Why I finally included my dog in therapy sessions
(first published in the Sunday Independent – August 2, 2015)
Just like Freud, psychotherapist Gayle Williamson gets a little help in sessions from a canine co-therapist
It happened by accident one afternoon. I had been on a break between appointments, drinking tea in the kitchen as usual, when my next client arrived a bit early. We walked into my home consulting room and there he was – Sam, my 10-year-old sheepdog-cross-labrador curled up on the couch. I called to him to come so I could let him into the room next door – his usual place while I was working. “Oh can’t he stay?” asked my client. “He looks so comfortable.”
And so he stayed. After nearly five years of patiently waiting next door, Sam was clearly happy to be part of the conversation. Now I regret that it took me so long to let him in.
Going to see a therapist is often not easy. For many, it feels a bit like being in a spotlight – this person in the therapist sitting opposite, so focused on you and revealing nothing of themselves. But it’s been striking that with Sam there, even those who are acutely self-conscious seem more at ease. It’s like they have an ally; they’re not doing it alone.
Of course, the majority of the time, my co-therapist does absolutely nothing but sleep and gently snore; and after a brief hello, people often forget he’s there. But there are so many times when, after processing something very difficult or traumatic, that a client has said to me “He made it easier”, or just simply “He helped”. One woman has even called him “a healing dog”.
It’s only recently that I’ve discovered Sam and I are in good company. The great psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, in his later years, would have his dog Jofi, a red chow, accompany him in sessions, convinced that she helped to calm his patients. And it seems Jofi also had a well-developed sense of time – letting his master know that the allotted 50 minutes was up by getting up and padding to the door.
It’s an interesting insight into Freud, who was probably the major proponent of the therapist as a ‘blank screen’ or mirror on to which the patient can project the unconscious, neurotic aspects of themselves. The therapist wasn’t meant to reveal anything of himself. And to ensure he stayed completely out of his patients’ way while they worked on accessing their unconscious, Freud had them lie on the famous couch while he sat behind out of eye contact. Yet Freud worked from home, inevitably giving his patients some kind of picture of his life; and here he was, including his beloved Jofi in many sessions.
It’s probably what stopped me doing it before – the fear that maybe it was unprofessional, that Sam was too personal an aspect of my life to share with clients. The fear that colleagues or my supervisor would think that my practice had gone to the dogs. But the truth is, Sam’s presence makes sessions more authentic somehow, and I think makes the therapeutic relationship more equal – clients see I’m a real person, too. The few moments that we might spend at the beginning of a session fussing over Sam bring us closer together and somehow ease the way for the rest of the hour.
Freud actually used Jofi as an aid in psychoanalysing his patients – believing that if she kept her distance from the patient, it meant that they were anxious; but if Jofi lay close by, it told Freud that the patient was at ease. And in fact, he was probably right about Jofi’s co-analyst skills – a study published in February last year by an ethology research group in Hungary offered an explanation for why it is that dogs are so good at picking up on our feelings. It seems they process voices, and the emotions in them, in a similar way to us thanks to particular voice areas in their brains. It allows dogs to distinguish between different tones of speech and the attached feelings, and to process emotionally loaded sounds in a similar way to us.
Of course, lots of studies have now shown that just being in a canine’s company can lower your blood pressure and increase the levels of the calming and feelgood brain chemicals, serotonin and dopamine. But as others have pointed out, dogs also meet one of our fundamental needs – that of touch; just being able to connect physically with another living being. Indeed, some clients never take their hand off Sam or stroke him continuously.
There is the worry, of course, that maybe Sam is absorbing too much grief, sadness or stress; that perhaps he will end up depressed or burned out. But I like to think he’s picked up a thing or two from sessions about managing his emotions, self-care and having good personal boundaries.
Gayle Williamson is an Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy-accredited therapist. www.ferneytherapy.ie