An Interview with Dr. Patricia McConnell about The Education of Will

“Individuals who’ve been traumatized have to have a safe space.” Dr. Patricia McConnell speaks about her memoir, The Education of Will.

Dr. Patricia McConnell with her dog Skip. An interview about The Education of Will
Dr. Patricia McConnell with Skip. Photo: Steve Dahlgren

In June, the Animal Book Club read Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book, The Education of Will: Healing a Dog, Facing My Fears, Reclaiming My Life. This is a powerful memoir of trauma and healing that recounts how she came to terms with her own trauma and in the process was able to heal her beloved dog, Willie. Of course, Dr. McConnell is also the author of many long-time favourite dog training books, including The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog. I had the honour of speaking to Dr. Patricia McConnell about The Education of Will.

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Zazie: Why did you decide to write this book?

Patricia: Oh my! It was originally not going to be a book, actually. It was originally therapy. I was in therapy and my therapist talked about the value – and I know the science behind it – of writing about traumatic events. She said to just write, just write anything. So I started writing about the rape and the man who fell and died at my feet. And then gradually over time, I started editing it and I started working on it. I started reading a lot of other writings by people about trauma. And I gradually started putting together the fact that reading their memoirs and their stories had been incredibly helpful to me. And there was so much value for me personally writing it. So I ended up putting those two things together. Basically I started writing it for me, and then I finished writing for others. If it was just one other person, literally, if it helped them as much as After Silence, a book about trauma and rape helped me, then it was worth it.

The Education of Will. An interview with Dr. Patricia McConnell. Photo shows book cover.


Zazie: I’m sure it has helped other people. It’s definitely achieved that aim. The book shows that dogs can be traumatized as well as people. What causes trauma in dogs?

Patricia: You know, what a great question and of course I can only answer it speculatively. We know a lot about what causes trauma in people. One of the most common causes of trauma is something really unexpected. In the book I talk about the psychological phenomenon called fright, which isn’t like, ‘Oh I’m so scared it’s Halloween’, it’s a situation in which something so completely unexpected happens that your brain just literally stops. I mean it just literally stops working. You’re just like an empty skull. And the research shows people who have been in that state, after something completely unexpected and weird and hard to understand has happened, like the man who fell from the sky and died at my feet. [The research shows that] after that happens you have a much higher chance of developing PTSD. I think for dogs, again speculating, I think that some of the dogs, and I’m sure you’ve seen them and so many of your readers will have seen, dogs who have something happen to them unexpectedly. Especially the attack from behind, maybe at the dog park or while walking, all of a sudden bang something happens, out of the blue, completely unexpected. And I think that’s very traumatizing for dogs, just like it is for people. Also there’s that sort of continual, repetitive, highly-aversive event that is traumatizing for people. People who have been abused over a period of years, for example by a stepfather or an abusive lover. That can be profoundly traumatizing. You look at a lot of the mill dogs and dogs from hoarders who just live a life of constant fear and misery. I never thought of it this way, Zazie, but it’s almost like two sides of the same coin that are opposites. So it’s just continual, relentless, repetitive aversive events vs this one bang! thing that happens completely out of the blue. Both can relate to an animal being traumatized.


"I think we all somehow have this vision that we have to love our dogs non-judgmentally. We have to be the Golden Retrievers of life." 


Zazie: Thank you, I think that’s really helpful. I’ve got a question from a book club member so I want to ask that early on.  This is from Susan Wroble and she says, “When Patricia encounters an aggressive dog, what steps does she take inside herself and her physical body positioning, to convey calmness and security to the dog?”

