Our Dogs and Our Family Systems

Pets and our family systems

(This was written a couple of years ago for the Family Systems Institute Blog)

It’s thought-provoking to consider what else is IMG_1468going on in our family at the time a dog enters? Hendrix came along at a time when I was adjusting to adult children leaving home?  There is no doubt that he filled something of a void for me in terms of my being needed and him relishing my attentions.  We have certainly developed a reciprocal sensitivity to each other.

This blog began as a casual conversation in the kitchen at my office with one of my colleagues Lily Mailler.  It was prompted by the site of Lily’s golden Labrador Bella sitting in the back of her car for over an hour while she was working. This gentle and cumbersome canine was sitting quietly and calmly on a blanket with a breeze cooling her through a partly open window. Lily had organised for her to be picked up by a family member some time that afternoon.

Jenny:  Lily, seeing your Labrador sitting so patiently in the back seat of your car has got my attention.  I can’t imagine my cocker spaniel, Hendrix, sitting so calmly outside knowing that I was in the building. I also can’t see myself being comfortable leaving him confined for an hour or so.  I would be working in the office with an ear out for his howling. There’s no doubt that I have a different intensity in my relationship with my dog to you and Bella!  What do you make of this?

Lily:  Yes, I have observed that my dog Bella has less separation anxiety than other dogs I know, for example she comes with me to the beach every morning and I tie her to a post at the surf club whilst I swim and do my thing. She doesn’t whinge or bark like other dogs that are also tied up and waiting for their owners to come back. She does however have a level of sensitivity to me. For example I have observed that she watches me intently whilst I swim and refuses to walk with someone she does not know when I am around.  I agree with Dr Bowen that we all have degrees of sensitivity and attachment which extends to family pets. I kid myself when I think that I am not disproportionately attached to my dog. Recently I have found myself feeling a sense of panic when she did not bark upon my arrival at home and found myself rushing outside to see if she is ok. I realise her hearing is not as sharp as it used to be.

Bella came into my life at a time when I was too preoccupied with making a living and surviving.  I did not particularly want a dog as I felt that it would be another demand upon me. My eldest son and his girlfriend got the dog and they assured me that they would be responsible for it. Of course things did not work out that way: they broke up, my son left to work in the Whitsundays and I was left with the dog. I learnt to love Bella but I made sure she was not to be another imposition on me, by making a conscious effort to be clear about what I would and would not put up with from her. I believe that as a consequence she is not demanding and she knows I am top dog. The kids do not understand how come she is so loving and obedient to me when I do not show her the level of attention they show her.

Jenny It’s thought-provoking to consider what else is going on in our family at the time a dog enters?  Hendrix came along at a time when I was adjusting to adult children leaving home?  There is no doubt that he filled something of a void for me in terms of my being needed and him relishing my attentions.  We have certainly developed a reciprocal sensitivity to each other. He is so alert to me giving attention to other dogs.  Our much older dog was quite self sufficient and non- demanding.  I agree with you that our pets are a part of our family emotional process. The position they occupy has a lot to do with what is happening with shifts in other relationships.

Lately I have been working on being a bit more boundaried (less fused) and more thoughtful about my responsibilities as owner/pack leader with Hendrix.  Perhaps my observing your calm with Bella, and reciprocally Bella’s calm with you, is an additional bit of a wakeup call for me. As a corrective I’ve started focussing more on being a leader to him—not letting him jump on our bed, or walk in front of me, or come through the door first.  He’s becoming a much calmer dog as a result.  Ironically I can enjoy him more when I’m not so wrapped up in him.  This sounds similar to what you observe with your relationship with Bella in contrast to your children.

I’ve been wondering if those of us who are vulnerable to a disproportionate child focus are also prone to a more fused involvement with our pets …especially when children are less present in our lives. 

Lily- My capacity to stay in my own skin with Bella does not mean that I have the same type of reciprocity with my children, I actually was so focused on my kids that there was less of the focus left for Bella and I believe that, as a result, she has functioned much better than all others in my immediate family system. It is interesting to note that Bella has not had any physical symptoms during the 9 years of her life but for the odd tick she has picked up from the bushes. It makes me wonder about how the relationship variables expressed in levels of sensitivity may be important predictors of her good health, besides her biological predispositions.  Her brother from the same litter, who belongs to another member of my extended family, has had a number of physical ailments. There is plenty in the writings of Bowen and Kerr around this issue although the evidence is not conclusive.

Jenny – Well Lily I’m glad I got to observe the differences in our relationships to our dogs. It’s prompted some interesting reflections. While my dogs are not comparable in importance to the people in my family they are certainly a part of our family system and its emotional patterns.

Questions for reflection:

  • What has been the timing of pets entering my family? What other changes in family dynamics were occurring? How did this impact the way family member’s related to the pet?
  • In what ways was a pet focussed on? Who were they most important to? How did this play out in family relationships? How did the focus influence the pet’s behaviour?
  • What work on self-regulation is required to be an effective pack leader with a pet?

Additional resources:

Professor Barbara Smutts, from the University of Michigan has presented at the Bowen Centre in Washington DC on triangles and domestic dogs,.  She studies the dynamics of social relationships in dogs (and other social mammals) by observing video-taped interactions in fine detail, using frame-by-frame and slow motion analysis.  Imagine being able to study our family process in this way! Click here to view more.

There’s a fascinating chapter written by Linda Flemming on triangles in a human & canine pack.  She describes the formation of an emotional triangle with 2 dogs with the dynamics of insiders and outsiders.  When she starts dating her future husband, new interlocking triangles are evident.  When one of her dogs becomes quite symptomatic, she draws from Bowen theory to deal with the system instability.  Her first step was providing more leadership, which helpfully shifts focus from the reactive pack member to managing self in a steadier manner.  She resisted focussing on the symptoms in her dog.  She writes, “As long as I was focussed on Shayne (dog) as the problem, we made no progress in changing behaviours. When I began to see the problem as residing in the system rather than on Shayne, we began to make progress.”  P 237-8

Flemming L. “Observation of Triangles in a Human-Canine Pack”. Ch 9  in Titelman, P. (Ed.) (2008). Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives. New York, Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

‘Our Dogs and Our Family Systems’ – Jenny Brown

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