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Dog Complex: Analyzing Freud’s Relationship With His Pets

For all of his work interpreting human consciousness, the famed psychologist rarely delved into our obsession with pets.

Dog Complex: Analyzing Freud’s Relationship With His Pets
[Photos: Mondadori, Imagno, Underwood Archives, Contributor, Getty Images]

Dreaming, “we are not in the least surprised when a dog quotes a line of poetry.”
Sigmund Freud

For almost all of his life, Sigmund Freud wasn’t into dogs unless they appeared in his patients’ dreams where they crouched in trees, bushy-tailed and menacing, or nipped and wriggled as the embodiment of difficult relatives or past sexual trauma.

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Sigmund Freud with his chow, Lun.

Then in the mid 1920s, he met Wolf, an Alsatian shepherd with a wide grin and bat-like ears and just like that, dogs went from being Freudian symbols to being Freudian friends and officemates. The analyst had purchased Wolf for his daughter Anna sometime around 1925 as protection for her on her evening walks through Vienna. However, Freud fell so in love with the dog that Anna joked to a friend that there was some transference at play–her father had shifted all of his interest in her onto the shepherd.

And yet, in his work, Freud ignored connections between pet companions’ mental lives and that of his patients. Others were less likely to do so. Ivan Pavlov, for example, read Freud’s work on neuroses and decided to create an animal model of neurotic behavior in his laboratory dogs. Why was Freud, someone so curious as to give us the practice of psychoanalysis, and commit his life to the unraveling of the subconscious versus the conscious mind—not at all curious about dogs until he became an old man?

The answer may have more to do with people with than with pets.


Professor Sigmund Freud at his home with his dogs in Vienna on his 80th birthday, Vienna, Austria, 1936

A few years after befriending Wolf, Freud received two red chows. By then he was in his mid-70s and one of the dogs, a squat fluffball named Jofi, became Freud’s special companion. “When Jofi got up and yawned, he knew the hour was up,” said Martin Freud, Sigmund’s eldest son. One of Freud’s analysands, the poet Hilda Doolittle, was so annoyed by the way Jofi wandered about at the end of the session that she felt “the Professor was more interested in Jofi than he was in my story.”

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Freud was now convinced that Jofi calmed his patients and that they were more open and candid when she was in the room.

The psychiatrist Roy Grinker saw Freud in 1932. According to him, Jofi lay down next to the couch during therapy. If she got up and went to the door, scratching to be let outside, Freud would say to Grinker, “Jofi doesn’t approve of what you’re saying.” When she scratched to be let back in again, he’d say “Jofi has decided to give you another chance.” And once, when Grinker was especially emotional, Jofi jumped onto him as he lay on the couch and Freud said, “You see, Jofi is so excited that you’ve been able to discover the source of your anxiety!”

Jofi died in 1937 and despite being devastated over her loss, Freud acquired another chow named Lün. By then, the war was upon them and the very next year the entire Freud family was forced to flee from the Nazis. Together with the new chow, they moved to a spacious brick house in North London with a large grassy garden. Today their home is a museum but Freud’s office was preserved as it was when he saw patients there, complete with the famous tapestry-draped couch and his round-framed spectacles. The house is also littered with the ghost traces of the family dogs. There is a framed photo of Anna as an old woman with her chow (named Jofi II after the first Jofi), a needlepoint portrait of Jofi II hanging in Anna’s old bedroom, a picture of Wolf hanging behind her loom, and a copy of the poem that “Wolf wrote” to Sigmund on his 70th birthday. The family’s home movies play on a loop in one of the guest bedrooms and the dogs are ever-present, trotting amongst the family members in the garden and getting underfoot.

It would be nice to know if Freud ever wondered about the inner lives of Wolf, Jofi, Lün or dogs more generally. Despite their presence at his analytic sessions, or lazing next to him in the yard, Freud doesn’t seem to have ever tried to analyze them. This may have been because he didn’t want to see anxiety, nervousness, or hysteria in his furry companions. According to Anna, what he treasured most in his dogs was their lack of ambivalence as well as their devotion, grace, and fidelity. “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies,” Freud was known to say, “quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object-relations.”


SF and Jofi in Freud’s office, Vienna Austria. Date unknown.

He was, however, a believer in interspecies friendship. Freud’s good friend Marie Bonaparte was a French princess interested in psychoanalysis who’d paid off the Nazis so the Freuds could leave Austria. She was also interested in dogs and wrote a book about her own golden-haired chow named Topsy. In a letter to her, Freud wrote “It really explains why one can love an animal like Topsy (or Jofi) with such extraordinary intensity: affection without ambivalence, the simplicity of life free from the almost unbearable conflicts of civilization, the beauty of an existence complete in itself…Often when stroking Jofi I have caught myself humming a melody which, unmusical as I am, I can’t help recognizing as the aria from Don Giovanni: ‘A bond of friendship unites us both….’”

Dogs for Freud weren’t like people, or at least they weren’t like his patients and that is probably why he welcomed them into his private life and his sessions. He also may have been a bit disillusioned with humanity.

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A year before her own death in 1982, Anna Freud attempted to explain her father’s late-in-life devotion to dogs. She believed that it was a reflection of his disappointment in people and the “unrelenting brutality and blind lust for destruction” of war. “In these circumstances,” she wrote, “it became easier to look away from one’s fellowmen and turn to animals.”

By his 83rd birthday Freud had steeped himself in the emotional suffering of countless patients, lived through two World Wars, witnessed the persecution of the Jews, and narrowly avoided being sent to a concentration camp with his family. He was also ill with jaw cancer, a painful and advanced case that was, by 1939, inoperable. His jaw was necrotic and Lün began to avoid him. Freud was convinced that the dog was put off by the scent of infection coming from his face. He didn’t blame her. He loved her and took comfort in watching her until he died later that year.

Perhaps it was because his relationship with dogs resisted language, and therefore psychoanalysis, but in his most difficult years Freud found refuge in a species that did not commit atrocities, whose sexual urges, passions, and affections he refused to see as anything but obvious, straightforward, and honest. His decades attempting to untangle people had made him, finally and overwhelmingly, into a dog person.