Meet a Shelter Behaviorist

CJ Bentley is an animal behavior expert and Senior Director of Operations for the Michigan Humane Society (MHS). She routinely appears in local media and has helped launch, develop and manage many innovative pet behavior and training programs, including Pawsitive Start, within MHS. She is the former executive director and current member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). 

What was your first pet?

When I was about 9, I got a guinea pig named Snuggles. I remember falling in love with a basset hound at the pet store, but my parents were adamant - no dogs! I stared at the dog and cried and cried ... and took Snuggles home. I treated him like a dog. He had a terrific life.

Do you have any current pets?

A 6-year-old red Doberman I adopted from our Westland shelter just about 5 months ago.

When did you know you wanted to be a behaviorist?

I'm not sure I knew there was such a thing as a behaviorist but when I was about 10-years-old, my friend across the street (who had a dog) and I discovered a free book by Rudd Weatherwax, the trainer of Lassie.

It talked about dog breeds and training. All you had to do was mail 5 wrappers from a certain hotdog brand and they'd send you the book.

I looked at that book so much the pages fell out. I was convinced I wanted a Wheaten Terrier and learned all about how to train dogs to be like Lassie. I even slept with the book under my pillow.

Tell us about your educational background and how it prepared you for this profession.

I majored in English and Public Relations at Central Michigan University and worked in advertising for many years. I also volunteered at the Michigan Humane Society walking dogs. It was there that I met my first "grown up" dog, Tugg. Tugg was aggressive to other dogs and my future was set in motion.

I joined the APDT and learned volumes about how dogs think and learn. Eventually I became their Executive Director before joining the staff at the Michigan Humane Society. First I helped run their behavior and training department. Now, I'm the Sr. Director of Operations.

Why is it important to help shelter pets?

Shelter pets have been given up. It's important to remember that not everyone gives up on their pet because they just feel like it. Some people are devastated and are simply left with no choice. All of our animals have been separated from their families. They need time to heal, and to learn to love people again.

Animals are amazing. They have so much love to give. Some take a bit longer and need a bit more patience to understand that they can have a great home again. Others put their hearts right out there - ready to love anyone who will have them.

What's the most rewarding part of the job?

The letters and photos we get from adopters telling about or showing us the new homes they've given our shelter animals.

Describe your favorite experience - a time when you felt like your job was making a difference.

The other day I was lecturing at a prison for a program designed to help the men become better fathers. My session is on how treating animals with respect translates into good life lessons for your kids. Some of [the inmates] have fought dogs or know people who do.