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Money, votes and psychiatry are going to the dogs
Mary Jean Kempner
May 11, 1964
Dogs used to be just dogs, but today they are an integral part of the economic, emotional—and even political—life of the U.S.
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May 11, 1964

Money, Votes And Psychiatry Are Going To The Dogs

Dogs used to be just dogs, but today they are an integral part of the economic, emotional—and even political—life of the U.S.

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The nation and Lyndon Johnson were both saddened last week by the discovery that the President's storied political education had one howling gap. In an attempt to produce music for an old Texas wolf hunter's ears, L.B.J. lifted his two beagles by theirs—and voters everywhere sat up and yelped.

What the President should have realized is that beagle voice-giving should be voluntary and, what's more, that dogs are influential—they are neither a poverty-stricken nor a minority group. There are 26 million dogs in America today, contributing $416 million a year to the economy, and the owners of these dogs are both vocal and knowledgeable. They might suspect for example, that while the physiological damage from such brisk treatment may be relatively slight, the psychological effects might be traumatic.

Not so long ago—when Lyndon Johnson was a boy, maybe—dogs were just dogs, to be petted or kicked as the mood prevailed. But not now. Today the dog has become so important a part of man's existence that we are no longer concerned merely with dog feelings. Rather, we are concerned that how the dog might feel might influence how the owner might feel. Dogs have completely penetrated man's emotional perimeter.

Apparently a dog's role in any given human's life often resembles the submerged part of the iceberg—bigger than one thinks. One explanation for the tenacity of the dog-man relationship is that dogs accept people for what they are. Dogs like to be leaned on. They know when and how to make demands, thereby providing the essential glue for many a fragmented ego—and for a small fraction of what the 50-minute hour might cost. A dog's stalwart affection has been known to shore up a man's sense of the world's injustice, for a while at least. Dogs can help sick people get well and help them stay well. Although some cynics suggest that owning a dog can in itself be a manifestation of neurosis, or encourage it, a distinguished psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence S. Kubie, former president of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, scoffs at the notion. "Compulsive behavior in humans is no more triggered by dogs than it is by food," says Dr. Kubie. "We see compulsive eaters and compulsive dog owners, but these are symptoms; neither the food nor the dog's presence is causative."

People, particularly lonely ones, cling to their fantasies as if expectation were the springboard of achievement. The owner of a basset hound is a man of humor, maybe, or thinks he is, or would like to be thought so. The woman with the cocker spaniel craves affection, or perhaps just likes to dominate. The blonde with the Yorkshire terrier hopes to project femininity. Dogs seem to appraise the situation and dissemble accordingly. A boxer stamps virility on the male image, although in point of fact the dog has to restrain an innate soppiness to look fierce; whippets suggest esthetic sensitivity and manage to look fragile by minimizing their wiry strength. Beagles just do the best they can under the circumstances. Dogs, most of the time, seem to enjoy indulging human foibles. This may easily give them a sense of superiority. The fact remains that they do not argue, are not likely to be morose, petulant or critical. They have a conscience and know right from wrong—which makes them vulnerable to worry and often plagued by guilt. They are vain. They become bored, but have the facility to sleep it off. Dogs even lie—in deeds if not in words—by pretending irreproachable innocence in spite of the empty platter on the buffet table.

All this explains, at least partially, something of how animal medicine acquired its new status. Today, more than $150 million is spent annually on dog inoculations and hospital care in America's 3,500 small animal hospitals. A West Coast veterinarian recently told newsmen that, "Ninety percent of the dogs in America get better medical care than half the world's population." At the dedication of the new Animal Medical Center on New York's East River Drive (next door to Cornell Medical College, Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, the Hospital for Special Surgery, Rockefeller Institute and New York Hospital), the animal scientists were welcomed into this haughtiest community of medicine by the head of the Rockefeller Institute. Twenty-five years ago the medical profession would have ignored the upstartism of an institution for "companion animals" and been outraged by its provocative assurance that "no drug or surgical technique is used here that hasn't first been tried on man."

A growing percentage of today's 22,000 veterinarians—mostly graduates of four years of veterinary school—combine the insights of a pediatrician and a lay psychiatrist with their knowledge of animal medicine.

Men like Arthur S. North Jr., veterinarian to New Jersey's fox-hunting set, adroitly appraises the traumatic effect of a dog's illness on its owner. Sometimes if critical surgery is indicated, he asks for consultation with other members of the family: this spreads the responsibility. North remains keenly aware of the owner's age or any external evidence of his or her physical or emotional state. Treatment is not affected, but diagnostic frankness might well be. An oversimplification of North's yardstick is never to mention a dog's senility to an aged owner; to avoid talking of a heart condition to an owner who seems short of breath; to hand out boxes of pills instead of explicit prescriptions. (Better to talk of giving the dog a "green pill" daily, instead of digitalis, a well-known heart remedy; or a "white pill" instead of thyroid; on the other hand, he prescribes tranquilizers as such.) Psychologically it seems evident that people associate themselves with their dogs in sickness as well as in health.

Attachment to a dog is an asset, but along with it goes some emotional liability. Even among the best-disciplined and most rational humans, a dog's death can unleash hysteria, as though here, moving close, was the specter of all death. Reactions vary from an ubiquitous surge of self-pity and a sense of abandonment to remorse and resentment.

Psychiatrists agree (which in itself ranks as a phenomenon) that dogs can drain off certain human resentments, halt certain forms of human withdrawal, contribute therapy in certain kinds of human withdrawal and contribute therapy in certain kinds of mental disorder. A distinguished professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, the late James H. S. Bossard, told of a 14-year-old delinquent boy whose mother supported this illegitimate son and her half-blind mother by working long hours as a domestic. The boy's frustrations and resentments grew. Truancy and other delinquent patterns piled up relentlessly. Finally, the mother's employer settled on an imaginative, although somewhat speculative, approach. She gave the boy a German shepherd pup with no conditions attached and underwrote its upkeep. Boy and dog formed an instantaneous attachment. Love given and returned often is a potent brew. Among contemporaries and peers the boy with nothing found himself thrust into a status position. His sense of responsibility to the dog spilled over to school, home and neighborhood. As there remained neither time nor need for vindictive action, delinquency ended.

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