Will’s work ethic is unmistakably border collie. He’s clever and loyal. Concerned and curious. Always looking for his next assignment.
On Redstart Farm in Black Earth, owner Patricia McConnell—a Madison-based zoologist, animal behaviorist and former co-host of the Wisconsin Public Radio show “Calling All Pets”—keeps Will on task. The farm is where McConnell raises sheep that graze atop a bluff where the black-and-white border collie Will and his sister Maggie work like a police SWAT team to bring the 10 ewes back to the barn.
But Will’s disposition wasn’t always as peaceful as he looks curled up at McConnell’s feet. Will, a descendant of McConnell’s beloved dog Luke, was cute but crazed as a pup. In her memoir, “The Education of Will,” McConnell tells of the events that led to her agonizing self-awareness of past abuses. While attempting to understand why as a puppy, Will, now 10, reacted to other dogs with aggression, and why even common noises catapulted him from a state of calm to a barking frenzy, she began to face her post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by sexual abuse and other traumas.
“Willie came to me as a tiny puppy as if he’d grown up in a war zone, when actually he’d had an excellent start in life,” says McConnell. “I’ll never know what sent Willie out into the world set on high, like a blender with his last button pushed. But his reactivity forced me to face my own fears in a way that I never had before.”
By facing her own fears through a slow, mindful process that continues, McConnell has calmed Will’s fearful behavior. “So much dog misbehavior is due to fear,” she says. “Yet even dog lovers often assume that their dog is growling to be dominant, when what the dog wants is to feel safe. Dogs can be traumatized too, all mammals can, and the aftereffects of that can last for years, just as they can for people,” says McConnell.
While McConnell no longer holds office hours, her website, patriciamcconnell.com, offers links to resources, to her other publications and to her internationally read blog that’s an ongoing discussion about the behavior of people and dogs and the relationship between the two.
“Our distinctiveness [from other animals] separates us and makes it easy to forget where we came from,” McConnell says. “Perhaps dogs help us remember the depth of our roots—that we may be special, but we are not alone.”
Pat Dillon is a Madison-based writer.
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