Adopting a dog from a puppy mill
This information has been compiled from a number of rescue organizations and humane societies that routinely work with and rescue dogs from large scale breeding facilities. It is our hope that this information will help you in making an informed adoption decision.
What is a puppy mill? By the formal definition, a puppy mill is a large-scale breeding operation that produces large numbers of puppies for profit, with sales over the Internet, to local customers and to pet stores. Dogs are typically confined to small cages or kennels, often grouped in breeding pairs or large groups with little human contact or meaningful socialization. Although the tendency is to want to save them all, please do not act impulsively. Consider everything before you choose to adopt.
Every puppy mill survivor is different. What works on one or many, will completely fail on others; the only thing that is consistent is that they will need lots of patience, understanding, love, and most importantly, unconditional acceptance of who they are and what their limitations may be. We would love to say that every puppy mill survivor just needs love to turn it into a wonderful family pet, but that would be a lie. Love is definitely needed in large amounts, but so is patience. The damage done during the years in the mill usually can be overcome, but it takes time and dedication. It takes a very special adopter for one of these dogs. Not being "up to it" is no crime, but you must be honest with yourself, and us, about your expectations. These dogs have already been through more than their share of heartache and if your entire family is not willing to make the commitment, the dog is better staying in our care until the ideal home for them is found.
At first glance a mill survivor may look like many of your friends' dogs; maybe not a perfect example of the breed, but close. What you will not see is the condition they were in when they came into our care. Many had fur so matted that it all had to be shaved off, and even the short haired breeds suffered from thin, dull coats. Many times removing the filth and matting only revealed open sores, usually from flea allergies or sarcoptic mange. Their ears are often full of filth and mites and some survivors suffer from permanent hearing loss because of untreated ear infections. Most survivors require the removal of rotten teeth, even young dogs. The gums are usually infected and the teeth have excessive buildup on them. Many vets who are not familiar with puppy mill rescued dogs will miscalculate the age of the dog if using only the teeth as their guide. Many survivors also suffer from swollen, splayed and sore feet from so much time walking on wire or living in damp conditions. While finally getting some good nutrition and extensive medical care, all too often there remains the psychological damage that can't be fixed with a bath, medicine, or surgery.
Unfortunately, some of these dogs will be extremely difficult to housetrain. There could be behavioral issues, like excessive fearfulness, shyness, or an especially needy dog. These dogs tend to be frightened of sudden movements, loud noises and sometimes even the touch of a hand. Many of these dogs have never worn a collar, walked on a leash or felt the grass beneath their feet. Everyday activities that most people take for granted can create panic in one of these animals. Many dogs do not know how to act like a dog. They will require much patience and understanding, without guarantee of success.
Many mill survivors have spent their entire life in the mill with only an elevated wire cage or small kennel to call home. Puppies who grow up in a mill miss many crucial socialization periods with humans and they never learn to trust, to love, or to play. They have had very minimum physical contact with people and have virtually no concept of what to expect (or what is expected of them) when they are placed in a family situation. Their life in the mill may have been what we would consider unpleasant, but it is the only life they have ever known. In the mill, many were fed in groups and had to fight over resources and were watered using automatic dispensers. Actual human contact normally came when they were being vaccinated, dewormed, or moved to a new cage to breed or to whelp puppies.
Many of the quirks that mill dogs might have will be discovered while the dog is still in our care, but there are things that may develop after the dog feels a little more comfortable in your home. Most of the dogs we encounter have had their spirit broken many years before and aggression is not normally something we encounter; however, there are memory triggers that the dog may experience after it is settled in your home, so we will talk briefly about these.
The physical contact that they have received may not have been pleasant. Because they are not handled enough, they are scared. Many mills handle their "stock" by the scruff of the neck. It is not uncommon for survivors to be sensitive on the backs of their necks; after all, it brings the unexpected. Many mill dogs will try to always face you, not trusting you enough to give you easy access to them from behind. Never startle a mill survivor from behind, you will lose any trust that you may have gained. Always make sure they are anticipating you picking them up and consistently verbally tell them what you are going to do with the same word, like "up". It is not uncommon for a mill dog to drop their bellies to the floor when they know you are going to pick them up, some will even roll on their backs, often urinating in the process. This is a submissive move on the dog's part, and while it may be frustrating trying to pick up a dog in this position, these dogs will seldom show aggression. It is okay to go ahead and pick up a dog while they are in this position, but if time is not of the essence, encourage the dog to come to you by sitting a few feet away and calling him. The most common posture we see in mill dogs is the "freeze;" the dog will initially try to escape from you, but when they realize there is no escape, they simply freeze, rigid, like a statue, and accept their "fate." This is a good time to really praise the dog, scratch his back or ears and speak gently to him; it goes a long way towards teaching him that human contact can be a good thing.
