The Education of Will:
A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog

by Patricia McConnell

Atria Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-501-15015-9.
Reviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 04/23/2017

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Animal Companions

If you have an aggressive dog, you may have heard of Patricia McConnell. For decades, she has written and taught about animal behavior. She is known as a scientist writing about dog training and as a consultant on behavior problems. Her new memoir, The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog, reveals a more private story about her world and one special dog. She shares her wisdom gained from self-discovery and recovery from personal traumas that have haunted her since childhood. Even if you aren't a dog lover, you may find opportunity to grow as you read and listen with your heart. This is a great book about herding dogs—and hurt.

"Take one dog and call me in the morning.", Patricia McConnell writes, knowing the soothing effect that many feel in the company of dogs. Unfortunately, to heal some of the deepest wounds of self, the work is a little more difficult. I found myself "leaning into the sharp points" of this tale, right along with the author.

One of McConnell's main reasons for telling this story is that through talking about what happened, she faced deeply-rooted fears and learned to cope better. Through listening to other women's stories, she eventually developed self-compassion. "After I realized that part of my resistance was the need to hang on to a familiar narrative, I could feel a shift inside, subtle but discernible, like the soft change in light just before the sky begins to glow at dawn," she writes.

In dog training, the term "trigger stacking" refers to the effect of multiple factors building up and setting off a reaction. Facing the "demons within" was the first step in her recovery. For much too long, she says, "I willed myself to forget."

She pays homage to nature's gift to heal wounded human souls in the portrait that she paints of her beloved Wisconsin farm. She embraces the duality and acknowledges that farm life isn't always easy, but nature is a great teacher about life, death, transformations.

Yet as brutal as living with the land can be, I wouldn't trade my connection to it for anything. Sometimes I think I owe my life to it. It might seem strange to talk about the healing force of nature, and how it has helped me specifically, by telling the sad story of the effects of a drought. But it is not just beautiful flowers and awe-inspiring vistas that do a body good.

Patricia McConnell's artful intertwining of her story with Will's story allowed for plenty of juxtaposition of darkness and light, fear and love. She learns resilience from her dog. "Dogs have a silent voice that is easy to hear, but most people don't know how to listen."

Whatever happens to you during and after a trauma doesn't disappear as if it never happened. It just gets easier to deal with, if you know how to face it. Stuff comes up—it will always come up—and you have to look it in the eye and back it down, like a dog standing nose to nose with a ram. But you can do that if you've done the work beforehand, if you have a good support system, and most importantly, if you have the faith that what you need is inside you. You just have to take the risk to find it.
Patricia McConnell offers a memoir as medicine, with the potential to help many women work through their own issues. As her contemporary, I related to the family dynamics she described of the 1950's and 60's and her relationship with her father. I found myself sharing wise quotes with friends young and old, who, also late in life, are unraveling a life of hidden traumatic events.

"Lesson learned: I will never finish dealing with trauma," McConnell writes. "But when I take the risks necessary to face it, I get better and better at it."

Read an excerpt from this book.

Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., CAAB, has worked for decades as an educator in the in the Department of Zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is well known in the profession of Applied Animal Behavior as trainer and consultant. As an author, her books have reached numerous owners who have dogs with behavioral problems and aggression. She lives on her farm in Wisconsin with her husband, dogs and sheep. Visit target=_blank>her website. has received a copy of this book for review from the author, publisher, or publicist. We have received no other compensation.

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