Book Review: The Education of Will

A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog (Atria)
By Claudia Kawczynska, March 2017
The Education of Will book review by Patricia McConnell
The Education of Will
A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog (Atria)

A memoir by Patricia McConnell, one of the world’s leading certified applied animal behaviorists and a pro in working with aggressive and fearful dogs, is the second of the two new arrivals. The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog (Atria) is quite unlike her previous work. While her astute, hawk-eye attention to canine behavioral matters is found in abundance, we also learn more about the author herself.

The Education of Will runs on parallel tracks. On one track is her Border Collie, Will, who presents McConnell with a whole host of behavioral and health-related challenges. It is difficult to comprehend just how misaligned this little guy was, even as a very young pup.

As she tells us, when she decided it was time for another Border Collie, McConnell did all the right things: she went to a reputable breeder; she knew both parent dogs; and, since she’d had other working Border Collies, she definitely understood the breed. Despite this, she still wound up with a dog whose unpredictable, furious outbursts “shook her to her core.” (This is in itself a valuable lesson for those who might be skeptical about adopting a shelter dog because of the possibility of behavioral problems; as Will demonstrated, opting for a well-bred puppy is no guarantee you’ll avoid them.)

The book’s other track follows the human end of the leash. While working with Will, McConnell realized that she needed to come to terms with her own fears, and the ways earlier traumas had informed her behavior—that in order to heal her fearful, reactive dog, she had to heal herself as well.

What has always set McConnell apart from others in her field is her ability to point out the fascinating parallels between canine behaviors and our own, including the cognitive and emotional lives of both species. In this book, she dives even deeper into such comparisons. For me, her insights into her troubled Border Collie’s behavior (as well as that of other dogs she’s treated) are the book’s most compelling aspect.

McConnell offers the case of Aladdin as an example of how a dog’s aggression can be set off by triggers. Aladdin’s sunny disposition would change in an instant once she put on sunglasses. As she noted, “To Aladdin, I had morphed instantly from a relaxed, benevolent acquaintance into a … potentially dangerous one. Aladdin was just going to get me first, before I could get him.” This was a relatively straightforward case; once she discovered the trigger, she could devise a treatment plan. Will’s issues, unfortunately, were not that simple.

This book speak eloquently on the benefits of opening your heart to dogs, and reclaiming lives in the process.