A Calling

From her farmland in Black Earth to lecture halls around the world, Patricia McConnell has devoted her life to the complex bond between animals and humans

“Willie, walk up.”

Patricia McConnell’s voice cuts through the cold air as she calls out to her border collie. While she climbs a steep hill on her farm, the dog strides past, a blur of black and white fur. Seconds later, he and fourteen sheep appear at the top, their heads peering over the edge. McConnell uses a few simple commands, some low-toned and others lilting, and a couple quick blows of a whistle to guide Willie in maneuvering the flock. Then the group abruptly stops a mere yard from McConnell’s feet, looking at her inquisitively.

“That’ll do, Willie,” she says and instructs her dog to lie down. He settles into the earth, a mix of joy and satisfaction on his face.

“He likes this, huh?” I ask.

“Oh, he loves it,” she answers. “He lives for it. That’s what he’s bred to do.”

As McConnell smiles at her animals, paying no mind to the howling wind, it’s obvious she’s happy here on her farm. She’s living with a purpose, too.

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A renowned animal expert, McConnell has impressive credentials: She’s a certified applied animal behaviorist, an associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the author of fourteen books and a lecturer on canine behavior. She co-founded and ran a dog training company for twenty years and co-hosted the popular “Calling All Pets” show that aired nationally on Wisconsin Public Radio for fourteen.

Since 1982, the small farm in Black Earth has been her home. It’s where she raises sheep and cohabits with her pets—Willie and cat Sushi are her current companions—and two-legged companion Jim.

Given her accomplishments and the ease she exhibits on the farm, one might assume McConnell has always led an animal-oriented life. Yet her childhood in Arizona barely hinted at the path she’d eventually pursue.

“I was a total suburb girl,” she says with a laugh. “My dad was a banker.”

McConnell dreamed of living on a farm and rejected plastic-faced dolls in place of furry stuffed animals, fifty-one of them at one count. “I was the girl who drew horses on her algebra book,” she says. “I loved algebra but I loved horses more.”

When adults asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” her prompt response was that she would marry a rancher. In the 1950s, this seemed the only way to ensure a life surrounded by animals.

McConnell did get married, but instead of settling down on a farm she moved around the country twelve times in eight years with her husband. When the two separated, McConnell decided to return to the place where she’d been the happiest: Madison, Wisconsin.

So in 1977, a twenty-nine-year-old McConnell showed up on Langdon Street, a suitcase in one hand and a cat carrier in the other, unsure of what she would do next. Scraping by in a tiny apartment, she ignored logic—and the opinion of nearly everyone she asked—and decided to study ethology, or animal behavior, at UW–Madison.

After earning a bachelor of science degree, McConnell promised herself she’d hold out for a job that involved working with animals. Months ticked away with no leads, until she finally landed a position studying cotton-top tamarins with UW psychology professor Charles Snowdon. She spent two years helping him translate the vocal sounds the small South American primates use to communicate. Intellectual stimulation and contact with animals felt right to McConnell, and the work reminded her of a topic that had intrigued her as an undergrad: communication between animals and humans. While pursuing a Ph.D. in zoology, she investigated whether certain types of sounds have inherent effects on the animals that hear them.

“I interviewed over 110 professional animal handlers, usually while they signaled their working horses or dogs, and recorded the sounds they made to speed up or slow down their animals,” she says. “I also did lab research and taught puppies to come or stay to short, rapidly repeated notes or long, continuous ones. The results all suggested that short, repeated notes increase motor activity and long continuous ones slow or soothe. The practical applications to dog owners especially is that it’s not what you say but how you say it that gets the right response.”

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In 1988, McConnell earned her Ph.D. and put her expertise on animal behavior and communication into practice, co-founding Dog’s Best Friend with her now-retired colleague Nancy Rafetto. They began by treating dogs with behavior problems but grew into offering dog training classes.

