In conjunction with the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival, Isthmus is publishing a series of Q&As conducted via email with authors appearing at the festival.
Dr. Patricia McConnell is an adjunct associate professor of zoology at UW-Madison as well as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, but is perhaps best known as the author of The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs and as co-host of "Calling All Pets," the popular animal-behavior program broadcast on more than 100 public radio stations.
A specialist in the treatment of canine aggression, she is the principal of Dog's Best Friend, Ltd., a company that focuses on family dog training. She lives on a small farm in southwest Wisconsin, where she keeps three Border Collies, a Great Pyrenees, a cat and a flock of sheep.
Her latest book, For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, was published in August by Ballantine. Dr. McConnell's Wisconsin Book Festival appearance is scheduled for 11 am on Saturday, Oct. 21, at A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore.
The Daily Page: What will your Wisconsin Book Festival presentation entail?
McConnell: I'll talk a bit about the topic: emotions in people and dogs, and why I thought it was a timely and important subject for a book. I'll also talk about how emotional it turned out to be to spend so much time learning about emotions, and end with a reading from the book.
The Amazon.com sales rank for your new book, For the Love of a Dog, is hovering around 1,100-1,200 -- at this writing, higher than any of the first five Harry Potter books. How do you account for your new book's popularity?
First, off, I can't imagine that my book could rank higher than a Harry Potter book at any moment of any day! However, I do think that people are starved for information about the inner lives of their dogs, and how much is shared between us and our best friends. Also, the mind and its workings are hot topics right now, and it's the right time to look at what we know, and what we don't know, about how our inner experiences compare.
Who should read For the Love of a Dog, and why should they read it?
Certainly anyone who loves dogs, and is interested in seeing the world from their dog's perspective. However, I just received an email from a reviewer who stated that the book is interesting reading even if you don't like dogs, because there's so much in it about emotions in humans.
When and where do you prefer to write?
Ah, I wish I was one of those people who can write anywhere, anytime. But I write best in the morning, settled into the cozy study of my farmhouse. I don't allow myself to do anything else in that space -- no email, no web surfing, no computer games. I learned enough about classical conditioning to know that it would help if I trained my body and brain to write, and only write, in that particular space. I usually write from seven or eight until noon when I'm working on a book.
What is your first memory of dogs?
I have a strong memory of lying on the living room floor beside my dog, Fudge, wondering what it was like inside her head, and if it was anything like what was inside mine.
Who was your first dog? And was it love at first sight?
A small terrier mix named Fudge, who I loved dearly. It was determined that I was allergic to dogs when I was five or six, and the doctor insisted we get rid of the dog. Lucky for me, the allergies weren't life threatening, and my parents were animal lovers, so Fudge was banned from my bed, but otherwise allowed to stay. (And I still snuck her in under the covers every night.)
You teach a course at UW-Madison on "The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships." Narrowing the focus to human/canine relationships, how would you qualify or quantify the relative significance of biology vs. philosophy in those interactions?
Certainly much of our relationship with dogs is driven and informed by our biology. We do well together because of our shared social natures and similar psychology and physiology. I'd say that it's philosophy, though, that informs how we treat our dogs. We all have a philosophy about our duties to other animals, although often it's not been articulated or carefully considered. It's our philosophy that informs many of our actions: Is it ethical to euthanize a dog you don't want anymore? If not, why not? And so, it's both biology and philosophy that relate to our relationships with dogs... That's why I love teaching the University class so much!
Which of a dog's postures or facial expressions are most often misinterpreted?
Tail wagging is perhaps the most commonly misinterpreted movement. Many people believe that if a dog is wagging his tail he is feeling friendly, but that's not always the case. If a dog is stiff and immobile, except for a wagging tail, he is actually warning you off. Learning to look for a dog with an open mouth and a loose body (friendly) versus a closed mouth and stiff body could prevent a great body dog bites.
In your experience and observations, what is the most prevalent mistake dog lovers make in their well-meaning efforts to interact with dogs?
Patting them on top of the head (which most dogs don't seem to like) or hugging them around the shoulders.
What about people who don't love dogs -- what are their best options for improving their relationships with canines?
Learning to read dogs such that they know which dog might need to be avoided, and what dogs are friendly and docile. In my experience many people who don't love dogs are sometimes intimidated by them, and the more you understand about reading expressions, the most predictable (and less frightening) an animal becomes. On the other hand, some people just can't stand all that dog hair on the couch. In that case, they should avoid coming to my house to dinner.
Is there any scientifically sound method to measure whether humans are more baffling to dogs than dogs' behavior is confusing to people?
Umm, quite a question! Probably not yet, but maybe sometime soon!
How much of our understanding of human-canine relationships is based on empirical study, how much is anecdotal, and to what degree is it speculative?
That's a tough question to answer. There is a great deal of good science behind understanding the meaning of a dog's expressions and the shared physiology of emotion in people and dogs. Both field work and recent advances in neurobiology have done much to help us understand dogs, and our relationship with them. That doesn't mean that anecdotes or stories aren't important. I've always believed that both biology and literature are essential to who we are as a species.
Do people tend to anthropomorphize dogs more or less than they ascribe human emotion and behavior to other species?
I suspect dogs are anthropomorphized more often, certainly more so than beetles or bats! Of course, sometimes that anthropomorphizing is useful... Many scientists -- primatologist Frans de Waal comes to mind -- talk about the benefits of trying to imagine the world through the eyes of other animals, as long as it is done with caution and critical mind. It can work the other way as well: imaging that your dog went potty on the carpet because he is mad at you is a completely human construct, and does your dog no good.
How does one become certified as an Applied Animal Behaviorist? Who does the certifying?
CAABs (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists) are certified through the Animal Behavior Society, the national organization of academics who study animal behavior. CAAB's are required to have Ph.D.'s in psychology or zoology, or a degree in veterinary medicine, to have done original research on applied behavior and to have worked for several years under the mentorship of a CAAB. Those interested in learning more can go to Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists.
In the last 10 years, various magazines have praised Madison as one of the best places in the U.S. to live, work, play, ride a bicycle and retire. Your work and book tours take you to quite a few cities across the country. Where would you rank Madison as a place for dogs to live, play and retire, and why?
Number one, period, end of sentence (okay, except when it's hot and humid in the summer!). I love the people, the lakes, the combination of high culture and corn fields, and being able to live 35 minutes away from the square on a small farm in the middle of nowhere.
What is the last book you've read that you are recommending to friends and neighbors, and why are you recommending it?
I actually wrote, in my new book, that readers should put my book down and go out and buy a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink if they hadn't read it yet. (I recanted, and asked them to finish mine first.)
What is the last dog-related book you've read that you are recommending to people?
I'm not sure it's a dog book, but I love Animals in Translation.
Which other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival most intrigue you?
So many! I can't wait to read Deborah Blum's new book, her books are always phenomenally well written and engrossing. I love Jacquelyn Mitchard's work as well, and I"m sure I"ll leave the festival with enough books to keep me through the Wisconsin winter. I love books, and I cherish good writing. It's an honor and a pleasure to be a part of the festival.
For people who might approach you after your Wisconsin Book Festival presentation, how would you prefer to be addressed? Dr. McConnell? Patricia?
Patricia or Trisha is just fine.
Do you have any tattoos?
I'll think I'll be coy on that one!