Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism and Myth

April 17, 2009 at 7:03 pm 10 comments

“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.”

Entry filed under: dog training, dogs, science. Tags: , .

…Easter Piss on it!

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sian Min  |  April 20, 2009 at 3:43 am

    People are forever seeing and treating their pets as furry children; seeking to satisfy their own needs by pretending it’s the pet’s needs. Doggie day-care with piped-in music, matching linens on the dog beds, themed pet rooms, … need I go on.

    I’m half way through a book called Animals In Translation, by Temple Grandin. So far, I highly recommend it ! It touches on these issues, and gives an interesting peek at how animals may REALLY see the world: as it is, and not as it ought to be.

  • 2. SmartDogs  |  April 20, 2009 at 3:56 am

    It is an excellent book — though I disagree with Ms. Grandin on a few points as noted here:

  • 3. Sian Min  |  April 20, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Yup. I left a comment under that post too.

  • 4. Dog Treats Girl  |  April 25, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I’m a therapist and found this interesting. I have one client who told me that her poodle will bark whenever she gets a phone call and gets very jealous when there is anyone over that view for her attention. Both she and her dog take medication (but they have separate therapists). I don’t think she is projecting her own issues on the dog. Her dog exhibits extereme jealousy.

    A second client I have is very anxious but her dog is completely calm with no neurosis whatsoever.


  • 5. SmartDogs  |  April 25, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    I’m sure that some dogs feed on their owners’ issues and others don’t. I’ve had several female clients who told me they were physically and/or sexually abused as children who then unintentionally trained their dogs to keep other people from touching them (including one very troubled newlywed). I’ve also had several empty-nesters who, also inadvertently, trained their dogs to be problematically clingy and needy.

    I’ve got a couple of friends who are therapists (for people) who see parallels in their work as well. I talked to one of them about writing a paper but she’s got a family, a busy private practice and other things taking up her time.

  • 6. stian  |  August 4, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    you have not deep knowledge about the radical behaviorism, only superstitious knowledge. You make many mistakes when you describe behaviorism. And you repeat many common prejudices about behaviorism. I would recommand that you read: Wiiliam Baums “understanding behaviorism” from 2005. Thats a excellent book.

  • 7. KozyDogs  |  September 9, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Yes, my dog knows when we are ahppy, sad or anxious. This can be a bad thing though because it makes them feel the same way.

  • 8. Anissa  |  October 13, 2010 at 3:01 am

    Good points and well written as always. I do think a lot of people spend too much time worrying about psychoanalyzing their dogs, when they could be actually helping them.

    Also, I just recommended you to someone on Yahoo!Answers who posted a very intelligent and well-phrased question about a dog with what sounds like some fear aggression problems. I told them they would likely get conflicting advice online and to seek a good trainer – that you were the best I know of based on your work with Charlie, and even if you couldn’t help them, you might be able to point the way to some good trainers in their area. I hope you don’t mind.

  • 9. Elaine Ostrach Chaika, PhD  |  September 14, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Noam Chomsky (whom I’m not a fan of) burst behaviorism wide in his critique of Skinner. Chomsky noted that the essence of language is that anyone can say new things in their language and anyone can understand new ideas in their language. Ever language changes constantly. There are an infinite number of sentences that can be generated in any language. It is impossible to condition anybody to create something new. It is impossible to condition speakers of a language to be able to create an infinite number of sentences. (see blog:

    Dogs have co-evolved with humans and have undergone mutations that make them more valuable to humans. One of these mutations is the dog’s ability to learn to pick out words in the stream of human speech. There’s nothing automatic about this and they understand words they’ve never been conditioned to respond to. My dogs understand words like “lift, later, this afternoon, supper, go to the vet, lunch, not yet, do you want [something]. If you talk to your dog in conversational style, they will learn some of the words. So far as we know, dogs are the only non-humans who can do this without being trained to. Even little puppies start learning words from their surroundings. Their owners often don’t realize that until the dog acts upon something said in ordinary conversation. Example: I told my husband “I have to take the dog to the vet this afternoon.” Hours passed. We had lunch, all of us. But, when I went for the leash, Skeezix couldn’t be found and he wouldn’t respond to being called or the command “come!” I found him hiding and had to literally drag him to the vet’s office around the corner.
    see also:

  • 10. Allison Bell  |  June 3, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    This approach leads to more dog death than any other I know. Thank you for putting my angst into words!

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