I felt sick to my stomach. How could I even think about not keeping Willie? The dog who moaned when he pressed his head against my neck; whose happy face could only be described as radiant. When Willie was good, he was very, very good, and by now I loved him as much as I’d ever loved any dog. But at his worst, he seemed miserable, living his life on the edge of terror, quick to fall into a rage so extreme he seemed crazy.
I didn’t have any of the barriers to effective treatments that my clients had. I knew how to condition dogs to assuage their fear of loud noises; I taught people to do it on a regular basis. Willie’s health-related problems were exhausting and expensive but not insurmountable. I had access to the best veterinary care in the country. I’d literally written the book on how to handle a dog who was aggressive to other dogs. I had a raft of dog-loving friends who were happy to introduce their dogs to Willie, or to teach him that unfamiliar men were harbingers of toys and treats instead of fear and danger. I’d seen hundreds of dogs who had caused serious injuries to people or other animals. One client had stitched up a long gash in her own forearm herself, afraid that if she got medical care, her dog would be taken away from her. Willie had never hurt anyone. But there was something else—something that I hadn’t al- lowed myself to talk about. I was just as jumpy as Willie. While his reactivity set me off, I knew that my own startle response did the same to him. We were living in a vicious circle, each making the other worse. In my heart, I knew that in spite of my professional expertise, my own problems meant I wasn’t the ideal owner for Willie.
Heartsick, I leashed Willie, and we went out the door to the car. I put him in a sit/stay behind the car while I hauled the heavy ramp from the backseat and placed it so that he could climb in without jumping and reinjuring his shoulder. It was hard for Willie to sit and stay while I lugged the ramp around. When I turned to Willie to release him, he sat big-eyed and trembling, almost overwhelmed by the energy it took to make himself obey and control his almost-out-of-control impulses. His face was desperate with the need to leap forward—to move move move, oh-please-I-have-to-move—countered by his desire to be a very good dog, the very best dog anyone could ever have.
That was when it hit me: I knew Willie like I knew myself. I knew what it was like to fight the demons inside and still want so badly to be good. To be so fearful that the slightest noise blows you off the ground as if a bomb has gone off under your feet. I knew what it was like to be happy and friendly on the outside and yet spend much of your life in fear.
I looked at his imploring face, and my heart opened up so wide and fast that my knees went weak. As I released Willie from his stay and he climbed into the car, I knew that I could never send him away. I sat beside him while he licked the tears off my cheeks, and I whispered, “I will, I will, I will, Willie, I will move heaven and earth to try to help us both.”
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"The Education of Will delves deep into the minds of people and dogs, and into the effects of trauma, showing that healing is possible. McConnell gives a voice to those who can’t speak in words and provides hope for fearful animals everywhere."
—Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation.