This is not Annie.

When I started exploring my family ties to Sigmund Freud — ties by proximity and by meat shopping — I had no idea where that journey would take me. Today I’m very pleased to report that it’s taken me to Lee Charles Kelley and a fascinating piece about Freudian principles as applied to dog training

Sigmund Freud & the Case of Annie, the Doorknob-Licking Wheaten Terrier

by Lee Charles Kelley

Freud is back

Thanks to recent breakthroughs in neurobiology, much of modern psychology, which for years had belittled or minimized Freud’s contributions to the field, has been forced to admit that Freud was right. Not just about some things, but a lot.

Freud started out as a neuroscientist, publishing several important and influential papers and coining terms for psycho-neurological defects such as agnosia (the inability to know things), as opposed to amnesia (the inability to remember them).

In a 2004 Scientific American article, neurosurgeon Mark Solms tells us that many of Freud’s key theories about how the human mind works have been proven valid by modern neuroscience.

“An increasing number of neuroscientists,” writes Solms, “are reaching the same conclusion drawn by Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University … that [Freudian] psychoanalysis is ‘still the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind.’”

Solms also says that “Freud’s broad brushstroke organization of the mind is destined to play a role similar to the one Darwin’s theory of evolution served for molecular genetics—a template on which emerging details can be coherently arranged.”

So just as Darwin had no idea what role genetics or DNA played in the process of natural selection, Freud only had inklings of what future generations would discover about the brain and consciousness. In fact, Freud predicted the discovery of endorphins, dopamine, and other neuro-chemicals that affect our thoughts and emotions. (The Freud Reader, “Civilization and Its Discontents.” 1930, p. 730.)

“That’s all well and good,” some might say, “but what does any of this have to do with dog training?”

Good question. The first part of the answer is that one of the key features of Freudian psychology is the notion that many, if not all, human impulses operate through older parts of the brain, neurological structures that we share with all other mammals, including dogs.

“The instinctual mechanisms that gov­ern human motivation are even more primitive than Freud imagined,” writes Solms. And “the func­tional anatomy and chemistry of our brains is not much different from that of our … house­hold pets.”

The Dog Who Licked Doorknobs

I first discovered Freud’s importance to solving behavioral problems in dogs back in 1994 when I met Annie, a soft-coated wheaten terrier who was licking the doorknob of her owners’ front door. They reported that she did this obsessively whenever someone left or entered their apartment, it didn’t matter who. Also, Annie was small for a wheaten, so she had to jump up in the air each time she licked the doorknob. And she’d do it over and over, unable to stop until she’d completely exhausted herself. Then she’d lie next to the front door panting heavily for a half hour or more.

I’d been told about the behavior over the phone, but it wasn’t until I came over and observed Annie engaged in this strange compulsion that I came up with a theory about what was going on: This was a case of transference!

According to Freud’s definition of transference, it starts with a repressed emotion that’s “denied a motor discharge.”

I immediately thought, “No, that can’t be true!”

It was too stunning and strange to think that a dog’s behavior could be explained through Freudian psychology. And yet, as I watched Annie (after trying and failing to get her to stop for food, by gently restraining her, etc.), and I went through all possible explanations for how the behavior could have developed in the first place, I could see that, if I was right, Annie had probably been severely punished for mouthing her owners as an expression of her love for them while she was going through her oral development phase. That had to have been the first step.

Mind you, this was all hypothetical until I asked the question: “Was Annie ever punished for mouthing when she was a puppy?”

The answer was yes. Annie’s owners had been taught that “puppy teeth should never touch human skin,” and that if they wanted to avoid raising an aggressive dog, they had to cuff her hard under the chin and shout,“No! No bite!” anytime she used her mouth on them.

So Annie learned how not to express her emotions because doing so had gotten her in trouble. The problem is, the urge to bite is very strong in dogs. It’s probably one of the most important features of canine psychology. For puppies, mouthing and licking are the only means they have of expressing their affection for one another and for us.

Repressed Emotions, Missed Love Connections

Puppies are also in a constant state of cathexis, another Freudian term: They unabashedly project their emotional energy onto numerous objects of attraction, from their toys to old socks to human hands. The more attraction they have for an object, the more they want to put it in their mouths to see how it feels.

In addition, puppies pay very close attention to two main features of the human anatomy: our eyes, which reflect our emotional states, and our hands, which are able to do things that seem quite magical.

So Annie projected her loving feelings onto her owners’ hands by gently mouthing them whenever she had a chance. And since she was severely punished for doing it, a very important part of her psyche was prevented from developing fully.  Annie was also prevented from making the kind of “love connection” that dogs are designed to make.

My next hypothesis was that, since the oral impulses in dogs are so strong, and since the need to make emotional bonds just as strong, if not stronger, Annie probably developed a habit of obsessively licking her owners’ hands and faces, especially during moments of high emotion, like when she was left alone for a while and they came home through the front door. (Wheaten terriers are actually famous for their “wet greeting.”)

I hypothesized that she was probably punished for licking them as well.

It turns out I was right about that too.

