I am fairly broad minded when it comes to children’s literature. I tend to lean toward the classics, like The Story of Ferdinand, The Giving Tree, and Where the Wild Things Are, but am always on the lookout for notable new fare, like the hilarious ode to collective bargaining that is Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type.

I don’t especially seek out stories featuring dogs, because my daughter, almost four now, gets plenty of  exposure to dogs (and lessons about them) as it is. But I do like a good dog tale, and so does June, so when she spotted something called Perfectly Martha (a sequel to Martha Speaks, Susan Maddaugh’s original book about a talking dog modeled after her own) on the shelves of our local used book store, I naively thought I was in business.

I should have taken the time to read it through before bedtime. Turns out the villain is a supposed dog trainer and one evil son-of-a-bitch.

Long story short, Otis Weaselgraft sets up shop in a town very much like your own, and sets about conning frustrated pet owners into believing their dogs can be “Perfect Pups” via his “THREE-STEP TRAINING PROGRAM”.

News of the new dog trainer and his amazing program traveled from neighbor to neighbor. Soon half the dogs in town were enrolled at the Perfect Pup Institute.

Illustrations of the duped dog owners walking their suspiciously obedient companions are accompanied by blissful proclamations:

A perfect dog in only one day.

And we didn’t have to do anything.

Meanwhile, Martha, our hero, looks on in disbelief, thinking,

What’s wrong with those dogs?

At this point I am thinking, “What’s wrong with this author?” But I’m also imagining she could still pull this out. Perhaps the moral will be that real training takes work, or that even trained dogs aren’t actually perfect, or that one ought to be somewhat leery of any trainer named Weaselgraft.

Meanwhile, the plot thickens. Turns out Otis Weaselgraft’s three-step training program involves something that sounds an awful lot like a remote training collar (called the Robo Rover Brain Blocker). Great, just like mommy sometimes uses. Okay, I’m beginning to get the picture, and it does not bode well.

Step One: They removed the dogs’ collars.

Step Two: They attached a tiny object to the inside of each collar.

Step Three: They put the collars back on.

Now every dog was staring straight ahead. No tails wagged, no fleas were scratched.

Martha gets the inside scoop from Weaselgraft’s pug “Sir Lancelot”, who woefully laments,

They call me Sir Lancelot, but my real name is Burt. I used to run with the big dogs, but look at me now. A demo-dog. No better than a robot.

I’ve had enough at this point, but it’s bedtime, and you have to finish the story. Suffice it to say that Martha manages to cannily expose Weaselgraft for the shyster he is, thereby also relieving area dog owners of the delusion that dogs ought to be obedient.

Things are back to normal in Martha’s neighborhood. Most of the Double PP’s [Proud Parents of Perfect Pups] had to admit that having a perfect pup was really no fun. Something very important was missing. So once again dogs scatter the trash and drink from the toilet. They bark and scratch their fleas and sleep on the furniture.

But they also greet their owners with wagging tails and slobbery kisses.

Well, isn’t that just peachy. And aren’t we all very lucky to have the benefit of author Susan Meddaugh’s wisdom, which appears to be that solving simple canine behavior problems comes at a terrible, terrible price.

In the interest of full disclosure, I may have taken some poetic license with the ending of Perfectly Martha in reading it to my wide-eyed daughter. I may have invented an additional character, a genuine dog trainer, who arrived in the nick of time to enlighten local dog owners as to the power of training to actually ennoble dogs, without suppressing either their personalities or their joie de vivre.

I may have done.

Sometimes seeking the truth requires changing the narrative.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.