Who Did Freud Go To for Therapy?

Posted by Pia

The Master of Therapy's Own Therapist Had Four Legs

As a psychologist -- one deeply aware of the powerful connection between humans and animals -- I wanted to share some little-known information about another "believer," who provided therapy from a small Vienna office at the turn of the previous century. You may know him best as the father of psychoanalysis: a cigar smoking Austrian by the name of Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud with his dog in his study (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Sigmund Freud Collection)

Sigmund Freud with his chow. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Sigmund Freud Collection)

But what you may not know about this mental health pioneer is that he employed not only a couch as a therapeutic tool, but he also typically had one of his dogs present during client sessions. While Freud’s own affinity for dogs was perhaps the initial reason for having them present as he worked, he soon witnessed the therapeutic benefit they bestowed upon clients.

Freud was partial to chows -- a dog who, like the pit bull, is now often maligned by erroneous media reports. Sadly, this often results in many chows landing in already overcrowded city shelters. If only our current sensationalist media outlets could look to history on occasion and glean some wisdom from great thinkers such as Freud, perhaps fear-based actions could be minimized.

For one thing, Freud noticed that a dog’s presence acted as a calming influence on his patients. Children and adolescents in particular seemed better able to disclose painful information with a dog nearby, but adults benefited in a similar way as well. It seems that the mere presence of a dog in the room lowered the barriers of resistance all humans erect to avoid painful subjects, and so facilitated the therapeutic process. What Freud surmised from these observations was that the unconditional regard of a dog was healing. The steady canine presence in the face of what a human might experience as painful or embarrassing provided containment and a safe place of reassurance.

Freud often referenced one chow in particular, Jofi, whose response to clients offered him clues to a client’s emotional landscape. Freud noted that Jofi would settle farther away from clients who exhibited anxiety and stress, but remained close to those who seemed depressed -- close enough to be touched by the client if he/she so chose.

Jofi could also indicate the end of a 50-minute session with remarkable accuracy. She would yawn and walk to the door at that juncture. I can imagine this was of great help to Freud in maintaining rapport when having to bring a session to a close. Jofi’s internal clock allowed the transition to occur more organically.

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Much of what Freud noted regarding a dog’s effect on clients seemed also to benefit him personally. Upon the death of his grandchild, Freud found comfort in the companionship of his daughter Anna’s dog, Wolf. And later in his life, as he battled mouth cancer, his dog Topsy suffered from the same disease. Traveling alongside Topsy through this ailment provided Freud with a vehicle by which to explore his own fears and mortality.

In Freud’s final days, it was his beloved dogs that he had on the bed by his side. They provided the only source of comfort. Freud eloquently reflected on the value inherent in a dog’s clarity and honesty. “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object relations,” he wrote.

One thing Freud admired most in dogs was their capacity for “affection without ambivalence. And the simplicity of a life free from almost unbearable conflicts of civilizations, the beauty of an existence complete in itself.” He pointed out that despite belonging to different species “there is a feeling of intimate affinity, of undisputed solidarity” between dog and man. Like so many of us who share our lives with companion animals, Freud recognized this solidarity as one that united him with his beloved dogs in genuine friendship.

Anna even enrolled her father's dogs to overcome Freud's famed reluctance to celebrate his own birthdays. She would dress the dogs in party hats and seat them at the table for the celebration. Each dog had a poem hanging around his neck, which Freud would playfully read aloud, concluding each by giving that dog a slice of birthday cake. Whether it was due to Freud’s own complexities or the formality of the times, such playful expressions of joy and emotion seemed more acceptable in the presence of dogs.

To most people today, Freud was simply a cigar-smoking figure from the past -- a brilliant mind consumed by theories and his own academic pursuits. But as we learn of the love and deep connection he felt for his canine companions, we begin to see a very different perspective on this seemingly infallible figure: his humanity.

While the therapist’s couch certainly has its place along the road to understanding ourselves, it is often the perspective from a dog bed that ultimately puts us in touch with our humanity. We owe our animal companions a debt of gratitude for so many things -- one of which is providing support beyond the 50 minute hour.

In Kinship,

Dr. Pia Salk

Comments (10)

  • Dr. Pia, Thank you for this remarkable blog about Dr. Freud and his wonderful connection to his canine friends. While reading this, I could actually picture Dr. Freud with his beautiful Chow Chows. I don't have a Chow Chow, but I certainly appreciate them after having been introduced to all of Martha's Chow Chows, especially Paw Paw and Zu Zu. I love all dogs and other animals. Jan (Dudley Do Right's Mom)

  • Dear Dr. Pia,

    Now you are talking my language, the language of the Chow Chow!

    The Chow Chow is a true masterpiece of dignity and beauty. They possess the unique characteristic of having a blue-black tongue. They are keenly intelligent, have an independent spirit, and display a dignified demeanor.

    The Chow is extremely aloof and discerning.

    The line above had never occurred with my Chow Chow's and I have had the honor & sheer joy of having them in my life for over thirty years. Chows have gotten a bad wrap over the past century but now this is happily changing in the last ten to fifteen years.

    Our very own Martha Stewart has been the best dog gone ambassador the Chow Chow breed has ever had(and Freud isn't a slouch in that dept. either LOL) Without Martha featuring and showcasing her Chows on her first show over a decade the Chow Chow might never have come back from being labeled danger! Paw Paw was the best Chow poster dog you could ever have for the Chow Chow breed. What a dog he was FAB!
    God bless you Martha for all you have done for and in the name of the Chow Chow for all these decades.

