How a dog helped a patient in psychotherapy rediscover her true emotions.
By Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.
This is the first of a series of articles dealing with the impact of animals in the therapeutic environment and how this connection can accelerate the healing process.
Susan’s voice was flat, almost hollow, when she sat down in my office on her first visit. When I asked what brought her to therapy, she replied without emotion, “I feel lost … I have bouts of depression … I’m isolated and unsociable.” Then she added, “Life does not make sense to me.” Despite her high academic achievements – finishing law school, passing the bar and securing a coveted position at a prestigious law firm – she felt unsatisfied and alienated. Now in her early 40s, Susan was a stranger to herself.
I was reminded of the story I’d read many years ago about a woman who had traveled to Vienna to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud, the proverbial father of psychoanalysis. After several years abroad, she returned to her home in the United States. A close friend, curious about her experience, asked her what she had learned on the couch of the great doctor. She thought for a moment and replied, “I learned that feelings are the most important asset we have. We must learn to listen to them.” Without connection to our feelings, we are lost, depressed and alienated.
Susan and I set a goal to work toward reconnecting herself with herself, with others, and with life.
Susan had learned to shut out all her emotions
Often, our job as therapists is to weaken rigid self-imposed emotional chains, to help build trust and openness, and to tap slowly the core of emotions that have been locked away from perceived psychological pain.
Susan had learned as a child to shut down and ignore all feelings. Her innate needs of love and understanding had been thwarted. As an adult, some personal setbacks at home and abroad contributed to her insecurities and her sense of alienation. The guarantees of the past – a steady job, a home, a family, and a comfortable retirement – had become just that, a thing of the past.
At birth, all of us – humans and other animals – are totally dependent on our caregivers for survival. Instinctively, we attach to our parents or guardians. If we’re lucky, the attachment is reciprocal and it provides us with enough healthy nurturing and naturing to help us grow into caring adults.
Parents are our first teachers and role models. They lay the foundation in our brains for future reactions. It’s not only their verbal communication that makes impressions on us, but non-verbal communication, too. How they respond when we cry, smile, speak, shiver and act shapes who we are and how we view and value ourselves.
With healthy enough parents, a child can look forward to a healthy enough adulthood. This includes knowing and pursuing our own interests, desires and wishes, contributing to society in a meaningful way, and coping with the trials and tribulations that inevitably affect us all. Ideally, we can look back on a life well lived.
But Susan was not so fortunate as to have healthy enough parents, and she did not feel safe and secure enough to develop her real self. The emotional abuse and neglect she’d experienced in early childhood resulted in maladaptive behaviors that hampered her further healthy development.
Teddy Bear: The big breakthrough!
Susan was making steady progress during our months of therapy. One day, when she arrived at my office, I was caring for a friend’s dog. He was a small, sweet, affectionate, white fluffy Maltese named Teddy Bear. I decided to let him into the office during Susan’s session.
She admitted to liking dogs but had not been allowed to have pets when she was growing up. Teddy Bear greeted her excitedly, barking “Hello, happy to see you.” Instinctively, she petted him, and he in turn delighted in the attention. A few moments later, he settled down and sat at her feet, resting a paw on her sandaled foot. After a few minutes, Susan picked up Teddy Bear, placed him on her lap, and stroked him gently. Teddy Bear was in doggie heaven. “I wish someone would do this to me,” Susan said quietly. It was a poignant moment as we sat in silence and let the weight of that confession hang in the air. Teddy Bear had the key to the strongbox of feelings long locked away. In the safety of the therapy room, Susan was able to release those feelings and verbalize them. It was a breakthrough moment.
Animals have a way of triggering the deep imprisoned emotions of love, kindness, trust, value and playfulness. They have no pretense. When they love you, they tell you; when they don’t, you know that, too.
As the weeks passed, I would occasionally have Teddy Bear or another dog in the session. Each time, Susan would make a stronger connection with them, and they would have an immediate positive response to her.
Susan was beginning to feel connected and loved. I suggested that she might consider adopting a dog, and she took me up on it. She adopted Maggie, a Westie. The change in her life was transformative. Maggie and Susan bonded quickly, and they went everywhere together. Maggie was dependent on her, and she gave Maggie what she’d never received from her own primary caregivers. What she received in return was devotion, loyalty, affection and unconditional love. She had a living, breathing, sentient being in her life. She was needed. When she took Maggie for a walk, she began to make friends with other dog people, and her isolation diminished. Maggie’s antics and playfulness helped lift her depression, and her life took on more meaning.
One day, as we neared the end of therapy, Susan paused for a moment as she was leaving the office. As she turned to me, her face broke into a big smile and she said, quoting Lucy from the cartoon Peanuts: “Dr. Benjamin, happiness is a warm puppy!”
Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.