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Book Review
Mother Knows Best by Carol Lea Benjamin
Review by: Kate Connick, March 2003

Arguably the best traditional-style dog training book for pet owners, Carol Lea Benjamin's Mother Knows Best is a perennial favorite of many readers. Published in 1985, this 18-year-old book has a certain timeless appeal that has rendered it a classic among dog books.

Benjamin's guiding tenet throughout is that the best model for dog-rearing is the most natural one, the mother dog herself. Kind, playful, loving, yet firmly authoritative, the mother dog sets the standard toward which the dog owner should strive. Benjamin sums it up, "the human race can learn the secrets of natural communication by watching, understanding and copying, either in spirit or in kind, the way a mother canine raises and teaches her young."

Ten chapters and just over 250 pages long, this hardcover book presents a comprehensive, well-organized and well-indexed guide to puppy-rearing, obedience training, and general dog ownership. It is illustrated with helpful black and white photographs, as well as with simple, line-drawn cartoons. I must admit that I really don't care for Benjamin's childlike illustrations. As many of them take up an entire page, they come across as meaningless filler, and their overly cutesy style belies the author's more sophisticated tone.

The book has many virtues. Among them, it is readable and down-to-earth. Benjamin includes user-friendly touches such as clear definitions for each of her training commands. She offers a puppy training curriculum, a sample housetraining schedule, and she consistently capitalizes training commands throughout the text for clarity. Her training chapters are well done and include not only routine obedience commands but useful, practical additions like "enough," "off," "wait," etc.

The book explores Benjamin's philosophy behind training, then walks the reader through housebreaking, puppy training, and basic obedience, toward the author's ultimate goal of off-leash obedience. In a nutshell, her method relies on verbal and physical rewards (praise, petting), as well as verbal and physical corrections ("no," leash jerks, collar grabs). Crate training is a cornerstone of her method, as is work on long-lines, drop-lines, and tabs. Much is made of maintaining alpha status, with obedience work being fundamental to achieving that end.

Does it work? Sure. The average, biddable dog and/or dog that is not readily motivated or rewarded by food or toys would benefit most from this traditional approach. Perhaps more importantly, Benjamin's philosophy seems to resonate with many readers. The notion "be like Mother, for Mother can't go wrong," is probably as dear to our hearts as the very idea of having dogs in our lives.

And yet this book won't appeal to all readers. I found the mother metaphor overdone, for example. The metaphor works beautifully to convey to the reader the justness of being a firm, fair, loving authority figure. I'll give the author that, for sure. Yet it misses the mark. Benjamin herself admits that mother dogs are most concerned about issues that relate to immediate safety. Human beings, on the other hand, require dogs to learn complex behavioral patterns (e.g., heeling in lockstep with automatic sits) which have no comparable "natural" parallel. I find it unconvincing that one must use mother dog methods to teach things that no mother dog would ever teach. The analogy just doesn't work well when it comes to the specifics of obedience training.

One area where the mother dog approach falters relates to the use of food in training. Often (but not always, of course), puppies and dogs respond well to the use of food in training. Benjamin is flatly disdainful of this, insisting that a mother dog would never offer tidbits. She goes as far as to insist that food interferes with genuine learning.

"Eating is eating and education is education. Mother knows best. The primitive organism we call dog can neither think nor concentrate in the presence of food... While he seems to learn and will perform his tasks for food rewards, he is working in a robotlike fashion and not getting educated... (A food reward) interferes with the natural process of learning rather than aiding or augmenting it."

Examine more closely the meaning of food to a dog. No, mother dogs don't offer tidbits. But dogs are, by nature, predators and scavengers. Their entire existence (in natural terms) revolves around acquiring food, securing safety, and reproducing. Given that food acquisition is central to survival, dogs are preprogrammed to learn extraordinarily well any behavior that results in being fed. They aren't like herbivores who basically bend over, chew, and swallow whatever they happen to be standing on. Dogs are specialists in learning complicated and varied behavioral patterns which result in a full belly. It isn't as romantic as the mother metaphor, but it, too, is a very natural way to view dogs and behavior. I find it intellectually and factually dishonest for Benjamin to assert that rewarding behavior with food is somehow unnatural and interferes with learning. It just isn't true.

While many dogs will learn to work for praise and to avoid correction, Benjamin's approach is heavily weighted toward extremely biddable, submissive, naturally compliant dogs. Other dogs, ones that are thought of as independent, high prey-drive, or otherwise hard to train, often benefit from an approach that includes the use of toys and/or food in order to motivate and reward behavior. Like it or not, plenty of dogs respond poorly to a "do it my way or get corrected" approach.

Ironically, Benjamin does concede the power of food rewards to facilitate training, albeit reluctantly. She allows for the use of tidbits when teaching tricks or games but never for training serious obedience. This shame over food use is an unfortunate characteristic of traditional training methods. While food is not the panacea to all training issues, it does have a place in training and can certainly facilitate learning and cooperation.

In fairness, Benjamin does stress the importance of being fair and tailoring both praise and correction to the particular dog. Yet the book is correction-heavy. Crates are used, among other things, for punishment. After-the-fact punishment is advocated for housesoiling, destructiveness, and other indiscretions that leave behind physical evidence. Even damage that a dog does as a result of anxiety is fair game for punishment.

In terms of advocating this book as a reference for a novice pet owner, I have some reservations with Benjamin's attitude in two important areas, both relating to off-leash training. One, while she does admit the risks of off-leash work, she holds it up as a romantic ideal and boasts of walking her own dog down New York City sidewalks in a leashless state. That kind of grandstanding comes across as irresponsible and senseless. Of even greater concern is her blithe disregard for local laws. Although she mentions that there is a leash law where she lives, she flippantly disregards it as she and her friends allow their dogs to run untethered. They learn to be alert for the approach of animal control officers, and they pay their fines when caught, but tee-hee, that doesn't stop them from doing what they please. Laws are for other people, I suppose.

This isn't a bad book by any means. Benjamin writes well, and she does a good job of expressing the need for leadership and discipline in a dog's life. Her training exercises are well presented, although not above critique (e.g., she recommends praising a dog after releasing it from an exercise, consistently calling dogs out of stays, leash-correcting lagging - minor handling issues which can result in breaking stays and sluggish heeling). Her observations about owner ambivalence toward behavior problems are on-target. And she offers more honesty than most authors in these few lines about aggresssion: "Once a grown dog is biting, many honest efforts at rehabilitation will end in failure. In addition, many efforts to save a biter will get you bitten." Often she just offers good common sense advice, such as dealing with stool-eating by promptly discarding stools before the puppy eats them. I particularly appreciate Benjamin's observation that spoiling isn't a bad thing if a dog is otherwise trained, respectful, and well-behaved.

If, for whatever reason, a reader opts for a traditional method, this is, perhaps the book to read. If a reader simply wants to broaden their perspective regarding training, this one is worth reading. If one wants a book to guide them through the raising and training of their dog, this may or may not be the best choice.

Mother Knows Best, by Carol Lea Benjamin.
Published by Howell Book House, 1985. ISBN: 0876056664

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