So there all that unexpressed oral energy sat, all that wonderful puppy love, bubbling under the surface of Annie’s psyche, until one day, some unknown stressor came along (it could have been something as simple as a change in the family’s schedule), and it all came rushing out in this crazy jumping-in-the-air, licking-the-doorknob behavior.

In effect, Annie had transferred all the energy, all the love and need to feel connected that wasn’t being returned by her owners (at least not in a way that she understood), and focused it on an object that had a very important place in her life: It was where her owners put their hands every time they left or came home. The doorknob.

All the unhappy feelings of being left home alone, and the excited feelings she couldn’t express naturally about how happy she was to see her owners come through door, became focused on that roundish piece of metal. She didn’t know why she had to lick the stupid brass doorknob, she just knew she had to do it and keep doing it until all the unpleasant feelings she’d been bottling up inside went away, at least for a little while.

In the next installment I’ll tell you what happened to Annie, and offer Five Freudian Principles That Can and Should Be Used in Dog Training

Bio: Lee Charles Kelley is a dog trainer and bestselling mystery novelist. He lives and works in New York City, and is the only dog trainer to write for  For more, see

21 thoughts on “Sigmund Freud & the Case of Annie, the Doorknob-Licking Wheaten Terrier”

  1. Hi Edie! Long time no see. 🙂 I don’t know if you knew this, but I’m a grad student working towards my PhD in neuroscience – and Eric Kandel is kind of a hero around these parts. He is a god to anyone and everyone in this field. And if he says Freud is right, then Freud is right. But this is a great post, very cool and I really enjoyed it! 🙂 And I hope Annie was able to overcome her love of licking doorknobs, the poor girl!

    1. Hi Erin, nice to see you! I remembered that you were studying science, but I couldn’t remember which discipline. I’m doubly happy, then, that you enjoyed this post. Stay tuned for Annie’s story…

  2. Pingback: The Psycho-Dynamics of Impulse Control in Dogs | Dogzero the Hero
  3. Wow, that is a very fascinating explanation. I would be more sensitive next time my dog shows some affection. Although very interesting, I find the story of Annie sad and very touching. Annie definitely needs some love.

  4. How interesting! Though our Buster is not lacking for attention or affection, he eats grass when his feelings of excitement or anxiety become overwhelming. Dogs have to find some way to deal with their feelings, and being so smell and taste focused, it makes sense it would manifest with their mouths. Looking forward to the sequel!

    1. “Dogs have to find some way to deal with their feelings, and being so smell and taste focused, it makes sense it would manifest with their mouths.”

      Well, in Annie’s case the urge to bite — and how it was repressed with such stark, unreasoning severity, despite the fact that she wasn’t BITING, she was MOUTHING — is what was at play.

      Eating grass isn’t an oral compulsion. It’s probably controlled by the stomach (hunger circuits) not the mouth (though the mouth is the entryway to the alimentary canal, hence to the stomach).

      When we’re hungry, and we eat a good meal, we get a pleasurable feeling of satisfaction. And just as some people eat to calm their anxieties, some dogs do too.

      If you’d like I can give you a simple exercise that might help solve Buster’s anxiety.


      1. I’m fascinated by the notion of dogs indulging in stress eating, like humans. And I’d like that simple exercise even if Amy doesn’t return to request it for Buster, Lee. I could definitely use it for Frankie.

        1. “I’m fascinated by the notion of dogs indulging in stress eating…”

          According to Freud, most animal behavior is motivated by the pleasure principle, which Freud defined as the sudden release of internal pressure, tension or stress. (Well, that’s my version of his definition.) So all behavior, and all learning in dogs, is about finding ways to reduce unpleasant feelings.

          The exercise I referred to is called “The Pushing Exercise.”

          Here’s a description of How and Why the Pushing Exercise Works.


          1. Thanks for this, Lee. Unfortunately, Frankie won’t eat (or drink) outdoors; he’s too stressed outside his in-house comfort zone. Let me know if there’s an indoor equivalent.

          2. If a dog won’t eat outdoors, “The Pushing Exercise” may help him overcome whatever fears have caused him to feel that way, you just have to start by doing it indoors.

            Let me know if you have any problems or questions.


  5. How old is your dog? It’s very adorable and huggable though I’m not an animal lover. What other animals do you have?


    1. He’s almost 13, and he’s the king of the roost. He wouldn’t tolerate any other creatures. And, yes, he’s huggable but he doesn’t much enjoy being hugged.

  6. Absolutely fascinating post… I would never have thought to consider transference in that sort of situation. But poor Annie! I’m hoping that Part II has a happy ending…

  7. Great guest post, Edie. It’s one that sent me down the rabbit hole chasing different leads.

    It’s making me think. I’m in the generation who saw Freud’s reputation diminish. It looks like he’s ready for a comeback. Which means your family’s connection to him will probably spark some interest.

    Can’t wait to see how Annie was helped.

    1. As I write this I know that you’ll be in for a disappointment about Annie (but at least she was able to help other dogs). And I’m glad it inspired you.

      As for Freud — it’s crazy how much interest the connection has already sparked. I have a potential agent and editor. Now all I need is to write a book!

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