Another problem that sometimes occurs in puppy mill animals is separation anxiety. Dogs that have been confined without attention for long periods of time can become extremely dependent once they experience a positive relationship. These dogs will not want to be separated from their owner, and can become stressed, depressed or destructive when left alone. Many of them do better in a home with another well-socialized dog.
There will also be an increased potential for ongoing medical expenses. Some of these animals arrived at our facility with skin and eye problems, while others had developed joint problems due to years of inactivity while confined to their small, cramped cages. Other medical problems might not become visible until the dog has been in your home for a period of time.
It is important for potential adopters to realize that they are not adopting the "perfect dog." In fact, after days, weeks or months of hard work, they may still own a dog that is shy, fearful, not housetrained, growls, barks constantly, and is protective of food or toys. Please ask yourself, "Can you and your family accept this possibility?"
It is important that you discover if the challenge of adopting one of these rescued dogs is not for you before you take one home. It is our goal to find the right home for these dogs, and help you and your family find the right pet for your home.
Learning about the House:
Many times when you bring a mill survivor into your home, it is their instinct to hide in a quiet corner. Any new dog that you bring into your home should be kept separated from other family pets for seven days. During this time it is fine to crate or confine them to a quiet area. After that though, they need to have exposure to the household. If crating, the crate should be in a central location. The ideal spot is one where there is frequent walking and activity. This allows the dog to feel safe in the crate, yet observe everyday activity and become accustomed to it; they need to hear the table being set, the dishwasher running, phones ringing, and people talking.
Very few mill dogs know what a leash is. After the quarantine, when the dog is out of the crate and supervised, it is not a bad idea to let them drag a leash around with them. Let them get used to the feel. It is easy to fall into the mindset that they must be pampered and carried everywhere, but leash training is important. It will make your life easier to have a leash-trained dog, but it will also offer your dog confidence in the future.
A mill dog has no reason to trust you. Your trust needs to be earned, little by little. Patience is a very important part of rehabbing a mill survivor. We have seen a lot of mill dogs that don't want to eat whenever people are around. It is important that your mill dog be fed on a schedule, with you nearby. You don't have to stand and watch over them but should be in the same room with them. They need to know that their yummy meal is coming from you. For the majority of mill dogs, accepting a treat right out of your hand is a huge show of trust. Offer treats on a regular basis, especially as a reward. Don't concern yourself too much if your dog does not eat for a few days. If there is no vomiting or diarrhea and your dog is otherwise acting healthy, a few days of nibbling at their food while they learn to live by your schedule is not going to hurt them. It is important to teach them that food is fed on a schedule and you should not be leaving food down at all times.
While you should not force yourself upon your dog, it does need to get used to you. Sit and talk quietly while gently petting or massaging your dog. It is best to do this an area where they, not necessarily you, are the most comfortable. They probably won't like it at first, but give them time to adjust. Some dogs sadly, never will adjust, and we'll talk more about them later.
Never allow children or friends to force attention on a mill survivor, or any dog. Ask them not to look your dog directly in the eyes. It is not uncommon for mill dogs to simply never accept outsiders. Let your dog set the pace. If the dog approaches, ask them to talk quietly and hold out a hand. No quick movements. Ask that any barking be ignored. Remember that these dogs bark to warn and scare off intruders. If you acknowledge the barking you may be reinforcing it with attention. If you bring your guest outside you have just reinforced to your dog that barking will make the intruder go away.
A child spends the first one to two years of their life soiling their diaper and having you remove the dirty diaper and replace it with a clean one. A puppy mill dog spends its entire life soiling its living area. Potty training a child and housebreaking a puppy mill dog are the exact same procedures...you are UN-teaching them something that they have already learned to be acceptable. A regular schedule, constant reinforcement, praise, and commitment on your part are a must! Would you ever scream at your child, march them to the bathroom and make them sit on the toilet AFTER you discovered they soiled their diaper? A dog is no different in this sense; scolding them after the deed is done is of no benefit to anyone.
The two most important things you can do are to get your new dog on a regular feeding schedule (which will put them on a regular potty schedule) and to observe them closely after feeding time.
Getting them on a premium, low residue food is very important. This will produce a stool that normally is firm (very easy to clean up) and only one or two bowel movements a day are normal. Low cost, or over the counter foods have a lot of fillers and it is very hard to get a dog on a regular cycle using these foods.
