How dogs slipped into the psychoanalyst’s heart and home


The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud understood that canine companions offer us a special type of therapeutic company, but he didn’t come to that conclusion until late in his career. Freud was in his seventies when he first became a dog owner. In 1925, his daughter Anna got a large black Alsatian named Wolf to accompany her on solo walks in the woods of Vienna. When the dog gained Freud’s affection, friend of the family Dorothy Burlingame gifted Freud a dog of his own, a chow named Lün-Yu.

Many wonder why Freud didn’t become interested in dogs until later in life. In his book, The Interwoven Lives of Sigmund, Anna, and W. Ernest Freud, clinical psychologist Daniel Benveniste surfaces a note from biographer Ernest Jones: “In the Europe of Freud’s era, Jewish families, like Freud’s, typically did not have close contact with dogs. For them, dogs had fearful associations; for instance, anti-Semites had used attack dogs during the pogroms. The fact that Freud may have overcome some cultural and cognitive inertia to welcome Wolf and Lün-Yu into his family lends some nuance to his relationship with canines. Anna, one of Freud’s six children and an acclaimed psychotherapist, speculated that in those times of “unrelenting brutality and blind lust for destruction … it became easier to look away from one’s fellowmen and turn to animals.”

There’s also reason to believe that Freud’s inner turmoil played a part in him opening his heart and home to dogs. He had seen a lifetime of patients, heard their stories and their hurts, translated the assessments into concepts and methodologies, and delved into and defined the different layers of the human mind. Compared to people, Freud found dogs to be joyously straightforward. “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies,” he said, “quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object-relations.” Freud cherished dogs for their “affection without ambivalence” and their freedom from the convoluting forces of society. Writer Laurel Braitman recaps the impact of Freud’s long career as a practicing psychotherapist: “His decades attempting to untangle people had made him, finally and overwhelmingly, into a dog person.”

Freud began to incorporate his pets into his practice. In 1930, after the untimely death of Lün-Yu, Burlingame gifted Freud another chow, Jofi, who laid on the floor of the office during sessions. According to lore, Jofi became Freud’s timekeeper during his appointments: when she stood up from the floor, Freud knew the hour was up. If Jofi was suspicious or avoidant of potential patient-clients, Freud considered them unfit for analysis. Some clients took issue with how Freud conducted his sessions with his dog as a conduit. Hilda Doolittle wrote in her diary in March 1933, “I was annoyed at the end of my session as [Jofi] would wander about and I felt that the Professor was more interested in [Jofi] than he was in my story.” Others took advantage. Roy Grinker’s memoirs recall sessions in which he fiercely emoted at Jofi, which was easier than shouting at Freud: “I could also scold the dog, which was definitely involved in my analysis, and in that way indirectly express my hostility to Freud. As a child I had been deathly afraid of dogs. Now Freud’s dogs naturally got the full force of my fears and hatreds.” Though dogs have an amazing ability to calm our chaotic human energy, turning to them for therapy session scapegoating raises some red flags.

Despite his renown, Freud was far from perfect — as both a pet owner and a professional. His shortcomings on both sides dovetail in a letter he wrote to Doolittle in July 1933, several months after her annoyed journal entry. He explains how he has gotten rid of several of his dogs because of what he sees as an inevitable conflict between women: “There has been much commotion in the dogstate. Wolf had to be shipped off to Kagran, because both ladies were in heat, and the fierce antagonism between Jofi and Lün, which is rooted in the nature of women, resulted in good, gentle Lün’s being bitten by Jofi. Thus Lün, too, is at present in Kagran and her future is uncertain.” From today’s vantage point, we can easily call into question Freud’s accountability as a dog owner and as a healthcare professional, wielding unsavory stereotypes of, and influence on, women’s psychology. Alas, the flaws of men never stopped the dynamic duo of man and his dog.

Dogs witness our imperfect selves and still love us. They look past our issues and see those they are loyal to without judgement. We can trust them to stay by our side — or to return to it, as Wolf did once by taking a taxi back to the Freud residence. As the Freud Museum tells the story, Anna and Wolf were on a walk in Vienna when a loud shot from a military parade “startled Wolf and he ran off. Anna searched for him in vain, only to return home and find him there. He had taken a taxi home … according to the driver, Wolf jumped into the back of his cab and resisted all efforts to get him out. He raised his head, letting the driver read his tag: ‘Professor Freud, Berggasse 19.’ So Wolf was safely dropped home and Freud paid the taxi driver his fare.”

When Jofi passed away in 1937, Freud soon got another chow by the same name. In 1938, the Freud family left Vienna to escape Nazi persecution. They moved to a new home in London, the site of which is now the Freud Museum. Jofi II returned to Freud’s side after being released from a six-month quarantine, to the fanfare of the local London press. Freud died shortly after, in 1939 at the age of 83, concluding his final, dog-filled chapter of life.

The question of why someone would fall for dogs in their final years has a simple answer: it was about time. Freud’s story hints that it’s never too late for a new passion or friend. His belated affinity to dogs is a refreshing reminder that one’s work life is not the end-all, be-all to the time we spend here. It’s a wide world, and the beings we share it with have a magical way of complicating the things we thought we knew about it. In connecting with dogs, we can escape from our own tangled human heads.

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