We’ve all heard of Sigmund Freud. Mostly we know him through common references like “Oedipus Complex” and “Freudian Slip.” And he is parodied by media and entertainment over and over with a bad Austrian accent and a cigar, usually in a three-piece tweed suit. But he was a little more than just that. He was the founder of psychoanalysis and the reason we no longer lock up troubled folk in pits, feed them bread and water and turn hoses on them when they get rowdy.
He is also the reason I love to go to the dog park.
Saturday and Sunday mornings I have been taking Nala to a dog park. Since she loves to run and play with other dogs as much as she loves to breathe, I thought it would be a logical weekend activity. She gets to have fun and all I have to do is drink coffee and talk with other pet parents about, you guessed it, pets. And when we get home she is exhausted and I get the entire day to relax and watch public television or bad movies. It’s a win/win.
But after our second or third trip I realized I, like Nala, couldn’t wait to go back. I wanted to call my mother and tell her about all the quirky dogs, the funny mishaps, and the tidbits of knowledge shared between humans. I couldn’t stop smiling.
This weekend, while walking around the park with the owner of a black lab that had instantly bonded with Nala (meaning that he could keep up with her ridiculously fast running speed) I said in passing, “You know, no matter what is going on in my life, I can come to the dog park and smile.”
“Yes,” the lab owner agreed. “It’s good therapy.” The simple statement stuck with me. Yes, it is good therapy. But why?
Dogs are funny, they’re generally happy and because of this we love having them around. We put up with things like poop on the carpet, chewed beyond recognition shoes, and crack of dawn walks because we love that our dogs love us back and that, let’s be honest, they’re entertaining. But there’s something even deeper about a “pack” of domesticated canines leaping and jumping around a dog park on a sunny morning. They are examples of what we all aspire to be.
Freud defined three parts of the psyche, the id, the ego, and the superego. Most people who had to sit through some version of Psych 101 in college, are familiar with this. But in case you weren’t there that day because you were hung over or perhaps you don’t recall the details, here’s the down and dirty version:
Id: The core of our impulses. Think of a child wanting a piece of candy and throwing a tantrum in order to get it. This is the id at work. It does not care about social norms; it wants what it wants.
Ego: The negotiator. The ego knows what the id wants but at the same time is aware of social norms and the demands of the conscience. It’s really just trying to make everyone happy, but this usually means that the id is not going to get what it wants.
Superego: The conscience. This little part of our brains keeps us from murdering the loudmouth at work. In general it has pretty high standards and those who don’t have it pretty much end up like Ted Bundy.
It’s a daily struggle, isn’t it. But not for a dog. A dog is a fuzzy id. Imagine that for a moment:
You want to play? Play. You want to tell someone you hate him? Do it. You want to eat something that you shouldn’t? Go ahead. Want to show someone you love him? Why not? And if any of this does not go as planned, oh well, move on. There is no ego to remind you of the social norms you have just violated. There is no conscious to haunt you with prior mistakes. Trial and error on the way to pleasure. That is all.
Of course we cannot all realistically live like this (note the Ted Bundy comment above). But the constant battle of these three psyche-stooges can very often make us miserable. We unknowingly dwell on these balances and make ourselves unhappy. What other animal on earth is as dead set on making itself unhappy? Freud said it himself:
Human beings are funny. They long to be with the person they love but refuse to admit openly. Some are afraid to show even the slightest sign of affection because of fear. Fear that their feelings may not be recognized, or even worse, returned. But one thing about human beings puzzles me the most is their conscious effort to be connected with the object of their affection even if it kills them slowly within.
We are what we are, but somewhere inside we aspire to something higher, something of which we find evidence at a dog park.
Dogs only live to satisfy their desires for community and pleasure and they do not ask silly questions like, “What if that dog doesn’t like me?” “What if I get in a fight?” “What if I get hurt?” They only live. And they seem to be all the happier for it. They are ids. And if the id is considered the deepest part of the psyche, dogs are then representatives of the truest self. They are themselves. Without an ego in the way, they don’t even have the ability to pretend to be something that they are not, to want something they don’t, to enjoy something they hate.
Humans aspire to this on some level while still trying to be socially acceptable, which in turn makes it impossible. But if we can’t be it, at least we can watch it.
We can go to the dog park. Anyone who has been there knows that this is where the magic happens. It is where we can see that wonderful freedom of spirit for which we long. Evidence of this lies in the small, honest changes humans make once inside the park parameter. We no longer feel like we need to shake hands, we don’t share our names, and we don’t talk about the past or the future (unless we are talking about how often we come to the park) we just discuss what is happening, if we discuss anything at all. We pet dogs and we smile. We follow the dogs instead of them following us. We move in a pack as we follow. And when it is time to leave, we don’t say goodbye, we just call our dog and leave.
Maybe our ids are saying, “Lets be like a dog,” and the egos, this time are saying, “Okay, a little, for now.”