Patricia McConnell sits across an oak farm table at Redstart, the Black Earth farm she shares with her husband, Jim Billings. Her border collies Willie and Maggie and her King Charles Cavalier spaniel Tootsie alternate between seeking her attention and snoring at her feet. Outside, 10 ewes scrounge for feed atop an icy bluff. McConnell has to wait out the frozen conditions before safely sending the dogs out to bring the sheep down. The decision to leave them isn’t easy.
“It’s hard to see the sheep stranded, but it’s important to listen to our collective wisdom,” says McConnell. “They know it’s too icy to risk coming down to the barn. I know it’s too dangerous to risk sending the dogs up, so right now I’m glad they’re a little pudgy — I know that they won’t starve.”
Isthmus sat down to talk to McConnell about her powerful memoir, The Education of Will, where she reveals decades of silently managing post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by sexual assault and other traumas. (An excerpt from the book follows.)
During her 25 years as a zoologist and animal behaviorist and 14 years co-hosting the popular radio show Calling All Pets, McConnell helped clients tame their aggressive canines while dealing with her own demons — shame and guilt and fear. Despite her calm and friendly demeanor, McConnell battled severe symptoms, often imagining someone was poised to strike her with a baseball bat. She dodged dark spaces and avoided one-on-one encounters with men — even in professional settings.
And then she brought home Willie — a darling pup and descendant of her beloved dog Luke — who quickly exposed himself as a traumatized mess, one she identified with. In The Education of Will, McConnell, who has also authored several bestselling books and DVDs on dog training and behavior, describes with humor and heartache how Willie’s turbulent reactions to everyday noises and movements, as if he were “living on the edge of terror,” mimicked her own.
This story of mutual healing is timely and witty and brave. It will likely resonate with anyone who’s dealt with the painful fallout of abuse and touch the hearts of those who have loved troubled pets. And it offers surprising insights into human nature — often through the soul of a spirited canine.
Your book confronts your PTSD symptoms brought on by sexual assault and other traumas. How did these events affect your life?
Part of what is so damaging about so many traumas is that beyond what happened to you, it’s kind of a crime against self. What is so pervasively, corrosively destructive about that is you begin to distrust yourself. I felt that because of the things that happened to me, I couldn’t trust my family, I couldn’t trust people outside my family, but, much worse, I felt like what happened was my fault. Who then could I count on?
You write about the physical exhaustion you experienced raising Willie, putting you “on red alert that something horrible was about to happen.” How did you find the resolve to keep going?
When Willie was at his worst I considered rehoming him. I talked to my staff about it, but what I didn’t tell them was that when he leapt up barking like a machine gun out of the blue, I’d become terrified. I would have to do deep breathing. One of the symptoms of PTSD is hyper-arousal, extreme startle response. Mine had seemed to die down, but when I got Willie it got way worse again. But after talking to my staff, I looked at his face, and I just knew that he had the same demons inside him that I did. I felt like, okay, I’m going to fix it for both of us.
Your book is coming out just weeks after millions took to the streets in response to the inauguration of Donald Trump, who has bragged about sexually assaulting women. Many women are talking about their experiences with sexual assault for the first time. Are you ready to be in the forefront of that conversation?
I’m ready to speak out. I’m ready to not just speak out for myself, but I’m ready to encourage everyone to speak out. I’m not just talking about survivors of assault; it’s also important for others to speak out. Every father needs to talk to his son. Every man needs to talk to his friends about what are acceptable behaviors — the difference between admiring a woman and having the right to touch her. It is critical for everyone to make it clear that there are boundaries. There are behaviors that are acceptable and require compassion and respect. That’s not a lot to ask.
Your other two books, The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog, compare the perspectives of people and dogs. How did you approach writing The Education of Will?
I was originally motivated by healing myself. I started writing as a form of therapy, with no commitment to publish. When Willie set me back, I was just forced to deal with the fact that I thought I had gotten better but I was nowhere near better enough.
There’s a lot of symbolism in your book. How conscious were you of that?