Before you even begin to housebreak them, you must learn their schedule. Most dogs will need to 'go' shortly after eating. Soon after they are finished eating, tell them "outside" and bring them on leash to the potty zone. Always use the exact same word in the exact same tone. Watch them closely outside and observe their pattern as they prepare to defecate. Some will turn circles, some will scratch at the ground, some may find a corner, some may sniff every inch of the ground, some will get a strange look on their face...every dog is different and you have to learn to recognize how the dog will behave right before he goes; this way you will recognize it when he gets ready to go in the house.
We could give you a million tips that our adopters have found to work best for them, but as we have said, every dog is different. As long as you always keep in mind that housebreaking and potty training are one in the same, you should eventually see results. Never do to a dog what you would not do to a child. It may take a week, it may take a month, it may take a year...and sadly, some dogs will never gain mastery. Never give up and never accept 'accidents' as a way of life. In most cases, the success of housebreaking depends on your commitment.
While we have focused mainly on bowel movements, urinating in the house is just as hard to correct as defecating in the house (if not worse). Below we will discuss "marking," which many people associate only with male dogs. We will go into that in more detail, below, but if urinating in the house remains a problem for your dog, we highly recommend crate training. This can be researched online in more detail, but if crate training is not working because your dog is soiling in the crate, you should discontinue the training immediately--as you are only reinforcing that it is okay to soil their area.
In general, if you can understand your dog's bowel patterns, you will usually find that they urinate before or after a bowel movement. Reinforce the positive and work on the negative, as most dogs will understand "outside" and associate it with both urinating and defecating. Of course, in the meantime, you will want to protect your carpets by either removing any that can be rolled up, or confining the dog to a tiled floor when you aren't holding it on your lap. This should only be done during the training process, as socialization is just as important as house training, and often tiled floors are in areas that we don't spend a lot of time.
Puppy mill survivors all have one thing in common...they were all used for breeding. A dog that marks its territory is 'warning' other dogs that this is its area...stay away! However, in a puppy mill situation, the dog's area is a cage with other dogs in and around their 'territory'. It becomes a constant battle of establishing territory and it is not uncommon to see male and female survivors with marking problems.
Dogs that are marking do not have to potty...taking them outside will not help. You have to teach them that it is not acceptable to do this in the house. While you and your survivor learn about each other, and your survivor develops a sense of respect towards you, you will have to protect your home from the damage caused by marking. Here are a few tips that you will find helpful.
1. White vinegar is your best friend. Keep a spray bottle handy at all times. Use the vinegar anytime you see your dog mark. Do not spray the dog, however! The vinegar will neutralize the smell that your dog just left behind. Using other cleaning products may actually cause your dog to mark over the same area again. Most cleaning products contain ammonia, the very scent found in urine. Your dog will feel the need to mark over normal cleaning products, but normally has no interest in areas neutralized by vinegar.
2 Potty Pads, your next best friend. These can be found in any pet store, but most 'housebreaking pads' are treated with ammonia or pheromones to encourage a puppy or dog to go on the pad instead of the carpet. Since we are trying to discourage your dog from marking, these are not always the best choice. You might check at a home medical supply store. The blue and white pads used to protect beds usually work best. These are not a solution to the problem, but will help protect your home while you deal with the problem.
3. Scotch Guard. Scotch Guard is nothing more than paraffin based protector. It puts a waxy substance down which repels water and spills (and in our case, urine). Shake and spray this onto the fabric areas you want to protect, such as the base of the sofa and the carpet below doorways or areas your dog is apt to mark. It may make the area stiff feeling at first but it will normally 'blend' in with normal household temperatures and humidity. (Note: This is also great for high traffic areas of your home or along the carpet in front of the couch).
With the use of vinegar and/or scotch guard, you should test a small area of the fabric/fiber that you will be using the product on and make sure it does not discolor, stain, or bleed.
