What does your dogs behaviour say about you and your emotional state?

A new theory suggests that a dog’s behaviour reflects its owner’s emotional state. Editor-in-Chief Suzy Walker tries to decode pet Oscar’s conduct to learn more about herself


What does your dogs behaviour say about you and your emotional state?

5 minute read

Oscar, my cute cocker spaniel, is barking and scratching to be let into my boss’s office, where I’m having a meeting. I am lucky the company I work for allows me to bring Oscar to work. He’s Psychologies’ mascot, a symbol of unconditional love. He presides over my Editor’s letter, and the office, and he’s loved by all (well, apart from my previous boss, who has never quite forgiven Oscar for cocking his leg on his briefcase while we were in the middle of a disagreement). But, no matter how much we love him, it’s important that he’s well behaved, or his days in the office will be numbered.

That’s why I’m trying out Anubis therapy, an intriguing new way of thinking that suggests our dog’s behaviour is a reflection of our feelings, and encourages us to explore how our furry friends can help us become more aware of our deepest emotions; those we may have buried.

Counsellor Joanne Frame, who is also a dog trainer, founded Anubis therapy seven years ago. ‘I describe it as “counselling for dog owners”,’ she says. ‘Taking time to reflect on the feelings and emotions that come up for you about your dog allows you to look more closely at yourself, something people rarely get time to do. Greater self-awareness can help enormously in your relationship with your dog, but also with the people in your life and, more importantly, with yourself. It is that which I believe our dogs are here to teach us.’

Is he really such a wimp?

You don’t need to be having problems with your dog to benefit from Anubis therapy, although Oscar has been behaving weirdly all month. ‘He’s always been a needy dog,’ I say, as I introduce the two of them when Frame comes to meet us at my home. ‘However, recently, it’s gone to the next level. He whimpers outside the door if I leave the room and he won’t let me out of his sight.’ Frame nods and suggests that we sit down.

Anubis therapy involves hour-long one-to-one sessions, in which you are able to discuss your relationship with your animal in a ‘confidential, nonjudgemental and safe environment’.

Frame became fascinated by the connection between dogs and their owners’ emotions when, having retrained as a counsellor, she got a couple of dogs herself and noticed how they would react to how she was feeling. She began researching the subject and discovered Kevin Behan, a dog trainer and one of the world’s leading experts on dog rehabilitation. In his book, Your Dog Is Your Mirror (New World Library, £14.99), Behan posits the theory that ‘your dog is the canary in the mineshaft of your emotions’, says Frame.

Behan proposed a radical, and somewhat controversial, model for understanding the behaviour of dogs by suggesting that a dog doesn’t respond to what its owner thinks, says or does, it responds to what its owner feels. In this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their emotions.

‘Canines align themselves around the strongest feeling in their group, like a compass needle in a powerful magnetic field,’ writes Behan. He extrapolates that if a dog aligns itself with its owner’s emotions, if we have intense, unprocessed feelings, our dog may act them out.

Frame begins our session by asking me why I got Oscar in the first place. It was 10 years ago, a few months before I split up with my husband, I tell her. I think Oscar was our last attempt at a sticking plaster for our marriage. It didn’t work – but the good news is that I met Oscar and fell in love. And Oscar fell in love with me. He became my shadow and, everywhere I went, he went, too. He cried incessantly if I left him. He was supposed to be my husband’s dog, but Oscar only wanted to be with me and we became inseparable. So much so that, when I was offered my job at Psychologies, I said I could only accept if Oscar could come to work with me.

My pain is his pain

As I spoke, Oscar lay at my feet. ‘If you read his behaviour as a reflection of how you were feeling at that time, what might it tell you?’ asks Frame. I gulp. I had always accused Oscar of being the ‘needy’ one. What if his separation anxiety simply reflected my own? Yes, I was hurt when my marriage broke down but it was more than that. I ended up having to deal with my unprocessed grief over the deaths of my parents when I was a teenager.

I had married my husband at the age of 22 within six months of meeting him. I had grabbed hold of him like a life raft. When we split up, I had to face all the feelings I had buried: fear of being alone, abandonment and heartbreak. Maybe Oscar didn’t leave my side because he was reacting to my unprocessed sadness? Tears sprang to my eyes. Oscar jumps onto my lap immediately, puts one paw on each shoulder and starts to whine. He’s been doing that a lot recently. Face it and free us ‘So,’ Frame asks, ‘what’s going on for you now?’ The penny drops. I have just started dating again after a couple of years of singledom. ‘How do you feel about that?’ she asks.

‘Scared,’ I answer. On cue, Oscar whimpers. ‘Being single is definitely easier; less chance of being hurt,’ I say out loud. As soon as I vocalise it, Oscar settles on my knee. As I talk through my apprehension, Oscar jumps down, lies in a sunbeam on the floor and starts snoring.

‘Our dogs can be more aware of our emotions than we are,’ says Frame. ‘Because they are social by nature and connect with our feelings and energy, they can reflect our “stuck” emotions, too.’ I see how this therapy can work – as the old adage goes: ‘If you can name it, you can tame it.’ If Oscar’s behaviour mirrors my emotions, I can use our relationship to gain awareness about feelings that I bury. I hadn’t even been aware that I was anxious about dating again.

Our Anubis session was so revealing. If Oscar is my emotional mirror, he has truly been a brave companion over the past 10 years as we’ve grieved some big losses. But he’s also reflected the joy and love in my life with his bouncy, waggytailed exuberance. Maybe I am a tad anxious about inviting a new man into my life but, with my beautiful little black dog at my heels, I think I’m going to be fine. And Oscar? Will he stop following me around and scratching at doors while I work? As I write this, he’s nowhere to be seen, which I’m taking as a good sign.

Image: Getty