There are things that I was very aware of, like the bird songs, for instance. I love birds; they’re an important part of who I am. A big part of this story is about place, living on the land in southern Wisconsin, and the birds are such an integral part of place. They are also symbolic of having a voice.
Your writing has a lightness and sense of humor to it, despite the serious content.
One of the goals of this book is to improve my writing. I value it more than I can say. My father loved literature, and he’d take us into his library and say, “Now, what would be the perfect book for you?” Brilliant writers just blow me away, so to be able to write well is something that means the world to me. My two editors helped me with this book, and I’m eternally grateful. They pushed me and educated me and forced me to be a better writer.
Why did you tell this story?
Stories are part of what keep us connected, and being connected is inherent to who we are, and where we gain our strength. My hope is that this book will help others as much as reading other memoirs helped me. They enabled me to change my life story from one of being a victim into one of being a survivor.
I also wrote this book for dogs. Dogs, too, can be traumatized, and need compassion and understanding, not “dominance” and force. We need to fight every day against the myth that force is power. Force is the absence of true power, and forcing frightened, traumatized dogs into “behaving” harms dogs, and diminishes us. Dogs need benevolent social connections too; I think that’s part of why we love them so much. I hope everyone who reads The Education of Will comes away feeling empowered, and knowing that with the right support, both people and dogs can heal from almost anything.
Are you scared of going public with this part of your life?
Yes. I have visions of standing mute and blank-eyed in front of the audience once I go on book tour, too cowardly to even begin to speak. But, as Brené Brown so eloquently reminds us in her books and TED Talks, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable — to accept and forgive our humanity — doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us stronger.
Patricia McConnell will read from The Education of Will at A Room of One’s Own at 6 p.m. on Feb. 22.
McConnell, at age 15, training her dog Julie.
The Education of Will
Will, who soon became Willie, lay curled up in the crate beside me as I drove him to his first vet appointment, a few days after I had returned his brother to the breeder. He kept his chin flat on the floor of the crate, his eyes looking into mine every time I glanced in his direction. The countryside was awash with the yellow of sunflowers and goldenrod and the green of head-high cornstalks. It was hot, so I parked in the shade on the side of the building, in a small lot bracketed by the drone of traffic and the sound of dogs barking.
As I lifted Willie from the car and the barking got louder, he panicked and flailed out of my arms with the strength of a dog 10 times his size. He tumbled onto the ground and began streaking toward the road, moving as far away from the barking as he could get. An eight-week-old puppy is pretty fast, but I was able to catch up and grab him before he committed suicide on the highway. Hearts beating against each other’s chests, I carried him back to the clinic, sat down on the cement steps, and held him as I tried to calm us both. It was unclear who was more frightened. After a few minutes it was time to move on, so I checked his collar and leash to ensure that they would stay attached. I checked them again. And again. I’d worked professionally with dogs for almost two decades by the time I got Willie, but the incident eroded my faith in my ability to keep a puppy safe.
When I set him down, Willie put his nose down in front of the clinic and began to sniff like an industrial vacuum cleaner, so hard that his nose was scraping against the concrete. I expected his nose to start lengthening like that of an animated creature in a Disney movie. My heart fell. I knew what this sniffing might mean. His uncle Luke would have quickly sniffed his way around the area and happily moved on, anticipating what was coming next. But there was no sense of curiosity in Willie’s behavior; it was desperate and obsessive and foretold serious trouble as he got older. Early in my career I had seen a puppy named Yugo, a brindle-brown Labrador cross who entered my office as if his nose were attached to the carpet. He managed a weak wag when his olfactory investigations brought him close to me, but his head remained down and focused on the smells of other dogs. He returned in adolescence with a serious aggression problem toward other dogs. Since then, hundreds of dogs had entered my office and ignored me, slamming their noses to the ground, snorting their way around the room as they sucked up the scents of my four-legged clientele. It didn’t matter if they were puppies, adolescents or full-grown dogs, obsessive sniffing appeared to correlate with one thing: serious aggression toward other dogs.