Poo-poo, shoo-shoo, ca-ca, doo-doo, #2, feces, poop, stool...whatever 'pet' name you give it, it's still gross! However, nothing is grosser than owning a dog that eats poop! Coprophagia is the technical term, but for the purpose of this article, we're just going to call it the 'affliction'. Dogs of all breeds, ages and sizes have the affliction but in puppy mill rescues, it is not uncommon at all to find dogs afflicted with this horrible habit. As in any bad habit, the cure lies in understanding the unacceptable behavior. There are three primary reasons that a puppy mill survivor is afflicted. We'll start with the most common, and easiest to remedy. 1. It tastes good and they are hungry! Rescues that have come from a mill where dogs were not fed properly often resort to eating their own or other dog's feces as a source of food. These types of situations will usually remedy themselves when the dog realizes that he is always going to get fed. It is also easy to discourage this behavior by adding over-the-counter products to their food which are manufactured for this purpose. Ask your vet which products are available and you will normally see results in 2-4 weeks. 2. Learned behavior. This is usually the cause of puppy mill dogs that have the affliction. There are several reasons why a dog learned to behave like this, but the most common cause is being housed with dominant dogs who fight over food. These dominant dogs will often guard the food dish and prevent the more submissive dogs from eating even if the dominant dog is not hungry. Food aggression in caged dogs is usually fast and furious and often results in severe injury to the submissive dogs Because the dominant dog is often eating much more than is needed, the stool is virtually undigested and contains many of the nutrients and 'flavors' of the original meal; therefore almost as tasty to the submissive dog as if he'd ate the real thing. Puppies that were raised with a dominant mother or dominant litter mates also pick up this habit very early--in this case, it is a little harder to treat, but it can usually be done. This eating pattern is usually maintained throughout the dog's life, so the age of your dog will play a big role in how hard it is to correct the behavior. It's become habit...and as the saying goes, "Old habits are hard to break". Dogs with the affliction will actually go hunting for a fresh stool when you take them outside. The key is to give your dog something better to hunt for. Pop some unbuttered/unsalted microwave popcorn and sprinkle it on the lawn before taking your dog out in the morning. You may find something that he likes better and is as readily available and affordable. The good thing about popcorn is what your dog doesn't eat, the birds will. It may take weeks or months before your dog 'unlearns' to seek out stools but most dogs are receptive to this training. You may have to sprinkle the lawn with popcorn the rest of your dog's life...but the trouble is well worth just one 'popcorn kiss' as opposed to a lick on the face right after he eats a tasty stool. 3. As mentioned above, Coprophagia means 'eating poop'. Coprophagia is a form of a much more serious problem called Pica. Pica is the unnatural 'need' to eat foreign objects. Dogs suffering from Pica will eat not only stools, but rocks, dirt, sticks, etc. Remember the kid in school who ate paste and chalk and 'other unspeakables'? Pica is a psychological disorder which is much more in depth and serious than anything we can discuss in this guide. A good rescuer will observe dogs prior to placement and will recognize the seriousness of this problem. A dog suffering from Pica should never be placed in an inexperienced home or any home that is not aware of the problem and the dangers. Dogs suffering from Pica will often end up having surgery--.often several times--for objects they have eaten that cannot be digested. If you are the owner of a dog which you believe suffers from Pica, we suggest you consult your vet; these dogs often require medication for their disorder and only your vet can guide you on the best way to proceed. Before we close this section on Pica, we want to say that true Pica is rare. Most dogs will chew on sticks or rocks--or sofas and table legs. However a dog suffering from Pica will not just chew on these items...they will eat these items any chance they get. Just because your dog is eating his own stool...and also the bar stool at the kitchen counter...does not mean that he is suffering from Pica. If in doubt, consult your vet.
The "special" ones:
Occasionally, we see the survivor who has survived the mill, but at such a great cost that they can never be "brought around". These dogs have endured so much suffering that they remind us of children who are abused and survive by separating their mind from the body. These damaged dogs will never fully trust anyone. So where does that leave these poor souls? Most are still capable of living out a wonderful life. They need a scheduled environment, but most importantly, a home where they are accepted for who and what they are. They may never jump up on a couch and cuddle with you, or bring you a ball to play catch, but you will see the joy that they take in living each day knowing that they will have clean bedding, fresh food and water, and unconditional love. To them, those small comforts alone are pure bliss.
These "broken ones" are the ones that normally never leave their foster homes. Ironically, these types of dogs normally do very well in a group-dog setting. They seem to have shunned the world, and most certainly mankind, and have created their own little world without humans. Whenever we suspect that a mill rescue may be "too far gone" for a fast paced family, we try to place them in experienced homes; quiet homes; or homes with other dogs. These are by far the hardest ones for our hearts to accept, but they are also a constant reminder of why we do what we do.
Finding forever homes for mill rescues is not all we do; we are constantly reminded of the horrors of puppy mills and the commercialization/farming of dogs when we see the neglect and abuse these dogs have suffered. We work not only to adopt dogs, but to educate their new owners about the truth behind that puppy in the pet store window. We hope that you will keep a journal or blog on the reform of your puppy mill dog, and we hope that you will join us in our campaign to educate the public--through the eyes of the survivors--by always taking the opportunity to further educate others. Together we have made a difference in the life of just one dog, but together we can also make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of dogs still caged in puppy mills. It is only when the public realizes the connection between pet stores and puppy mills that we will end the demand; end the supply; and end the abuse!
Disclaimer: The preceding is the opinion of the authors (Michelle Bender and Kim Townsend of a New Start on Life, www.ansol.org) and is based on years of experience with puppy mill dogs; we are not veterinarians or professional trainers. Please note that an adopted puppy mill dog may be at different stages of rehabilitation so we have tried to start this from the beginning.