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A Miniature Puppet Master

By Bob McMillan

Bentley may be small in stature but his impact on the McMillan household has been enormous © Bob McMillan

I’d heard about dogs like Bentley—manipulative, ready to take over the house and quite likely the entire block, a mastermind who bends all other dogs to his will. Bentley was my first chance to observe a Svengali of the dog world in his native habitat, which in this case was in my lap in my own home, looking up at me with huge, sincere, moist brown eyes. The little guy really had me, until a better lap came along and I watched him work his mojo on another sap.

It took me a while to understand Bentley. He came to us with two others rescued by my daughter, who moved in after a job layoff. We already had two Scottish deerhounds and a wolfhound, so we were now a house of six dogs and two testy cats. The floor squirmed with fur. In the chaos, Bentley kept to the fringes and quietly studied the situation. He’s a dapper little guy with a Chihuahua face on a sleek hound body, easy to lose in the shuffle of giant hounds and smaller dogs winding around their legs like eels. A clear-eyed trainer would have spotted Bentley as the dog who was pulling the strings right away, but I was hanging onto the notion that dogs are cute, scruffy Disney characters, and Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Doc and Sleepy were falling fast under the sway of Fagin, the puppet master.

One of the rescues, Memphis, who was a resource hoarder, had a kennel in the corner where he felt more secure with the other dogs. The kennel was packed with rare treasures—old socks, odd shoes, dish towels and, from the way Memphis growled at anyone who merely glanced at his stuff, maybe a piece of the True Cross and the Holy Grail. I saw it one day out of the corner of my eye and at the time it barely registered. That’s how subtle Bentley was. While Memphis was in his den gleefully counting doubloons, Bentley crept right in, inspected his food bowl and crept back out with a sock. Fur did not fly. There were no yowls or bloodletting. Bentley just went in, looked Memphis in the eye and took his sock. I saw it happen a couple more times before my daughter rescued us from her rescues.

A week later, my daughter brought Bentley back because he was a bad influence on her other two dogs. Secretly, I was pleased because Bentley had become a great lap companion at night when we watched TV. He molded himself to my lap, wallowed and sighed with enthusiasm and fit a lot more comfortably than Finn, my 140 lb. wolfhound. In fact, I noticed that my wolfhound wouldn’t fit at all on the couch with Bentley because Bentley had idly stretched out his foot across the last cushion.

At this point we were down to three dogs, so Bentley had less camouflage. I noticed that it was Bentley who called the dogs to their daily songfest. That used to be Finn’s role, but 25 lb. Bentley was strutting up to the wolfhound, giving him a yip and Finn yowled on cue. Sully, our beagle mix, chimed in and belted it out. The walls rocked until Bentley cut them off and sashayed back to his cushion perch.

Bentley was always the first to go into the back yard and the first to be let back in. The other two deferred to him. Bentley was controlling access to various rooms by where he chose to lay. The wolfhound, who was 10 times his size, would not step over him. Sully fidgeted and whined, stuck in the back room until I rousted Bentley. And he was starting to block me, too, sitting squarely in my path, looking up intently, apparently trying to reach into my mind and flip switches. He was trying to herd me. There isn’t a lot of room in my house for herding. I stepped over the little guy and went on. But it was becoming clearer that a household coup was taking shape. A bloodless one.

Bentley appeared to be sweet little guy, agreeable and eager to please. He never showed his fangs. He rarely raised his voice. But he seemed to be speaking to the other dogs with glances and subtle audacity. He discretely took what he wanted. No one challenged little Bentley.

That’s one view of Bentley. Of course, it’s shamelessly anthropomorphic. You can pretend dogs are just kids in shag suits but you can’t count on it if you want to actually understand them. True, dogs have brain structures remarkably similar to our own. Scans show the emotional centers of their brains light up in roughly the same way ours do. Dogs feel and they think. They have scored at least as high as human toddlers on intelligence tests. But dogs are not Homo sapiens. One difference: the sector of their brain devoted to the sense of smell is vastly larger than our own. They can track a scent into last week. Eyesight is our first sense. Dogs experience their world in ways that are different and possibly alien to us. Who can reliably say what dogs are feeling, much less ascribe motives?

There is another view of dogs that is popular with those who do not like to credit dogs with having higher emotions. It is that dogs attached themselves to human populations at least 30,000 years ago, have honed their act and the ones who made evolution’s cut are keenly adroit at reading the signs and manipulating our emotions. They are the ‘perfect parasite.’ They study our body language and parse our vocal tones. They are consummate actors, knowing when to cringe, when to smile and wiggle and when to look adoringly into our eyes to punch our emotional buttons. They play us and they play us well. What are they really feeling? They’re not saying. They are dogs. History’s greatest con artists. I see ways in which Bentley certainly fits their theory.