As Willie snorted around, his nose pressed to the grass, I realized I had been holding my breath. I made myself take some deep breaths and waited for Willie to finish sniffing. He continued. I waited. The air forced in and out of his nose was so loud, it sounded like it was powered by an industrial bellows. Eventually, it was time to go inside. I called his name. No response; not even a flick of an ear. I crouched and held a treat within an inch of his nose. Nothing. Willie continued to suck up the dogs’ scents like a dehydrated elephant at a water hole. After a few more attempts to lure him inside, I picked him up and carried him in.
One look at the receptionists and Willie melted into pudding. Eyes glowing, he licked faces and wagged his entire body, charming everyone. He thought nothing of his vaccination — he was too busy kissing the vet’s face. Willie wiggled gleefully as the vet examined his mouth, and he squiggled and happy-faced his way throughout the entire exam. When we were done, the vet commented on what an adorable pup he was. I put him down on the floor, his puppy leash tangling around his oversize paws.
Willie and I smiled our way out into the lobby. Then, horror of horrors, we discovered a bichon frise puppy sitting on the linoleum like the disembodied tail of a rabbit. A bichon puppy is a tiny thing, as intimidating as a fluff of whipped cream. Unless you were Willie. All happiness gone, Willie’s body went stiff, his mouth snapped shut, and he backed up as if he had seen a monster. I was looking at an adorable fuzzball of cuteness. He was looking at Godzilla. “Willie, Willie!” I said cheerfully, trying to jolly him up and show him there was nothing to be afraid of. He dived under a chair and began to growl. I took some more deep breaths, hauled him out, and put him in the car.
It might seem strange to worry about the behavior of an eight-week-old puppy, but animal behaviorists know that even young pups can act in ways that suggest serious problems later on in life. Did your pup chew up the remote control? Think nothing of it; that’s as normal as a toddler who wants to put everything in her mouth. You expect it, deal with it, and it goes away. Did an eight-week-old pup go stiff and emit a menacing growl right out of a horror movie while standing over a piece of popcorn? That’s not typical and is predictive of serious trouble if not handled right away. Time to call a trainer or behaviorist — or maybe Stephen King with a scene suggestion.
The problem with Willie wasn’t just what he was doing; it was the age at which he was doing it. His behavior replicated that of mature dogs whose extreme fear of other dogs had developed into teeth-bared, hard-eyed aggression. Adult behavior is rarely a good thing to see in a puppy, but it happens. “Puppies of the Corn,” I call them: dogs who, like the glaze-eyed children in horror movies, are adorable one moment and terrifying another. Babies aren’t supposed to act like aggressive grownups, and it is chilling when they do.
Once I was asked to evaluate a litter of seven-week-old Labrador puppies, and I was taken aback by their responses when I gently lay them down on their backs. Usually, puppies will squirm a bit and then settle down, perhaps mouthing your hands with bright eyes and cheerful faces. A few will go soft and still, eyes all liquid innocence. However, four of the puppies in this litter fought as though their lives depended on it, then went rigid while their eyes turned into cold, glittery marbles that stared straight into my own. If they’d had a gun, I think they would have used it. Two of them tried to leap up and bite my face, snarling as they did. Oh, my. I followed their progress and learned that three of them had been euthanized as young adults because they had bitten so many people.
With cases like that in mind, I called Willie’s breeder when we got back home to ask if anything had happened in his past to explain his behavior. But nothing she knew of could explain Willie’s reaction to other dogs. His parents had good dispositions, Willie had played well with his littermates, and she was aware of no traumatic incident related to the other dogs. Willie had seemed cautious when he first met my other dogs, but he’d quickly become comfortable around them. Lassie had even begun teaching him to play tug games with her. His behavior at the vet clinic was inexplicable. What could have happened to turn a squirming, happy-faced puppy into a terrified wreck in the presence of unfamiliar dogs?
Copyright © 2017 by Patricia B. McConnell, reprinted by arrangement with Atria Books.