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Mark Rubinstein, M.D.
Mark Rubinstein M.D.

Sidney Brought Out the Best

An Unexpected Co-therapist

I was an unmarried practicing psychiatrist living in Manhattan. My best friend and nearly constant companion was Sidney, a 27 pound, adorable mutt I’d rescued from the pound. When I had a break between patients, I’d run back to my apartment—six blocks away—to walk him and keep him company. Aware that dogs are socially-oriented animals, I hated that Sid spent so much time alone, but I had to work.

One day, I was faced with a dilemma.

My apartment was being painted. I couldn’t leave Sid there because he’d get in the way. Having no other choice, I brought him to my office, where he’d stay in the consultation room during patients’ sessions. Secretly, I felt great about having him with me; but I had deep reservations. This was an unusual arrangement, but I had little choice since I could find no one who would take Sid for the day. I rationalized that Freud often kept one of his beloved dogs in the consultation room during sessions.

I also knew by having Sid at my office, I was “telling” patients about myself—a therapeutic no-no, since the therapist should be something of a “blank screen” to patients during insight-oriented psychotherapy. But, I had to make the best of an unusual situation.

So Sid was in the consultation room as each patient entered for a 45 minute session.

I wasn’t surprised when he greeted each one robustly with wagging tail, plenty of sniffs and kisses, and begged to be petted and adored. That was Sidney.

To my great surprise, whether the patient was using the couch or sitting face-to-face during the session, each one gushed over Sidney and engaged my canine companion.

Then, something unusual happened: each patient began talking either about having had a dog as a child, or having wanted one. And each began dredging up memories of parents, friends, wishes, fears or strivings from years earlier. Some cried, some laughed, and even those who had trouble talking freely about themselves, poured forth a cascade of thoughts and feelings, revealing unresolved wishes or fears from childhood which encroached on their present lives.

It was obvious: Sidney’s presence was a powerful catalyst for a deep, emotional engagement by patients with the therapeutic process. And it was clear that Sid—much more than I—was instrumental in getting them to dig more deeply into their emotional lives.

Sidney was such an incredibly powerful therapeutic “instrument”, I briefly thought of keeping him in the office as a regular practice. But, it was too unusual for the times.

Nowadays, pets are a regular part of the therapeutic process at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. I fully understand why.

Were Sidney alive today, he’d be my co-therapist.

About the Author
Mark Rubinstein, M.D.

Mark Rubinstein, M.D., is a former professor of psychiatry at Cornell. His most recent book is the novel Mad Dog House.

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