"The Education of Will" by Patricia B. McConnell; Atria (270 pages, $16)
In "The Education of Will" (newly out in paperback), dog behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell writes a dual memoir of her dog Willie and herself. Willie is a border collie pup she adopted at the age of eight weeks who was, in many ways, her soul mate: loving and snuggly and trusting with her and with all humans. ("Look! There's another one! I've found ANOTHER ONE!" she imagines him thinking as he spots a random person and is filled with "puppy rapture.")
But around other dogs, he was terrified, aggressive and downright frightening, even as a tiny two-month-old pup. In a scene early in the book she is shocked to watch Willie challenge a dog six times his size over a piece of dropped broccoli. She deals with dogs for a living; she knew how to break up that fight calmly. "But knowing how to handle it was one thing," she writes. "Knowing that the puppy I'd already fallen in love with had serious aggression issues was another."
As McConnell works to understand her puppy and train him to cope with his fears, she realizes that a huge obstacle is her own secret fears. Molested as a teenager, raped as a young woman, traumatized by witnessing a horrific accidental death, she harbors all kinds of terrors and PTSD that she has never dealt with, never even acknowledged.
Willie's fears - irrational, perhaps; mysteriously deep-seated at such a young age - trigger memories in herself of feeling terrified and unsafe.
McConnell's memoir is a fast read, weaving back and forth between her work with Willie, her memories of childhood, and her own work with therapists. It's an honest examination of trauma, and a reminder that sometimes the creatures that save us are the ones who need saving themselves.
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