Archive for April 17, 2009

Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism and Myth

“We shall be forever disappointed in psychology if we insist on one true, final way to conceptualize the nature of the mind.” 
Douglas Candland

A lot of the power of myth lies in its ability to help us describe, clarify and share difficult concepts and situations.  The personal and cultural narratives of myth give us a kind of intellectual shorthand to process ideas that are otherwise difficult to imagine or explain.

Myth is a vital part of psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst helps his patient create a myth that explains the basis of his problem. The myths created in therapy don’t need to be true; they just need to help the patient reframe his problem in an adaptive way. The value of psychoanalytical constructs lies not in their truth but in their utility.

Behaviorism is rooted in the precepts of Morgan’s canon*.  Radical behaviorists reject the use of any data that cannot be strictly defined, measured and tabulated. One of the basic premises of radical behaviorism is that the study of behavior should be conducted as a natural science (like chemistry and physics) and that behaviorists should avoid references to un-measureable inner states of organisms. The behaviorist’s focus is on the conditioning processes that affect behavior not the mind that engages in it. 

Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, focuses on understanding the un-measureable, un-definable unconscious motivations that drive behavior.  It’s the philosophical opposite of of behaviorism.

So… why is it that so many who describe themselves as “dog behaviorists”** take an approach to problem-solving that could best be described as the psychoanalysis of our pets?  While focusing (often obsessively) on the Skinnerian behaviorism of stimulus-response, a disturbing number also seem to feel compelled to engage in creating complex myths to explain why Rover humps the kids and the cat pees outside its box.

Psychoanalysis is based on the construction of myth – behaviorism on the reduction of behavior to causative elements.  And putting these two, disparate ideas together to treat animals just doesn’t make sense. In “Feral Children and Clever Animals  Douglas Candland wrote, “The Freudian analysis of the mind is an analysis of the human mind, not the animal mind, for as encompassing as the theory is, psychoanalytic explanations demand the use of language for use as data.”

Psychoanalysis is for language-using, narrative-dependent human minds – not for animal minds. 


Your dog doesn’t belong on a therapist’s couch.  He doesn’t use or need myths to make sense of his world.  General associative ideas centered on context and previous experiences are far more important to him than even very simple, image-based narrative ideas are. Your dog doesn’t create stories about the world to help him put things into context for future processing – he’s an existentialist.  He lives in the moment.

Perhaps the biggest problems in taking a psychoanalytical approach to dog behavior problems is that in most cases the myths we create to explain our dogs’ behavior problems are based on our hopes, our fears, and our umwelt – not the dog’s.   This wouldn’t be a problem if, like the myths employed in psychoanalysis, the narratives created by the behaviorist and dog owner helped reframe the dog’s issues in a way that led to a solution. But this often isn’t the case.  Unfortunately we have a strong human tendency to look for absolution before we look for explanation.  And our dogs suffer needlessly because of it.

I believe that we do a better job of helping dogs work through their problems when we leave myth out of the mix. As dog owners and trainers we should strive to dispassionately observe and assess the context, history and evolution of the problem without framing it some kind of unneccessarily complicated backstory.  Avoid the complex narrative explanations your human mind craves and focus your energy on following a general approach to rehabilitation that you can change and refine as needed.  Don’t let some myth of the dog’s previous existence – whether real or imagined – stand in the way of finding the approach your dog needs to heal and move ahead.

Your dog doesn’t need to understand his problems. He just needs you to create a path he can use to walk out of them. 

*          “In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” 

**        According to the Animal Behavior Association: “There is no standard terminology for describing people who help with animal behavior problems. Titles such as animal behaviorist, applied animal behaviorist, pet behavior counselor or animal behavior consultant are all used by people doing this sort of work. At present, there is no licensure for these titles so anyone can call themselves an animal behaviorist, etc. with no training or experience in the field.”

April 17, 2009 at 7:03 pm 10 comments

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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April 2009