From the start, McConnell’s methods were unconventional. For one, she rejected using force- and dominance-based theories. “When I started Dog’s Best Friend, I was the only person in town who used positive reinforcement,” she says. “I wanted to take what I’d learned about ethology and find a different way to change behavior.”

It took some time for the public to understand what she and Rafetto were doing as animal behaviorists. (They fielded plenty of calls from people wondering if they offered grooming services.)

“Nancy and I had to do a lot of educating in the early years, to explain to people that animal behaviorists were not ‘doggy shrinks,’ but experts who combined a lot of knowledge and experience to help solve serious behavioral problems, based on the science of psychology and ethology, rather than training myths passed down from one generation to another,” she says.

What further set McConnell’s business apart was her willingness to examine the human side of the pet-owner relationship—and her insistence that understanding both is crucial. “In this country, there’s this Lassie syndrome, the idea that you should have a dog that does everything you want—he can read your mind and you don’t have to train him,” she says.

Of course this isn’t the case, and pet owners may be interested to learn there’s a pretty simple reason why they and their dogs often don’t understand each other: They’re different species. Humans are primates and dogs are canids, a family of animals that includes wolves and foxes. And this statement is more profound than one might think. The species differ in a variety of ways, from how they comfort their young to what they perceive as threatening behavior. An act as seemingly innocuous as hugging can be problematic—we humans think we’re showing love; our dogs feel more than a little uncomfortable.

Once pet owners realize fundamental differences exist, they can begin understanding that what a human considers a clear message is sometimes completely confusing to a dog—and we often have no idea it’s happening. “One of the surprises early on was how little awareness we have of our own behavior,” McConnell says.

“Dogs are brilliant at perceiving minute changes in our bodies and assume each tiny motion has meaning,” she writes in her popular book, The Other End of the Leash. “The examples are endless. Standing straight with your shoulders squared rather than slumped can make the difference in whether your dog sits or not. Shifting your weight forward or backward, almost imperceptibly to a human, is a neon sign to a dog. Changes in the way that your body leans are so important that an incline of half an inch backward or forward can lure a frightened stray dog toward you or chase her away. Whether you breathe deeply or hold your breath can prevent a dogfight or cause one.” (So relax when your pet meets a new dog.)

And if we humans aren’t aware of our behavior, we may be even worse with the verbal cues we send to our dogs. As McConnell illustrates in her book: “Does ‘Lie down, lie down, LIE DOWN’ mean the same thing as ‘Lie down’? Does ‘Come’ mean the same as ‘Come here’?”

Then there are our human tendencies to repeat our words and raise our voices when we’re anxious or excited—none of which get our point across to our pets. What works for humans doesn’t always work for dogs. And expecting them to adapt to our behavior and, likewise, assuming they’ll do all the work in the training process leads to failure. “It’s so much easier to understand a dog’s head and your own head, and then use positive reinforcement,” McConnell says.

Perhaps her own dog is the best testament to this method. As Willie lies near McConnell’s feet in the living room of her white two-story farmhouse, it’s hard to imagine he was ever considered a problem dog. But he exhibited symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder when McConnell first met him. In fact, she named him Willie from the question “will he or won’t he survive?”

I ask McConnell what types of positive reinforcement she offers Willie, today an obedient four-year-old who’s clearly crazy about his owner.

“Willie loves a belly rub,” she says, moving onto the wood floor to demonstrate. She also shows him love by giving him good food, playing with him, letting him play with other dogs and making sure he gets exercise—all things that let him be a dog.

As we talk, our conversation is interrupted by a mail carrier coming up the drive to deliver a package. McConnell steps outside to greet him, Willie at her side. “He’s a nice, friendly dog,” she warns as Willie trots up to the visitor, and I can’t help smiling at what is probably the most fortuitous version of the dog-and-mailman cliché.

Back inside, McConnell opens the package, letting Willie sniff the cardboard box and the tissue paper and cotton socks inside. Why not let him be involved and make a little game out of it, she asks. “It’s so easy to forget how much of their life revolves around smell.”