Patricia: That’s a great question. The first thing I do is not react, usually. Unless – there’s been a few rare times when if you don’t react you’re going to get bitten. But that’s very rare, right. Usually you have some time. So the first thing that I’ve trained myself to do is to just stop. Just stop, and pause, and take a breath. It’s really important not to stop and pause and hold your breath! Because we know perfectly well that that’s not a signal that’s going to relax a dog. You don’t want your body to go all stiff. I will literally focus on breathing. I will at the same time turn my body to the side. And I lean back a little bit, even just a half an inch. I don’t act like a model on a runway walking with my pelvis first [laughs]. I just lean back a little bit, even a half an inch. Sideways, half an inch, I like to cock my head. If I ever have on sunglasses then they are off instantly or up on my head, because we know those big huge round black eyes are signs of dilated pupils and potential trouble. There’s a reason, and I mention in The Education of Will, there’s a reason that a young man with an AK47 and big huge sunglasses are particularly scary and it’s not just the gun. I’d say the same for young women, why be sexist here! It’s those big huge round eyes that suggest extreme dilation and that an individual is extremely aroused. So I’ll make sure I don’t have sunglasses on. If I’ve said once, “Jim take your sunglasses off” I’ve said it like 500 times, because he started helping me with cases. So those are the main things. What do you do? Is that similar to what you do? Is there something else you add?

Zazie:  I don’t think I add anything. I think I’m quite still, because if I’m worried about being bitten then I’m very, very cautious. And yes like you I turn to the side. And not staring at the dog but keeping an eye on it.

Patricia: Yeah. The only exception is there have been a few times I’ve felt a dog was about to bite me. There was a rotti charging up on a beach that I’ve talked about in seminars, and there were a couple of dogs who had that really – their bodies were still, they were hard eyed. Their bodies were still, but really it’s dogs that are charging now that I think about it. The few times I’ve had dogs actually charge at me, I do the opposite of that. I will turn around, I will face them, I will say “Hey!”, really like H-E-Y, really really loudly (I’m not going to do it now because Maggie is looking at me! She’s so sensitive).  And I’ve gone forward like that. Now that’s risky, but sometimes you just have to figure out what you need to do to protect yourself.

An interview with Dr. Patricia McConnell about The Education of Will. Pictured, her book The Other End of the Leash.


Once I was seeing a client and they had an aggressive Shepherd that bit a lot of visitors, and they had two other dogs, and they let the dogs out of the house in the front yard while I had left my truck and was walking up. Seriously!! No kidding!! So I had these three dogs circling me and I had a little tiny notebook, just a little tiny notebook. And I never made that mistake again. I never in any circumstances did that. I never got out of the car or the truck without this big bag that I would use and you could sort of use it to block a dog in front of me. I always had a tennis ball, because that’s what saved my butt. I actually had a tennis ball in my pocket and I threw it to the Shepherd. He went “Oh, we’re gonna play fetch, go!”

Zazie: Oh wow!

Patricia: Zazie, I did not plan it. I take no credit for it, I just did it. Anyway so those were the exceptions. They’re very rare, right?

Zazie: Yes, it is rare. It’s what people worry about though, when a dog comes charging up. That’s quiet scary sometimes.

Patricia: Yes, it is.

Zazie: In the book, you write about your own difficulties with Will’s behaviour, and that resonated with a lot of people. Having a dog with difficulties can be very challenging, and emotionally difficult as well. Did your own experience with Willie give you even more empathy for your clients?

Patricia: Yes, I think it did. Although I have to say, I’m really bad at a lot of things but empathy isn’t one of them. I have just always been very empathetic and that’s why I loved seeing clients. From day one I just loved getting on their side, I guess that’s the best way to say it. And I always felt really sorry for them. There are levels, that spiral. There are levels of empathy and understanding. It certainly was a good reminder of how exhausted and depleted a person can get when they have a dog with a lot of behavioural problems. Yeah, there were some dark days.

An interview with Dr. Patricia McConnell about The Education of Will; pictured, her book For The Love of a Dog


I wrote a blog a few weeks ago based on a reader’s request to write about, she said, “I have a dog I love but don’t like.” And I mentioned that in the blog and oooh boy, just so many comments from people who were so relieved to hear you could say that out loud. [see Love, but not like? Like, but not love? Feelings are messy] I think we all somehow have this vision that we have to love our dogs non-judgmentally. We have to be the Golden Retrievers of life. The perfect Golden Retrievers, all the time! And we’re human, and we’re not perfect, and we get tired and we get a dog we didn’t expect to get and it completely upends our life.


"Individuals who’ve been traumatized have to have a safe space." 


