This article first appeared in Isthmus on Dec. 10, 1999.
Loki, our 5-year-old Yorkshire terrier, has always been a little skittish. He's afraid of being left alone and hides behind the couch if there is company or if Puck, our first-born Yorkie, is bucking for attention. Sometimes Loki is even afraid to go to his food bowl to eat, and this is a dog who enjoys his victuals. Then there's that other humiliating problem: "accidents" in the house. These were rare until we had a baby about a year ago. Then Loki started acting out, going in the house a couple of times a month.
When we told our vet about this, she suggested we take Loki to a specialist. So today we're going to see Patricia McConnell at Dog's Best Friend. Sure, Loki's the "patient," but I'm quite certain it will all come down to how my husband and I messed up as parents.
Walking into McConnell's office in Black Earth, I have to remind myself not to call her a doggy shrink or even a psychologist. She's a certified applied animal behaviorist, also known as an applied ethologist, with a Ph.D. in zoology from the UW-Madison, where she now teaches classes to veterinary students.
McConnell greets us warmly and exudes enthusiasm upon meeting Loki and Puck (she asked that we bring Puck along so that she can observe how the dogs interact), who try to outdo her ebullience tenfold as they jump and leap to lick her. "Oh god," I think, mortified. "She must be thinking we have no control over them! I bet her dogs would sit calmly and then lift a paw in greeting."
We settle into McConnell's office, and a colleague of hers joins us to observe. Business at Dog's Best Friend is so brisk that McConnell is adding another "doctor" to do consultations. Appointments must typically be booked three months in advance.
Though McConnell shies away from publicity, she is nevertheless in the public eye. Her public radio show, Calling All Pets, is broadcast on 88 stations nationwide, and she has a television program called "Petline," which is running in syndication on the Animal Channel. And her business has been featured nationally, attracting attention from the likes of "20/20."
The same calm, personable demeanor McConnell exhibits on the air helps put us at ease now. After getting a feel for which commands my dogs know -- yes, they do respond to one or two -- she gets down to business: "Tell me what's up and how we can help."
We're grateful that she cuts to the chase, given that the meter is running at $75 an hour. We explain how Loki has "accidents," and how he'll take things off the dinner table even though he's not supposed to. Loki usually seems to regret his bad behavior, making a big production of rolling over in a groveling apology. But that doesn't stop him from doing it all over again.
McConnell, who has gotten Puck out of the way by giving him a toy stuffed with treats, gets down on the floor with Loki. She acknowledges she can't get inside a dog's head, but she has a different take on Loki's groveling: He's not apologizing for bad behavior, he's reacting to our ire. It's called appeasement.
As McConnell explains it through Loki's eyes: "Alpha Bitch is mad, there's an upset pack member there, so I'm going to do all this appeasement to keep you from attacking me."
Moreover, McConnell says she's not convinced that Loki knows he's doing anything wrong--we usually discover his transgressions hours after the fact, so he probably doesn't connect our anger with his actions.
McConnell begins drafting an eight-point plan to change Loki's behavior. The housebreaking involves everything from the obvious -- letting him out more at certain times of the day and rewarding him with treats -- to the less obvious -- putting Loki's food bowl in the spot in the house where he now pees. This way he'll think of it as his kitchen. McConnell also suggests that we sit in that spot with a magazine and get Loki to come sit with us so that our smell and his smell are there.
I slowly catch on that change for our shaggy little lad is all about reward. In fact, so much is based upon providing him with "something wonderful" that I'm imagining his slender Yorkie waistline expanding exponentially. In the hour-and-a-half session, Loki must have chowed down several dozen of McConnell's "something wonderfuls" -- made from a slimy, irresistible combination of beef hearts, lungs and pork rind.
McConnell notices things about Loki that have escaped my radar screen. How he flicks his tongue -- a sign of anxiety in dogs. And how he's terribly conscious of every move Puck makes.
With all of us by now on the floor, we work on teaching "Loki stay" -- a key command for helping him resist his flight instinct. And with a laugh McConnell turns to Puck: "You're a bully; can I just blurt that out?" So there's an elaborate plan to teach Loki to stay while Puck is out of the room and work up to a joint experience with one of them on each side of us on the couch.
I finally work up the courage to ask McConnell a question that's haunted me for quite some time. When we arrived to pick up Loki from the breeder he was frantic. Unbeknownst to us, his littermates had departed the night before, so Loki spent the entire night alone in a dark basement. Could the experience have traumatized him?
"It's possible," says McConnell. "They are really complicated animals, and you can traumatize them. It's probably a combination of nature/nurture, which all behaviors turn out to be."
Our appointment draws to a close with McConnell's 4 p.m. appointment, a dog with serious aggression problems, due any moment.
"I bet you didn't realize this was hazardous duty, a war zone," she jokes as she points out the various office exits used to avoid nasty dog-on-dog conflicts.
When McConnell got into this business 11 years ago, she never would have guessed that the majority of her cases would be serious aggression, but she now sees three to five such cases a week, making up 90% of her clients. (Another colleague runs training courses and takes on some of the less severe problems such as excessive barking and separation anxiety.)
Cases of dog-on-dog violence are growing, as is the field of animal consultation. When McConnell started out in 1998, her lawyer and accountant were skeptical of the venture. Indeed, she made just $1,500 that first year. But now business is booming, and the field is expanding -- Brenda Scidmore opened a similar operation in Madison in 1997 after working with McConnell for several years.
Both agree that the work is hard and an emotional roller-coaster.
"Two to four times a week, I have a conversation that starts with the owner asking, 'Should I euthanize my dog?'" says McConnell; later she tells me with anguish that she had to recommend that the dog who followed our appointment be put to sleep. She's only had to do that three or four times.
"I did not predict how emotionally tough this would be," says McConnell. "I didn't know I'd have people in my office deciding if they are going to kill their best friend. There are times I just go home and cry."
As we depart, none of Loki's problems seem so insurmountable. We have an eight-step plan in hand -- and it doesn't include a prescription for doggy Prozac, an increasingly common and controversial treatment for canines with behavioral problems. (Actually, McConnell tells us a veterinarian would have to do that, and she rarely recommends it.) A few days later, several typed pages of explicit directions arrive in the mail from McConnell; she also suggests follow-up phone calls.
McConnell, who is currently writing a book on the natural differences between primates and canines, can be reached at Dog's Best Friend, 608-767-2435. She resides in the western Dane County countryside with her retired mouser cat Ayla, three Border collies--Luke, Lassie and Pip -- and a Great Pyrenees named Tulip who is charged with guarding her 15 sheep.