In her new book, The Education of Will, animal behavior pro Patricia McConnell goes somewhat off script, or at least, off the script that her readers have been enthusiastically following over the course of more than a dozen books and booklets she’s authored/ coauthored over the years. In it, she explores the ways early trauma can affect a dog’s behavior, and most certainly affected her own.
Bark: Do you think you would have recognized your need for therapy if Willie hadn’t been such a troubled dog?
Patricia McConnell: There is no question that my reaction to Willie’s behavior forced me to recognize that, although I had worked hard in therapy years before, I still had a long way to go to resolve the baggage from my past. I am eternally grateful to him for that. Willie’s fears and reactivity brought out many of my own, and at one point, I realized that I either had to find him another home or dig deeper to resolve the fear and shame I had buried for decades. As a form of therapy and self-awareness, one of the things I did to recover was to write about things that had happened to me. It was only after reading the works of others—including After Silence by Nancy Venable Raine, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown —that I began to think about turning my writing into a memoir. I felt that if my story could help one person as much as those books helped me, it would be worth the five years it took me to complete it.
Bk: You write about the “chilling” anger that Willie expressed, but there are some who would dispute that a dog can feel true anger. What makes you certain that’s what Willie was displaying?
PM: Anger is an extremely primitive emotion, and is regulated in the brain and body of all mammals by the same anatomy and physiology found in humans. As I say in For the Love of a Dog, neurobiologist Dr. John Ratey calls anger “the second universal emotion.” Scientists who work with a vast range of mammalian species, from primates to mice, rarely hesitate to describe individual mammals as being angry. In addition, facial expressions of fear and anger are similar in people and dogs. Fearful faces have widened eyes, often with dilated pupils, and the corners of the mouth are retracted. Angry faces have narrowed, “cold” eyes, and the corners of the mouth are pushed inward. That’s the face that Willie displayed on occasion, looking exactly like the human faces of anger studied by psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman.
Of course, we can’t know that dogs experience the emotions of fear and anger as we do. We have a more connections between the pre-frontal cortex and our amygdala and hippocampus, which no doubt allow us to mediate emotion with reason. But in people and dogs, the feeling of being afraid or angry is probably more similar than different, because it has the same inherent function—to protect us from danger.
But, it is indeed possible for a dog to be angry, even though I would argue that centuries of domestication have made that a relatively rare event. What’s important is to not confound what people call “aggression” with anger. Aggression is an action, not an emotion, and most behavior that is labeled as aggressive is indeed based on fear. My dog Willie was both a bundle of fear and one of those uncommon dogs who appeared to be overcome with rage in certain situations. That was part of why it took so long and so much work to turn him around.
Bk: You note that excessive sniffing might indicate future aggressive tendencies. Have any studies been done on this?
PM: I know of no study that has investigated a relationship between vigorous sniffing behavior and intraspecific aggression, but that would be a fantastic topic for a dissertation. I’ve seen correlations between obsessive sniffing and dog-dog aggression cases in my office for more than 15 years, and have also heard other trainers and behaviorists refer to it. Maybe this will inspire someone to do the research.
Bk: You also mention the enteric nervous system, what some have called the “brain in the gut.” Could there have been a connection between Willie’s digestion troubles and his behavioral problems?
PM: Absolutely! This is another issue that begs for more research. Many trainers and behaviorists have seen correlations between behavioral problems related to fear or reactivity and an unsettled gut.
Bk: Do you think we burden dogs with our own expectations?
PM: I do worry about our current expectations of dogs. Not just as individuals who we want to fill so many varied social roles, but also as individuals whose behavior is supposed to be, well, almost perfect. I remember the day when a parent’s response to child being bitten was, “What did you do to that dog? Didn’t I tell you not to bother her when she’s eating?” I’m not saying we should go back to the “good old days,” because they weren’t always so good—not for us or for dogs. And I love so much of the current focus on both science and soul in training, exemplified by what we read in Bark magazine. But I do worry that we are imposing expectations on dogs that are as much a burden as an opportunity.
Bk: As part of our 20th anniversary celebration, we will be asking dog-world luminaries to comment on what they consider to be the biggest advancements/changes they’ve witnessed in dogdom during the past two decades. What’s your take?
PM: First, let me say what a joy and an honor it’s been to contribute to The Bark magazine throughout the years! I think the success of the magazine is the perfect reflection of how our relationship with dogs has become richer and more nuanced than it was in the past. It’s also a symbol of what I think is perhaps the most important difference in dogdom: the acknowledgment that canine behavior and our relationship with dogs are important and legitimate research topics.
When I defended my dissertation in 1988, one of my committee members said, “Well done. I didn’t know anyone could actually do any decent science that involved dogs.” And look at where we are now! Our relationship with dogs is one of the world’s most miraculous and also one of the most interesting, and we can learn from it for decades and decades to come. Thank you, Bark, for helping make dogs, and dog behavior, the focus of both art and science.
Well done indeed!