Few people stimulate their dogs as much as they should, she continues. “Most people know their dogs need physical exercise—but you can tire them out by giving them mental exercise,” she says. “When they learn something new, they’re really working hard.”

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McConnell has continued working hard, too, and her career has evolved and branched out from its beginnings working one-on-one with pets. Today, she considers her work to be in three realms.

First is academia. Since 1991 McConnell has taught “The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships,” a popular course at UW, devoting the last third of each semester to examining current issues involving animals with her 150 students. With the same goal of creating discourse, she’s part of a committee organizing public forums on animal testing at the university.

The second is the canine-behavior world, in which McConnell worked directly with animals for more than twenty years. She doesn’t see many cases these days, devoting her time instead to sharing her knowledge with other trainers, veterinarians and behaviorists. She lectures around the world, including New Zealand last fall and Scotland later this year. “That’s the way I think I can best help now,” she says.

McConnell also shares her message through her books, such as The Other End of the Leash from 2002 and For the Love of a Dog of 2005, plus smaller manuals that come out of McConnell Publishing in Black Earth. Additionally, she pens a behavior column for Bark magazine and recently contributed a chapter for a National Institutes of Health publication on children and dogs. She’s in the process of writing another book, partly a memoir and also about Willie’s challenges as a puppy, and she maintains a blog, The Other End of the Leash, a fascinating and personal examination of the day-to-day relationship between people and dogs.

And the third part, McConnell says, is living that relationship. “Personally, I think it’s one thing to give people advice and another thing to take it,” she says. “It’s important for credibility but it’s also just me,” she says. Talking to someone on the phone about a dog with a barking problem while her own pet yaps in the background, for instance, is realistic—and humbling, McConnell says.

Such personal admissions are surely a key to her success. In person, over the radio, on her blog and in her books, McConnell isn’t afraid to point out where she fails; rather, she turns them into some of her most memorable teaching moments. That the animal expert’s dog doesn’t immediately stop chasing a squirrel when she calls his name makes the rest of us feel like we have a chance with our own pets.

“It’s so funny that we’d even expect it to be true,” she says of the idea of perfection. “The question is how do you deal with it.”

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Spend any amount of time with McConnell and you’re struck with how her work isn’t just about getting a dog to behave. It’s about how understanding animals enhances our relationship with them.

Settled in a rocking chair in her living room, McConnell brings up the concept of umwelt, the idea that every living being exists in its own unique perceptual universe. “Every animal’s reality is different,” she says. “Bees see flowers with stripes, dogs see things through smell.”

The more we learn about the way an animal thinks, communicates, behaves and makes sense of the world, the better we understand them and the richer our relationship with them can become. And the fact that humans and dogs can’t communicate solely through language is a good thing, this expert on animal communication maintains. Words have baggage; talking can complicate matters. “I truly believe that having a nonverbal relationship is what makes it more primal and special.”

But when people don’t understand the bond between dogs and humans, they trivialize it—and McConnell hates this. “We need to stop apologizing for how much we love our dogs,” she says. “People have been loving their dogs for centuries.” They’ve also worked with them, lived with them, and sacrificed time, comfort, money and even their lives for them. She writes in For the Love of a Dog: “What in heaven’s name is going on here? Risking your life for a member of another species? Loving your dog as much as you love a human? That’s flat-out amazing if you think about it. And yet, even if some people think it’s crazy, those of us who love dogs love them like family, or perhaps more accurately, like the family we always wanted.”

But it’s not just the dog that benefits from such devotion. As she sits in her warm home, a haven she’s created for herself and her pets, in this life she’s built upon the notion that humans and dogs share something special, McConnell makes the case that it’s the humans that come out as the winners.

“I think having a rich relationship with another species makes you more of a person.”

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

Read a live chat the magazine held with Patricia McConnell on February 16, 2011 here.

For more pets stories, visit madisonmagazine.com/pets.

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