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The Psychology of Dog People

I take Willie, my seven year old labradoodle, everywhere I go. As a psychotherapist in Encinitas, California I take him to my office every day. Willie is my informal greeter. If you are dog person you cannot help but smile and relax. Putting it simply, dogs “humanize” us. They immediately get us in touch with our true self, the self that connects to the earth and to our spirit. Who can resist such innocence? Who can reject such eager willingness to trust and to love unconditionally? Well, as a matter of fact there are many people who not only can resist but can also reject.

So let’s explore this a bit. Yesterday I took Willie to the bank. Will, my friendly and helpful banker, greeted Willie with a big smile and a “cookie.” We sat down to talk and I let go of Willie’s leash just long enough for him to wander about ten feet away toward an elderly woman standing at a teller’s booth. Willie greeted her with his usual big smile and pink tongue when I heard her say, “Excuse me!” which sounded more like, “Shame on you for having such bad manners as to allow your dog to approach me?” I immediately rescued Willie from the wicked witch muttering, “She’s not a dog person,” to which she replied, “I am not!”

So why the animosity? Well, I have my theories. After all, I am in the business of psychotherapy. I have had years of experience with clients and my dogs. (Willie is dog number four in a line of beloved canines.) Here is what I have observed. When a new client enters my waiting room for the first time before I allow Willie to trot out to greet I ask them if they like dogs. Most all (unless they were raised in a dog-eating culture) say, “Yes.” However I will know the truth when they actually meet the irresistible Willie. If they are truly a dog person their entire demeanor will melt. Momentarily all stress leaves their body and visage and they are in dog-love heaven. In that moment I connect with them on a human level. But if their body language is to recoil, even subtly, I know that that they will probably have an extra layer of defense that I as a therapist will have to help them muddle through. If Willie can’t make them melt even for a moment there is something in their nature that resists love. Well, that’s my analysis and my opinion. But I may be a bit off in my thinking because I am a passionate dog lover and a dog would have to be pretty scary to keep me from melting.

But seriously, I have found that people who come to me for therapy who have resisted Willie’s charm often have been deeply hurt in childhood in ways that have stolen their ability to melt. That is, to trust, love, and be loved. So be it ever so simple, dogs do tell us about us.

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