    I too have noticed when there are ill children or seniors with walkers or wheelchairs in the presence of my Chows they have have always been instinctive to draw themselves to the people and allow them to pet them, hang on them and sit with them for as long as they wished. They are most gentle with people with mental disorders too. When I was very ill in periods of my life & my Chow was right at my side helping me through sad feelings, painful feelings and quiet times and when I laughed and laughed they danced around and wiggled their little Chow walk and laughed along with me. I can't imagine my life without them in it.

    Chows are being bred differently and the aggressiveness is being addressed and receding in the breed, nothing better then to give any animal lots of love and you will find they give it back and respond .If you give Pit Bulls, Rots, Great Danes, German Shepard's and Chows Chows and a few other breeds the upbringing of toughness and roughness they tend to go with it instead of the gentle souls they can be if given love, attention and guidance.

    I never met a Chow Chow I didn't LOVE and I have met so many.

    Thank you for these educational & interesting blog posts, I am learning and enjoying them very much.

    Pam from California (Mrs. Bosley Chow's human Mama)
    P.S Mrs. Bosley Chow agrees and says woof woof and a high five paws up for this post from Dr. Pia

  • Hello ladies, Kirby here.
    Thank you for sharing this information about Chow Chows. In my travels with my mommy and daddy, I have found some towns, and cities, which ban chows. We have found campgrounds where I am not allowed. My daddy has been around dogs all his life and is not afraid of them. He has been bitten several times and each time it was by a dog weighing less than 10 pounds. When we walk, it’s those smaller dogs who come running up to me wanting to bite me. It’s not the breed as much as how the dog is raised. I an in a loving family and am full of love too. Time for my walk now.
    Catch you later, Kirby.

  • Very Interesting story on Dr.Freud...my cousin who is a Homeopathic doctor in Linz Austria told me about Freud's love of Chows...however I never knew about some of the other things. When I was a child in Germany we had a loving Chow for a short time, I have had in my life German Shepherds, Boxer, Collie, Cocker Spaniel and Maltese...all have distinct personalities, I basically found it was how you interact with them...
    That brings me to a conversation the other day about a video "Moments with Baxter" http://www.momentswithbaxter.com/ I believe the dog is part Chow...it makes you wonder why not more animals are allowed in retirement or old age homes, knowing they are beneficial to the elderly.
    When I stroke my cat, I feel the softness in my heart and the love, affection that is transmitted to a peaceful feeling...Kitty is my Therapist!

  • here is the actual VIDEO link to Baxter http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIrDbzoOxZc

  • Dear Dr. Pia,

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. Having studied Freudian theory, I am pleased that you have humanized a very intelligent and influential in psychological history. I am especially happy that you have used Freud's love and trust of dogs to further champion canine rights.

    Anyone who loves dogs, as we all do on this site, knows the healing power inherent in the species. My Great Dane, Karl, provided such comfort and joy to all who knew him. He was an excellent teacher to my children in not only compassion, but in unconditional love. Karl was the first dog I owned and he taught me patience, love, and how to be more honest and expressive with those around me. He passed away on July 4, 2008 after giving me and my family thirteen years of nothing but happiness and love.

    I know own a rescued Pit Bull who fills my heart with joy. He had pretty big paws to step into after Karl died and I wasn't sure how my children would react to a new dog. Fisher Jimmy has brought light and love once again to our home. I couldn't agree with you more that the media has ostracized breeds like Pit Bulls and Chows out of ignorance. I completely trust Fisher Jimmy and he is far more open to meeting new friends than his predecessor who was a breed that is not typically known for aggressive behavior.

    Thank you again for this wonderful piece of writing. This type of information can be spread through the voices of all who love dogs and read this blog. Keep up the great work.

    Fisher Jimmy's Mom

  • Dr. Pia,

    I am researching Dr. Freud's life for a writing project and came upon a little known fact which illustrates Freud's comment that dogs are indeed not ambivalent. When he was in the last days of his horrible illness, Freud began to produce a body odor that was offensive to his dog Jofi, and she actually refused to stay in the room with him. As you say, she backed away from people who were anxious or stressed and also went to the door at the end of the session. Perhaps she was giving Freud a message, as it was at this point that the Professor reminded his physician and close friend of the pact they had made - that when it came time, Dr. Schur would ease Freud into death by giving him an overdose of morphine. Which he did. But it is possible that the dog, not the least bit ambivalent about her love for her master, gave Freud the courage to end his "session" and to die with dignity. At least for me, it's an easier, more humane way to imagine his last moments...


  • Author Comment:

    Hi, Delia, did you know that we have a gallery of "Moments with Baxter"? You can see it here.

  • I heard that Dr. Freud had a chow chow on a Planet Animal expose on dogs. We had a chow for 12 years and I can tell you that this article is absolutley spot on. When visitors came - Chow-Wi would choose her friends and enemies. She was always dead on but I could not be as forth coming and truthful to my acquaintances as she. She would always come close to me when I was blue and give me my space when I was stressed and agitated. We were young back then and did not know what a great companion she was until she passed. I think about her every day still and will get another when I retire.

  • Theat blog and great discussion, full of love, thank you! Anyone knows anything aboutr Dr Freud's attitude towards cats? Some attribute saying "Time spent with cats is never waisted" to Freud, but it belongs to Colette. would be very grateful to hear anything else.

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