao offers moments of subtle affect, embodied messages, shifts, poses, pokes, licks and looks. For example, as a client settles into the session, Tao will usually sense where she needs to be spatially. After standing by me for a moment or two, Tao may move toward the client, have a quick sniff or lick at their ankle, and then sit by their feet. Tao will glance at the client, then at me and eventually she will settle herself—and wait. A client usually does not comment at length on Tao’s presence, but sometimes will glance at Tao and say something like, ‘Look— she’s right here’. Somehow Tao knows where her place should be in the room, and consequently the best place to be in the therapeutic process: near or far; tactful or present; still or moving; waiting or ready. She can anticipate these positions by her use of implicit relational knowing, a knowing embedded in bodily experience.

When this process takes place and I’m attuned to it, I feel unusually grounded in the room in a strange, still and silent way that feels peaceful, but at the same time filled with readiness. Something akin to the spiritual meaning of the Taoist concept of Wu Wei that holds that action comes from inaction. In this place, I feel integrated and receptive to the client. The entire process—as it involves an intersubjective triad of therapist, dog and client—serves not as an analogy to relational psychotherapeutic process—it is the process.

Even though he never mentions dogs, D.B. Stern (2019) has much to say about unformulated/formulated nonverbal client material within the context of interpersonal/relational theory that can apply to working inter-subjectively with a dog in the room. For Stern, the unformulated becomes formulated via language, and within the context of phenomenology, the human subject becomes realised through language and verbal dialogic processing as a meaning-making endeavour between people (Gadamer, 2013; Merleau-Ponty, 2013). This formulation would seem to exclude interspecies intersubjectivity—and in the verbal realm, it does. Yet, in The Infinity of the Unsaid, Stern admits that by focusing on the verbal as the primary element in the clinical field, the therapist misses much that is emergent and unbidden. In earlier work. Stern (1983, cited in 2019, p. 7) states, ‘[t]he unformulated must organize itself first. It must begin to coalesce...It must send up tendrils, or feelings of tendency’. A dog’s tendrils are her very presence. A client looks at Tao in a moment of painful isolation and says with some relief, ‘She knows how I’m feeling’. And as a result, the client actually feels a connection with Tao by virtue of the dog’s nonverbal presence—a feeling of tendency, kinship and connection based on the dog’s present availability. Expert on animal emotions, Marc Bekoff, comments on the nature of the nonverbal intersubjective moment that exists between humans and all animals: As I watch an animal, I’m not reaching for the closest word to describe the behaviour I see; I’m feeling the emotion directly, without words or even a full, conscious understanding of the animal’s actions’ (Bekoff, 2007, p. 128). The power of this connection can be seen in the numerous clients who relate how their painful childhoods were made bearable by such human-to-animal moments.

The nonverbal process relates to the concept of procedural knowing (especially as it is described by Stern) within the context of nonverbal, affective therapeutic action. Stern (2019) explains, ‘[procedural knowing has no symbolic form in the mind, and is defined by what it does...Examples with psychoanalytic relevance include various affective, prosodic, visual and auditory sensory-perceptual, kinaesthetic, motor, and social-interactive phenomena—the stuff of somatic experience...’ (p. 22). Also, as Stern says, it is working within the realm of the procedurally-organized that change happens. A dog in the room offers clients nonverbal and connected ways to re-attune to the procedural and hence, to hidden, split-off affects.

‘Feelings of tendency’ is an apt way to describe the implicit knowledge and feelings, the nonverbal presence that dogs offer humans who feel isolated in their quest for the relational meeting. In the psychotherapeutic process, these nonverbal events of feelings of tendency between dog and client add to the therapeutic action in relational work. Stern (ibid) states, ‘I believe that nonverbal events are, in a certain sense, primary in the creation of therapeutic action’ (p. 16). They are primary, and they touch upon something elemental, primitive, and, I would argue, shadow-like.

The nonverbal asks us to consider our mammalian animal-body without the social overlay of verbal language. In this difficult awareness resides primal shadow parts of nonverbal human subjectivity. While the nonverbal can be an integrative space of containment and holding, it can also be a mysterious, complex and sometimes unstable state of being that compels all living things and unites us with the dog. In 1936, Dutch Psychologist and phenomenologist F.J.J. Buytendijk wrote in The Mind of a Dog, ‘[t]he most profound secret of life lies in the dual aspect of all its relations. [...] The entire animal world [including humans] calls for and responds to the desire for appeasement, peace, and deliverance from its loneliness’ (Buytendijk, 1936, pp. 19-21). The dog howls from loneliness; the human dog tends to forget the felt meaning of this nonverbal articulation, a procedural plea toward a meeting that holds the hope of deliverance. Buytendijk (ibid, pp. 14-15) adds,

Is not the joy of meeting ever like a IViedersehen, just as if each had known the other in a former life? It is like this, too, with man (sic) and dog. Neither has a guaranteed place in Nature, both are exiles. No two animals in the inmost recesses of their nature seek each other so earnestly and attach themselves to each other as do these.