There are at least 50 million dogs in the United States alone. The wolf, the noble savage who hung tough and went his own wild way, numbers fewer than 150,000 worldwide. Dogs cost us $7 billion in vet bills and $5 billion in food annually and they have done pretty well for themselves on the evolutionary scoreboard. They didn’t do it alone. We are the ones with the opposable thumbs. We drive them to the doggy spa, take them to the beach, open their cans of gourmet food, pick out those adorable dog hoodies, trim their nails and sometimes even paint them. If an alien studying our society asked to meet with our leaders, it might not mean us.

The dominant dog theory asserts that dogs thrive on being in charge. Bentley certainly thrives on being in charge. That theory’s been roundly refuted, even by the wolf expert who inadvertently helped make it part of our popular culture in 1970. L. David Mech has since asked his publisher to stop printing The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species because a generation of dog trainers applied its flawed findings to dogs with disastrous results. Mech has since found that even wolf packs don’t have ‘alphas’ or ‘dominant’ members who fight their way to the top and stay there with brute force. They are family units with a mother and father. Dogs are not wolves. They have evolved separately with humans with completely different group dynamics.

Unfortunately, many dog trainers and dog owners never got the memo. They continue to watch dogs for signs of mutiny. The human must be the ‘alpha dog’ and keep Fido in his place. Even if it means shock collars and rough treatment. Here’s another dog statistic: American insurance companies pay out $250 million in claims annually for the 800,000 people bitten badly enough to need medical care. Fearful dogs bite and force makes fearful dogs.

Whatever Bentley is, whoever he really is at night when he kicks his shoes off and lets down his hair, he has made me rethink dogs. He’s forced me to push deeper into my understanding of dogs. Bentley is not the dog I would have chosen. I prefer giant hounds, but every rescue who has come into my home has broadened my view of and my compassion for dogs. I recommend the experience for every dog lover. But what model should I use in trying to understand little Bentley?  He’s not a cartoon character or Rin-Tin-Tin. He will never rescue me from a well or call 911 if I am trapped in the mine shaft. He’s a dog, not a Hollywood character.

I do not completely buy the evolutionary parasite theory. In my experience, dogs are remarkably flexible. Made by nature to run, sniff, forage and run in the wild, they increasingly live in urban environments, apartments or homes with tiny yards. To their keen senses, it must be utter chaos and stressful. Yet mostly, they thrive, because like no other animal, they’re attuned to their humans so keenly that we swear they sometimes read our minds.

The most helpful framework I’ve found for viewing my dogs is backed by a 2013 study by Vetmeduni’s Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria. It found that the most effective, powerful bond between a dog and its owner is like that between a parent and its child. Whenever my head is swimming from theories on the nature of the dog, I fall back on this. It cuts to the quick.

Bentley is a master at managing his resources. If he were human, we would admire his life skills. He is not part of a global dog cabal bent on domination. He is simply highly intelligent and knows how to get what he needs. He is also completely at my mercy for everything from food to access to the yard or rides in the car. He depends on the kindness of humans. In fact, he ended up in rescue three times because he suffered separation anxiety. He ate a bathroom once while the owner was away. Bentley clearly knows who is in control. Are his displays of affection really what they seem? Does he really think I am the best thing ever, or only until someone else comes along with a can opener and good motor skills? Sure, I think he means it. At least, as much as we do when we laugh and slap our knees at the boss’s bad jokes. Dogs are social animals, just like us. Civility greases the wheels.

Respect and trust come with time, which is where Bentley and I are now. He listens to me intently. I listen to him, too. Luckily, he is gifted at expressing himself to dull-witted humans. He pokes me when he wants my attention. He runs to the door and sits when he wants out. His eyes drift lazily and longingly to the other dogs’ food bowls when he wants more food—theirs. We’re doing mat work, helping him with positive training to relax and turn the reins over to me more. We go for rides and walks. I try to meet all his needs, including letting him lay across me at night on the couch while we watch TV. I do still insist on hanging onto the remote.

This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, June 2014, pp.40-43.

About the Author
Bob McMillan is a newspaper editor and columnist who lives in the foothills of Middle Tennessee with his Irish wolfhound, several rescues and a remarkably tolerant cat.

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