I can’t tell you how many clients I saw who were couples who were on the brink of getting divorced, because of their dog. And I don’t think they would have if they hadn’t… well, who knows. But the dog was the factor that put them over the edge. And so I think it’s great for people to be able to just acknowledge, “I love this dog, but he’s driving me crazy, and I don’t know that I can deal with him,” or, “I don’t really love this dog very much, I don’t know if I’m the right person for him.” I think we need to give ourselves permission to be authentic.

Zazie: I think that’s really powerful for people to hear. And you have a lovely thing that you say about dogs in the book. You say, “Dogs have a silent voice that is easy to hear, but most people don’t know how to listen.” How can ordinary people get better at listening to their dog?

Patricia: By watching. By watching, watching, watching. And paying attention to what you see. We are, as humans – I talk about this in The Other End of the Leash – as primates, we are very visual, yes we are extremely visual, but because of language, I’m speculating now, we focus so much on words. So much on words! And so we can see things but not notice them. They happen, and they come through our eyes, but our brain doesn’t record them. How many times at dog training classes – all of the dog trainers are going to be nodding their heads – because how many times have you seen a client pat a dog on the head and the dog is like, “woah…”, looking miserable, turns his head away, shuts his mouth. And it’s like, “Well that was punishment, I’ll never come again when called.” And the client didn’t notice it. But it’s so not rocket science, it’s so easy, really, don’t you think? Once you turn – and I loved doing that with clients, it was so fun. Once you get them turned on, and the dogs will make it easy because something will happen in your office, something will happen with that client within 5 minutes. And you can say, “Do you see what he just did right there? Did you notice how his mouth closed?” And people love it. They’re like “Oh wow, that’s cool”. So that’s the number one thing I would say: learn to observe, pay attention to what you’re seeing, and learn what it means.


Zazie: The book ultimately is a story of healing, for both yourself and for Willie. Do you think there are many similarities in the healing process between people and dogs? Obviously some things are different, but what are the similarities that people might find it helpful to know about?

Patricia: That’s a great question, thanks for asking. I think there’s no question that you’re right, there are lots of similarities. The biggest difference is language. You can’t do talk therapy with a dog, And you can’t do the rapid eye movement with dogs either because it involves talking. At least, I don’t think you can. I don’t know, that might be interesting.

Zazie: I don’t think so.

Patricia: I don’t think so. Maybe it’s possible. But what’s the same, is first of all, individuals who’ve been traumatized have to have a safe space. You have to create a safe space for the dog. Because once you’ve been biologically traumatized, your brain, your amydala, your hippocampus, parts of your brain have literally structurally and functionally changed. And so you’re always on alert. That’s what classic PTSD is. You know the person who startles at every noise that they hear? Your brain is always on alert. So the first thing to do, and it works as well for dogs as it does for people, I mean I’ve no scientific comparison here. So the first thing is that both individuals, dogs and people, need a safe space. My safe space became my garden. That was the place where I felt safe. Dogs need to learn to be really comfortable in a crate, or if that’s where the trauma happened, you’ve got to create a situation in which they feel safe.


"The most important thing not to do is to just punish what you don’t want."


And then the other thing that I think is so similar is that individuals who’ve been traumatized need to get back some kind of sense of control. Because part of what happens is you feel like you have no control over the world. And the fact of the matter is, we don’t. Stuff happens. We don’t have control over stuff happening around us. But most of life, we do have control over most of the time. We know there’s going to be a ground under our foot when we advance our left foot in front of the right one. We know that someone’s not going to fall from the sky or some dog is going to attack you from behind at the dog park. So giving them a sense of control. The garden works for me, cooking works for me, even though sometimes it doesn’t work out! Most of the times it’s pretty good. And with dogs, training tricks. My favourite thing which I did with Willie and did with so many dogs is teaching them tricks that actually physiologically help them to relax. Teaching a play bow and a stretch is my favourite thing to teach a dog who is anxious, who’s been traumatized. Because it’s a trick, it’s fun, you can reinforce them any way you want if they do it. If they don’t do it, who cares. You can get all agitated about obedience exercises, but who cares if they don’t do a play bow when you ask them to?! But it helps relax them, just like physical exercise is relaxing. Those are the two main similarities that I think there are. I’m sure there are a lot more, but those are the two that come to mind.