Both human and dog need each other no less than human needs human, the genesis and telos of all therapeutic action.

As informed relational psychotherapists, it is both Tao’s and my task to meet a client’s needs for connection, even in the shadow realms of the nonverbal. This may mean departing from the traditional phenomenological task of assisting the unformulated toward formulation. Rather, it requires staying in the primal, felt a moment of howling and leaving the unformulated within the nonverbal realm of felt knowledge. In this sense, talk therapy with a dog in the room becomes at times defunct in the presence of procedural knowledge and its grounding action for all animals. And perhaps in certain, crucial events of body-with-body interchanges, the talking of talk therapy should remain in abeyance, privileging nonverbal interspecies intersubjectivity— no language, symbols, signs, or emergent properties within the linguistic matrix; rather, an inter-species intimation of unified being.

Clinical example

Jenny (a pseudonym) is a thirty-year-old woman who up until the time of this clinical example had been in treatment with me for about a year and a half. As a result of developmental deprivations and cumulative relational trauma, Jenny struggles with self and mutual regulation. She does not trust her own body and does not trust others’. In early treatment, Jenny would have panic attacks and would self-harm. These attacks were brought on by on-going relational injuries and deprivations, accumulated work stress, as well as catastrophic thinking and death anxiety. While we had a good working relationship, Jenny’s self-structure was such that any regulating connection 1 offered (verbal and nonverbal) was transformed into confirmation of her shame, triggering an attack on self and our relationship. She rapidly unravelled in early treatment and spent a month in a government psychiatric hospital where she tried to commit suicide. Upon release, we continued sessions and she improved over the months.

Her relationship with Tao has been implicitly ambivalent. Jenny likes Tao, but when Tao becomes bothersome to her (especially with Tao’s insistent licking of ankles), Jenny pushes Tao away rather callously. Tao has taken the hint and keeps a respectful distance. She generally refrains from licking Jenny in favour of offering distant kinaesthetic empathy, usually finding a spot equidistant from Jenny and me, but facing Jenny.

During a session in which we were discussing a difficult aspect of her hospitalisation, Jenny began having a panic attack as she sat on the couch. Her eyes filled with terror, her body constricted in on itself, and her voice became young. With her head bowed and shoulders hunched, Jenny squeaked out the words, ‘Can you please sit with me on the couch?’ I froze and tried to formulate a sentence that would somehow make Jenny feel okay, but also give me an excuse not to sit with her on the couch. 1 did not want to be close to her animal fear and while 1 did not articulate it consciously to myself at that moment, 1 was afraid of her fear. Yet, another part of me knew words would not be enough and I needed to sit next to her. Sit with her in her fear, loneliness and chaos.

1 took a quick breath and readied myself to move to the couch. As I stood up from my chair, Tao stood too and glanced at me with readiness. And in the same action of moving toward Jenny, I scooped up Tao and carried her with me to the couch, placing her half on my lap and half on Jenny’s. As the three of us settled into that shared space of panic and fear, I could feel Tao’s body become relaxed. Feeling unused to such physical proximity to a client, I said nothing, and Jenny began to slowly pet Tao on her scruff. Tao became even more relaxed and it seemed to me, grew discernibly warmer in her under-belly. Tao then began to gently lick Jenny’s hand as she petted her scruff. Jenny allowed Tao to keep licking. As I felt Tao’s relaxed closeness, I began to say softly, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay...’ Both Jenny and I needed these ‘words.’ But they were less words than nonverbal sounds, a rhythmical demarcation of a safe space.

With Tao holding the intersubjective triad, I sensed that Jenny was arcing out of the panic attack. The three of us then sat in intimate silence for a spacious moment. I then intuitively looked at Jenny and asked, ‘Good?’. She shyly looked at me and nodded, ‘Yes.’ When I stood up, Tao jumped off the couch, and when I returned to my chair, Tao sat by my feet. The only thing Jenny said about this event was in the next session: ‘All I remember was your voice was gentle. And Tao really helped.’


Artist and ecological scholar, Uta Maria Jürgens has claimed, ‘Intersubjectivity across species boundaries is the experiential stuff from which relation-ality is made’ (Jürgens, 2019, p. 27). Accordingly, a dog in the room is not merely an object of projection, identification and displacement. A dog in the room participates in an interspecies intersubjective triad that is kinaesthet-ically empathic and nonverbal. Furthermore, a canine co-therapist urges relational psychotherapists to think more deeply about psychotherapeutic action as it relates to somatic groundedness, specifically within the context of nonverbal, unformulated material, which can include the awareness and mutual regulation of a difficult shadow state of being.

Finally, as mentioned, Tao always seems to find her place in the room and then reconsiders her place appropriately. In this, she communicates to me the value of reconsidering my position in the room and how changing places, especially in the presence of loneliness, fear and chaos, can facilitate growth and healing for both the client and me.


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