I first met my dog Daisy at the animal shelter where I had volunteered for eight years. Daisy had already beaten the odds in her short lifetime. First, she had escaped a puppy mill as a breeding dog at the age of four years old (most breeding dogs “burn out” at age five and are killed by the puppy miller). Second, when the rescue organization considered having her euthanized, because she was so emotionally damaged by her experience, her foster mom fought for her life and begged our shelter manager to take her in. And finally, she touched my soul so deeply that I couldn’t stand the thought of this terribly frightened and damaged dog being deemed “too far gone” to be saved and euthanized at our shelter. I offered to foster her almost immediately, and she beat the odds yet again.
Looking back now, it’s almost hard for me to remember all that it took to help Daisy find her inner Lab. She has come so far since that first day I brought her home with me and my dog Aspen. In fact, it will be four years this month.
Adopting a puppy mill dog is not like adopting any other dog you typically find at a shelter or rescue. They are damaged, unsocialized to humans, and take a lot of time to rehabilitate. They are not the type of dog that everyone should adopt, but for those who are willing to have patience, perseverance, dedication, training, a gentle hand and voice, and time, a puppy mill dog can be a very rewarding experience.
What can you expect if you adopt a puppy mill dog?
1. They are afraid of everything – you, kids, doorways, cars, leashes, wood floors, stairs, sudden movements or loud noises, cats and sometimes other dogs.
Daisy cowered in my sight and often skulked around as if she expected me to hit her or hurt her in some way. I was always careful to move slowly and to talk in low, soothing tones.
2. The last thing you want to do with a mill dog is force them to accept your attention.
What they need most is SPACE. They need to time to get used to the new sounds and smells of you home and the daily routine. They may also need to be housed in a separate room that is quiet and away from all the hubbub of the rest of the household.
In the early days and weeks, Daisy stayed in a kennel in my spare bedroom. I avoided talking to her and instead went about my routine as if she wasn’t there so that she could get used to my routine and my movements. On occasion, I would sit with her in her room, a distance from her kennel, and just let her get used to my presence. Sometimes I would toss her good treats so she could learn to expect good things when I was around.
3. Having another dog in the home that is calm and friendly is helpful. Puppy mill dogs have always lived with other dogs. To them, having another dog around can be a big comfort. It also helps you to have another dog because your dog can show them the ropes. Where to go potty. How to get a treat. Where the safe spots are to relax in your home.
Daisy followed Aspen everywhere. She would watch what Aspen did and mimic her. If Aspen went outside, so did Daisy. If Aspen went through a doorway, Daisy would follow (most of the time). I also used Aspen to teach Daisy how to make eye contact. I would say “watch me!” to Aspen and reward her with a treat when she did. Then I would turn to Daisy and do the same thing. If Daisy so much as made a glance in my direction she got a treat. Over time, she worked up to actual eye contact.
4. Patience is everything.
One of the hardest things to do is wait for a puppy mill dog to approach you. You can help this process along with really tasty treats, but expect that they will be cautious around you for months to come.
Because Daisy was afraid of everything, I never knew what might trigger her to run and hide. Often, just coming in from outside was difficult for her. There were times when Aspen would come in and Daisy would get spooked just as she was about to follow her. This usually meant that both Aspen and I would have to go outside again and start the routine of going through the doorway again. Sometimes it took 3-4 times of doing this for Daisy to feel comfortable enough to follow. Patience is something I learned really quickly when it came to Daisy.
5. Expect progress to be made in slow steps and expect that there will be steps backwards as well.
I have always said that with Daisy it was two steps forward and three steps back. For several days, she might successfully enter the kitchen doorway on the first try and I would think she had finally shown that she was past that hurdle, but then something would happen, a slight movement or sound, and she would back away from the door and circle my car in fear. That meant we would have to learn how to come inside all over again.
6. Consider feeding your mill dog in their crate.
When I first adopted Daisy, I would try to feed her in the kitchen, but she wouldn’t come and eat if I was there. Next, I tried the living room. Daisy would eat there, but there were strict behavior requirements for me if this was to happen – 1) She had to be able to eat while facing me, so she could see where I was at all times, and 2) I had to be facing away from her because me facing her was like giving her direct eye contact and she was terribly uncomfortable with that. It wasn’t until I met a woman who had success at rehabbing puppy mills that I finally learned that Daisy was most comfortable eating in her kennel. That’s where she eats to this day.
7. Anyone who tells you that you need to show your puppy mill dog that you are “alpha” and that you are in charge should be ignored.
In fact, my advice is to walk away VERY, VERY QUICKLY. Puppy mill dogs have been used and abused. Their only experience with humans has often been scary and painful. They do not trust you FOR A REASON. Teaching them you are alpha is like saying “I recognize your pain and fear and I’m going to one-up it.”
Daisy was sensitive to loud voices, but she also extremely sensitive to the tone of my voice. If she sensed that I was angry or frustrated, she would immediately cower or hide. Even my loud laughs could frighten her. If I had used force, she would have shut down and may have been damaged beyond repair. Remember, I said patience?
Daisy has made so much progress since that first night in my home. Now we have morning cuddle sessions accompanied by belly rubs (her favorite). She gets all silly and hops around with excitement when I give her her dinner. She seeks out attention so much now that I wonder how I can shut it off (not really). She even lifts her paw to me to let me know that I shouldn’t stop scratching behind her ears. And just this summer, she learned how to swim, at seven years of age!
Adopting and caring for a puppy mill dog can be one of the hardest things to do, but if you are the right person, you will never experience anything sweeter. Daisy has taught me that.
For more on whether you are the right person for a fearful, puppy mill dog, Kevin Myer’s post “A Fearful Dog Speaks” is worth a read.
This blog post is part of Pet ‘Net 2011!
Bloggers far and wide are blogging all about about pet adoption today. Here are just a few of the topics bloggers are writing about as part of Pet ‘Net 2011:
- Things you need to know about before bringing a dog home
- Introducing puppies/kittens to senior pets
- How to do a shelter makeover
- Breed-specific rescues
- How photos make a difference in pet adoption
- How to Choose the Most Appropriate Rescue Pet for You
- Pet Adoption Alternatives
- Considering senior dog adoption
Go on over to Petside to find links to other great pet adoption blog posts!
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