Zazie: I’m glad you mentioned your garden. I love the descriptions of your garden and the landscape in the book and also like seeing the photos of it on your blog as well.

Patricia: Thank you.

Zazie: Okay, you write that healing is a process. You’ve been very courageous in sharing your story in the book. Did that help you with healing at all? You kind of alluded to this at the beginning. Were there ever any times when you wished you hadn’t started on the book?

Patricia: Yes, absolutely. I’m really glad you asked the question that way. It was very hard to write the book. There’s no way around it, it was hard to write. Part of what was hard about it also, beyond the obvious, beyond reliving all these traumas, was that I’d write in the morning and then I would go to my office and I’d run my business and I would see clients. So when you’re writing – and you have an MFA by the way, I don’t know how many people know that, it’s so cool, besides your PhD. So you know when you’re writing, it’s like you’re working out of a particular part of your brain. Especially The Other End of the Leash, which is non-fiction, but not like a dog training book. And I wanted this book to be very literary, I really wanted to up my game and learn how to write well. I wanted it to be literary and it broke my heart, frankly, that it was always categorized as a dog training book and never a memoir.

Zazie: Oh no.

Patricia: I know, that was very hard. That was one of the hardest times, actually, for me. Because I wrote a book to have a voice, and then I’d go to bookstores and they’d be like, “Oh it’s in the dog training section.” It’s like, it’s a memoir about trauma. Anyway, oh my goodness I’ve gone so far off afield! So there were times when I would be really raw writing in the morning about something that had happened, or else really in that literary writing place where you’re working out of one side of your brain, and then I’d have to go to the other side of my brain. I’ve have to go to the office and be a business person and be a behaviourist and that was very, very tiring. That was very, very hard. So those parts were hard.


"Individuals who’ve been traumatized need to get back some kind of sense of control."


But then also it was so obvious how good it was for me. I’m a horrible writer when I start writing, it’s just trash. But I love editing. And so every single page in the book I’ve literally edited at least 25 times because that’s how I write. I would start each morning by editing what I’d written before. Something about writing about these traumas, and editing and editing, and I mention in the book it was like using sandpaper up, so that we use it so much it’s not rough any more. That was incredibly therapeutic even though it was painful. It was like rubbing sandpaper on your skin; after a while it became more like buffing. And I think that’s part of getting control of your own story that therapists talk about. So it was very hard and there were times I was sorry I was doing it, but I always knew it was the right thing to do.

Zazie: And it’s a wonderful book and it is a memoir, it’s not just a dog book.

Patricia: Thank you.

Zazie: It is a memoir and it’s quite different from your other books, so was the writing process very different for you? You’re already said about polishing it very much. Was the actual process of writing quite different?

Patricia: I love that you asked that question. Nobody’s ever asked that! That’s a great question. You know the part that was most different was structuring the memoir. When I wrote The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog, there were some questions about structure and about what goes where. And I still regret for my book about emotions, For the Love of a Dog, I started with the biology of the brain and I think that was a huge mistake. If I were to redo that book, I would move that around and change that around. But mostly the structure wasn’t that difficult. But with this book especially, trying to merge my story with the Willie story, which happened at completely different times… I spent at least a year literally with little index cards moving this chapter here, that chapter there. It drove me crazy! I had a really hard time structuring it.


"Every single page in the book I’ve literally edited at least 25 times because that’s how I write"


