Hi. I’m Patricia McConnell, a PhD, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and dog trainer who makes no apologies for being crazy in love with my dogs. I once wrote, about my soul mate dog, Luke: “I imagine Luke’s death to be as if someone took all the oxygen out of the air and expected me to live without it.” The powerful emotions that I share with so many others are matched by my intellectual curiosity about dog behavior, and the behavior of those of us who love them. Animal behavior and human behavior have always been my passion. Even when I was tiny I wanted to know what Fudge, our family’s delicately-nosed terrier cross, was thinking as she curled up tight against my belly on the carpet. And why did that woman across the street always yell at her dog when he finally came home? It didn’t seem to be helping, but she couldn’t seem to stop…
During my high school years I lived for the weekends, when I could go to the stable down the road and ride through the mesquite trees along the Arizona Grand Canal, watching the world through the two, pricked bookends of my horse’s ears. I say “my horses” although I never owned one, I just worked my way up to taking tourists out on trail rides, and grooming and feeding many of the stable’s horses. I loved it then, and I love horses still, although I rarely get to work with them now.
After high school I started college, but dropped out because of illness and an early marriage. I eventually recovered from them both, and spent a decade doing jobs just because they were jobs. I was a cashier at a bookstore, an administrative assistant at a non-profit organization fighting for treatment for alcohol and other drug abuse, a production assistant at a television station, a counselor for troubled adolescents, and a go-go dancer. Well, okay, that was just for one night, but who could resist adding it to one’s resume?
At the age of thirty I enrolled as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin to study what I’d always cared most about: animal behavior. I ended up getting a Ph.D. from UW-Madison, not so much because I wanted the degree, but because I wanted to find the answer to a question I’d uncovered as an undergraduate: “Do different kinds of sounds, for example rapidly, repeated notes like “Pup- pup-pup” or long, slow extended ones like “Whoaaaaaa,” have inherent effects on the animal who hears them?” In other words, can some types of sounds, without training, speed animals up and others slow them down? (The answer is yes… check out my first few blogs.)
After I got my degree I was determined to apply what I learned about behavior to animals that we live with. Although between undergrad and graduate school I had spent a wonderful two years working with psychologist Chuck Snowdon’s Cotton Top Tamarins, (google them, they are unbearably attractive and interesting), I wanted to work with animals that are an intrinsic part of daily life, so I decided to use what I had learned about behavior to help solve behavioral problems in companion animals.
In 1988, not long after I sent in the final version of my dissertation, I took a deep breath, and with Nancy Raffetto, a colleague who had also just gotten her PhD with an emphasis on behavior, began working as applied animal behaviorists. Dogs Best Friend Ltd. began in 1988 as a service to people who needed help with behavior problems in dogs (I later expanded to working with cats, with apologies to them for the name of the business.) We set up shop in the tiny little town of Black Earth, Wisconsin because it was close to our homes and the rent was $100 a month. My first client was Peaches, a Shar Pei with separation anxiety so serious that she turned her pudgy, wrinkled face into hamburger the first time she was left alone.
That was over twenty five years ago. (Oh my.) Since then, my work has expanded into a variety of directions. Because it became clear that many of the problems we were seeing were caused by punishment-based type of training classes, we began offering our own classes emphasizing positive reinforcement, eventually ending up with classes in five different locations and over 25 trainers and volunteers. For over 22 years I had a busy practice as an animal behavior consultant, and saw clients primarily for “aggression” and fear-based problems like separation anxiety and thunder phobia. During that time I also trained several excellent behavior consultants, including Chelse Wieland and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Karen London, who is now in Flagstaff, Arizona. Seeing clients led to writing and publishing problem-solving booklets, as well as a busy speech and seminar schedule. In addition, for over 14 years I co-hosted a call-in radio show, Calling All Pets, produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and broadcast to over 110 cities around the country.
A few years ago I felt like I was juggling too many things, so I sold the training class and consultation business to DBF’s training director, Aimee Moore, and she and the trainers are doing a wonderful job of carrying on the tradition of helping people and dogs with effective and humane methods that are based on the best of current practices.
Now, with the invaluable assistance of Denise Swedlund (Office Mgr), Katie Martz (Marketing & Communication Coordinator) and Lisa Lemberger (Business Mgr), I focus on writing and speaking, with the goal of continuing to spread the word about effective and humane training methods. I don’t see many clients anymore, but I do see some on occasion, partly because I love it and partly because it seems important to keep my hand in. I think it’s altogether too easy to give advice about dog training when it’s theoretical, but an entirely different matter when you’re living through it yourself.
I continue to write and speak around the country, and to teach “The Biology and Philosophy of Human/Animal Relationships” at The University of Wisconsin-Madison once a year. I now live with two dogs, a cat and a flock of sheep on a little farm in southern Wisconsin. Luke is gone now (and yes, it was unbearable; you understand, I know), although I sense him there still when the sun dips below the high hill and the sheep raise their heads to me, looking for their evening grain. Luke lives on in his nephew, Willie, a working Border Collie who I will write about often. Luke’s daughter Lassie, a butter cream of a dog who still holds my heart in her paws, died in January of 2010. We added a new dog to the farm in fall of 2011: Tootsie, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who lived the first seven years of her life in a cage in a puppy mill. Here are pictures below of the animals, past and present, and of my small farm in the hills outside of Madison, Wisconsin. The other member of the pack is Jim, my human soul mate, the kind with only two legs. We have been together many years now, and I simply cannot imagine life without him. Willlie worships him, and Sushi the cat loves cuddling next to him in winter. Me too.
If you’d like to learn more about me and my dogs, past and present, you’ll learn most at this point by reading my two books published by Ballantine, The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, and For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and Your Best Friend. I write that with hesitation, there is plenty of advertising for those books elsewhere. But because they combine personal stories with discussions about the biology and psychology of people and dogs, they are simply the best way I know to tell you who I am. My hope is to continue those type of writings in this blog: to inform and enrich our relationship with dogs by combining the experience of life with relevant information from science and progressive dog training. I hope you’ll join in the discussion.
Me and Will at the top of the hill pasture. Will, as always, looks great. I look like a fat chipmunk. This is why actresses won’t let photographers take pictures of them from underneath.
My dear old Lassie, quiet here, but she was playful and active until a week
before she died of liver cancer at age sixteen .
Sushi.. two pictures, cuz I can’t figure out how to separate them…..sigh. Oh well, she deserves two pictures for being herded around the house on occasion by Willie.
Here are some lambs from spring of 2010. Apparently the one in the front is attempting to disguise himself as a border collie . . .
This is Tootsie, on one of her first walks in the out of doors. We call her “Mop of the Woods” for obvious reasons. She is learning to love the walks outside, has learned her house training lessons incredibly well and has decided that life on a couch is GOOD!