“We all have a backstory. We all have a private life and a public life,” Patricia McConnell reminds in a recent NPR interview.
For over twenty-five years, dog lovers have benefited from Patricia McConnell’s public life (Facebook / Twitter). Now, in her latest book, The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog, we also benefit from her private life.
An internationally recognized animal behavior expert, McConnell holds a PhD in Zoology and is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Her game-changing book, The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, remains a timeless classic into the science behind our intimate bond with dogs. I was yippee skippy elated when I finally got into her course “The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Maintain close proximity to this person with extraordinary knowledge, a vast skill set, and humor and compassion to boot,” I told myself, “and maybe, osmotically over time, you too can join her field.” From working with dogs with serious behavior issues to reaching international audiences through her books, talks, and popular blog, Patricia McConnell embodies her tag line, “Your source for science and soul in dog training and behavior.”
This is the Patricia McConnell dog lovers know, and it is the same Patricia McConnell who appears in The Education of Will.
Credit: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
But now we learn of another part of McConnell’s life, one that includes early-life traumas that lay a dark haze over her personal world. When a people-loving, dog-loathing puppy enters her life (cue Will), his fear and aggressive outbursts set her back, but ultimately put her and Will on a mutual path to recovery together.
“One of my goals for writing this book was to make the point that dogs too can be traumatized,” McConnell explains in the NPR interview. For example, a number of recent studies spearheaded by Frank McMillan of Best Friends Animal Society find that dogs in pet stores who began life in commercial breeding establishments—also known as “puppy mills”—often display later-in-life challenges like fear and aggression. Genetics, early life experiences, stress (pre- or post-natal), and early weaning can be contributing factors.
McConnell approaches the complexity of fear and trauma in dogs and people with compassion and understanding, something she learns to do for herself and her past. “One of the points I want to make and spread around the world with this book is that dogs who have serious behavior problems need support," she adds. "They need compassion, they need understanding…. Most aggression—which is a behavior—is motivated by the emotion of fear. You can force a dog, or coerce a dog, or punish a dog for barking, acting out, growling at another person, but you’re taking away the warning signs. You don't take away what’s inside the dog.… So much behavior that people call aggression is fear, and we need to take the fear away, not the symptoms away.”
In the book, McConnell speaks candidly about the recovery process for both species. In one particularly poignant moment, she describes her difficulty going through whole-body scanners at the airport. Years of therapy lay a foundation for her recovery, and she recognized that, like a dog afraid of people wearing sunglasses or a dog afraid of other dogs, she too could use conditioning to work on her fear:
“...I realized I had to get a handle on my response to body scanners. I needed to use the same method I’d used on Aladdin for sunglasses and Willie for other dogs. I took a low-intensity version of something that scared me and had it lead to a high-intensity version of something I love” (p. 183). In her case, she slowly paired the scanner body position with memories of a “heavenly” Caribbean vacation on a sailboat listening to the Beatles song “Let It Be.”
This seemingly simple process, McConnell reminds, is actually quite complex. Timing and intensity can make or break it. “Nancy Venable Raine [the author of After Silence] covered a new apartment with the scent of roses and gardenias in order to associate it with beautiful things, and ended up conditioning herself to feel anxious any time she smelled those particular flowers” (p. 183). And hey, years earlier working with a dog who was startled by abrupt sounds, McConnell accidentally taught him to hate his favorite food before getting him on the path she intended. Recovery is a process. Recovery is a process.
Her openness and bravery benefit both species. Centering on themes of trauma, recovery, shame, fear, setbacks, and healing, The Education of Will is captivating, a page-turner in fact. McConnell’s honest, beautiful writing carries readers along. She shares insights from science and personal stories, and as always, welcomes us into her love affair with nature—flowers, gardening, birds, the Wisconsin countryside, and of course sheep-herding trials starring dogs who behave like dogs and sheep who behave sheeply (because that’s a word). Warmth and compassion are continually present despite setbacks—for herself and others—that require another dose of patience and courage.
McConnell’s The Education of Will acknowledges darkness, lets us into hers, and with a dog at her side brings us all closer to the light.
Patricia McConnell's book tour for The Education of Will is going on now. View schedule here.
Resources for dogs and people here.