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boy and dog

Viewing human-animal interactions as I do through a therapist’s lens, it seems to me that an animal companion, in some cases, becomes the representative of a person’s inner child. If you have done or are doing your own work in therapy, or if you have read about how to heal psychic wounds suffered in childhood, you have probably worked on re-parenting that inner child within you. When I work with clients on this issue in therapy, I use various techniques: guided imagery, talk therapy, talking to or journaling with a childhood photo, among others.

Yet I notice that some of my clients who have bonded very deeply with an animal companion seem to see the animal as an externalized version of their own inner child. They give to that inner child/animal all the nurturing, validation, kindness and support that they should have received as children. In doing so, the people seem to grow in their confidence and self-esteem. Through their pet, they are healing their childhoods.

One example is Heather, a 54-year-old woman and her black Pomeranian mix, Polly. Heather grew up in a family that was at times abusive, and always unstable. When Heather became a single mother, she had difficulty parenting. To her sorrow, she repeated some of the same patterns she had grown up with. When Heather’s son was seven years old, Heather adopted Polly. Heather took responsibility for the dog because her son was too young, and Heather found that she was able to care for Polly with more patience and kindness than she had been able to show her son. This caused her great shame, but she soon found that Polly’s presence caused some mysterious and positive change in the family dynamic. After Polly’s arrival, Heather began to treat her son with respect and caring.

“Polly brought out a gentleness in me. I was able to see how dependent she was on me, and how sweet she was. I wanted to make her happy and safe, and it was easy to do. I felt successful. I felt safe from failure with her.”

Heather was able to access the nurturing aspect of her personality through the little black dog. She had not been able to achieve this through her human child, she said, because human children are more demanding. I suggested it might also be because her child reminded her too much of her inner child that she was still rejecting.

Dogs demand nothing. They are happy with something to eat and a place to sleep. Heather could care for Polly “on her own terms.” She could nurture when she had it in her to nurture, and Polly would be happy with that. Heather grew her confidence in her ability to be nurturing.

Next, she was able to take a fresh look at how she had been taking out frustrations on her child, and make amends. She is deeply regretful of early mistakes she made as a parent. At the same time, she is mystified by the changes in self-development that her rescued Pomeranian brought out in her.

“That little dog made me feel safe,” she marvels. “I could try new things. I felt like a capable adult because of her.” My theory is that Heather’s inner child felt safe, as Heather “parented” Polly, its outward representation.

We humans project all kinds of things onto those we love, without meaning to and without awareness. It’s a beautiful thing when healing occurs, for whatever reason.