And I even hired an editor on the advice of my agent. I had the book done, it took me 5 years but I had it done after 4. I sent it to my agent, Jennifer Gates who’s amazing, and she said, “It’s really good, it’s just great.” And I was done. It’s like, the book is done, I have finished my book, 4 years, wow, what an accomplishment. She says, “Let me send it to Esmund Harmsworth, because he’s another agent that I knew and loved and admired. Let’s just get what he says about it.” And he read it overnight, bless him. Unheard of, right? Unbelievably wonderful. And he gets back and says “Well it’s good, but it could be really, really good if you completely restructure it.”  I cried, I cried. And you’re a writer, you know… I cried. Because I had so much trouble with the structure anyway. So I actually hired an editor to help me. I figured out the structure for myself, except for Esmund said one thing which changed everything. He said, put waking up in the desert as the first chapter. And that was brilliant, that was great advice. And then I did. But the editor was wonderful. She taught me to write better and she taught me to write a memoir. She kept saying, “What about your mother? Tell us more about growing up.” I hadn’t quite gotten out of The Other End of The Leash, For the Love of a Dog camp, and she really helped me make it more literary. She upped my writing considerably. So I’m very grateful to her.

Zazie: Good, good. Well thank you for sharing that and I think the structure of the way the book moves between what happened to you and Willie’s story was really well done. And as a writer I thought the timing of which you revealed different bits of information worked brilliantly.

Patricia: Thank you. It took a year!

Zazie: I can believe it because the end result is so good. So back to dogs again. What is your advice to someone whose dog has a serious behaviour problem?

Patricia: Boy, how long do we have?! What I would say briefly is first of all, get by yourself, go away from the dog, sit down, and write out what’s happening. Write out the problem, very specifically. And then write out what you want. And then where you go from there has a lot of variance, depending how bad it is, how long you’ve worked on it, what you’ve done already. A great thing to do after that point, assuming we’re talking about a very serious behaviour problem that someone doesn’t know what to do about, I would do everything to reach out to a professional, or do as much video watching and reading of people like you who understand science-based methods, who are compassionate, who don’t fall into the whole “well he was just trying to be alpha” trap. And see if you can get enough ideas, you know from you and Ken Ramirez and… I won’t even start with a list of names because there are so many of them. I just talked to Ken recently so that’s why his name came up, but I do worship the ground he walks on, I’ll say that.


"We’re human, and we’re not perfect, and we get tired and we get a dog we didn’t expect to get and it completely upends our life."


Basically what you need to do is move from what you have to what you want. The most important thing not to do is to just punish what you don’t want. The dog has to have a plan B. I’ve seen so many cases where a dog is punished and it didn’t have a plan B, it didn’t know what else to do. So that’s the very short answer and I think it’s the least intuitive one for people who are not in our business,  Zazie, which is to observe, write, analyse, ponder, and then figure out, “How do I get what I want?” Usually it’s by setting your dog up for success, by changing the environment, the antecedent conditions. So that’s my brief-but-not-very-brief answer.

Zazie: That’s so helpful, thank you very much. Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

Patricia: I want to leave by saying thank you, because you are one of the best voices out there I know that makes science accessible. And heaven knows right now, there’s no more importance in the world than people focusing on science and understanding it. And you are brilliant at presenting it in a really interesting accessible way, so I just thank you.

Zazie: Thank you so much. That really means a lot coming from you. And thank you for all the amazing things that you’ve done to be a voice for dogs.


The Education of Will: Healing a Dog, Facing My Fears, Reclaiming My Life (and all the book club choices) are available in my Amazon store: https://www.amazon.com/shop/animalbookclub Many thanks to book club member Susan Wroble for contributing a question to this interview.

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Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB is an Ethologist who has consulted with pet owners for over twenty-five years about serious behavioral problems. She taught "The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships" in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for twenty five-years and speaks around the world about canine behavior and training. Dr. McConnell is the author of eleven books on training and behavioral problems, as well as the critically acclaimed books The Other End of the Leash (translated into 14 languages), For the Love of a Dog, and Tales of Two Species. Her newest book, The Education of Will, is a memoir focusing on healing from trauma in both people and dogs.  Patricia and her husband live with their working Border Collies Skip and Maggie, along with a very spoiled flock of sheep. For more information, go to www.patriciamcconnell.com or visit her blog, at www.theotherendoftheleash.com, and follow her on Facebook or on Instagram.


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the best-selling author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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This interview has been lightly edited for length and style.

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Comments

  1. I think "The Education of Will" is the most recent book I've purchased for myself, and it still echoes in my mind and heart. So powerful; so well written!

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  2. This is such a great interview! I will definitely check out more of this author's work

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