Working with Puppy Mill Dogs

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Photo: Kat snuggles with Shumai, her pup rescued from a Warren County puppy mill.

By Kat Martin

Thinking of adopting a pooch rescued form a puppy mill? Congratulations! These dogs certainly deserve a second chance at life and will repay your kindness with years of loyal affection and love! Adopting a rescued puppy mill dog is one of the most compassionate things you can do as a pet guardian. That said, it’s also important to understand that your new pup may have very different needs from a regular dog.

Dogs that have lived their entire lives in a puppy mill often need a little more love and patience from their new guardians than other dogs. Since they know little about the world other than the inside of their (often filthy) cages, many challenges can arise when they are introduced to their big, new worlds. While this is the case with even some younger pups in these situations, older dogs that come out of mills can be especially overwhelmed by so many changes. 

From birth to around 16 weeks old, dogs have what is known as a critical or sensitive period. In a perfect situation, a new puppy is safely and happily exposed to lots of new experiences and stimuli as well as socialized with lots of other animals and people. However, puppy mill dogs do not receive socialization and in most cases are quite neglected, which can have a big impact on their development. The longer a dog lives its life in a negative environment, the more challenging it becomes to rehabilitate them. However, dogs—like people—have various personalities, and some puppy mill survivors will come around much more quickly than others. It is both nature and nurture (or predisposition and experience) that will determine the rate at which your new puppy or dog will begin to acclimate to his new life.

Having assisted Animal Rescue Corps with a recent Warren County puppy mill seizure, I was able to experience firsthand the amazing and beautiful resilience these dogs have. While there were some pups that took a little longer to come around to enjoying the touch of human hands, most of the dogs took no more than a few days to start actively seeking out some snuggles. And I was again reminded of the almost unfathomable depth of a dog’s ability to forgive and to overcome.

Specific behavioral challenges do exist, however, with canines who come out of these horrible conditions. These can include fear of being handled, house training problems, other fear and anxiety issues (which can sometimes present as aggression or reactivity with other dogs or people), and simply learning what it means to just be a pet. These dogs have never seen grass or a toy or a bed. They have never been able to run or even walk on the ground. Everything is new and this can be both exciting and frightening for them.

Following are some tips for helping your rescued pup feel confident and safe in her wonderful newfound life.

Teaching Human Touch

Puppy mill operators rarely handle their dogs except to perhaps move them from one cage to another for breeding. Even then, they are often handled roughly and rarely held as most of us would hold a dog. Therefore, being touched at all can be an alien concept for many of these pups. You want to be gentle in your handling of your new furry friend. Also, always let her know when you are about to touch her. It is best not to startle her or try to pick her up from behind, especially while you are still earning her trust. As she gets more comfortable with you, gently start picking her up and holding her. You may want to give her a verbal cue like ‘Pickup’ to inform her that you are about to touch or pick her up. Also, giving her some small, tasty treats while you are holding her can give her an even better association with being held in your arms. 

Shumai, the puppy I adopted from this recent seizure, has a tendency to drop to his belly and roll over on his back when I lean over to pick him up. He will also sometimes exhibit some submissive urination. This is not at all uncommon with puppy mill dogs and is a sign that the dog is doing his absolute best to be polite and appeasing to you. Showing the belly in such a manner is a very vulnerable position for a dog to assume and you must be considerate of this fact. I have found that the best thing to do with dogs in this position is to just ignore them for a moment and let them go ahead and get back into a standing or upright position before trying to interact with them. This way, they learn that you aren’t going to do anything scary to them and that you will give them more attention when they are showing some confident behavior. As such, you are hopefully increasing the amount of confidence the pup will begin to feel and show you in the future.

If your dog is nervous around strangers, don’t force her to approach them or allow them to approach her until she begins to feel more relaxed. Always let her come to them on her own and when she is ready. Tell your guests to completely ignore her initially. They should also avoid eye contact. As she begins to get more comfortable, have your visitors toss or, if she is ready, hand treats to her so that her association with them begins to improve while also being able to be around them in a safe way. It’s also a good idea to take your new canine companion with you to new places whenever you can. Any added socialilzation you can give her will benefit her greatly.

Introducing a Leash

Remember that your puppy mill dog has never worn a leash or collar and will likely resist it at first. Go ahead and get your new friend a collar and first let her get acclimated to wearing if for a few days.  Once she seems to have accepted the collar, begin to also let her drag a very light leash (attached to the collar) around the house. Only do this when you are there to supervise in the event that she gets hung up on something. Occasionally pick up the leash and hold it without pulling or putting pressure on her collar while also giving her treats. Do this as often as possible. Then, try walking around in the house and start putting brief moments of gentle pressure on the leash and collar. Continue to increase the level of interaction while she is on leash until she is able to accept it and seems comfortable with it.

Potty Train Like a Pro

House training a puppy mill dog can be a daunting task, particularly with older survivors. The reason that commonly used crate training works and is effective is because dogs generally like to spend time in a “den” type atmosphere. In addition, they naturally do not like to soil where they sleep and eat. Unfortunately, puppy mill dogs have no other option but to defecate, urinate, eat and sleep all in their tiny cages. So one of the dogs is introduced to a new home, he has little clue as to what is appropriate or not, and he may even be fearful of the crate. Thus, it may not be possible to use a crate in the traditional manner.

Some dogs (especially younger ones) may be crate trainable as long as you are patient and are able to put in a little time and effort. For those that cannot be crate trained, simply keeping them contained in a smaller area like a laundry room or a bathroom with a baby gate can be helpful when you cannot watch your new pal. I suggest setting tyour pup up with some water (except at night), a safe toy or chew, a bed or crate with bedding in it (with the door open) and a potty pad. When offered an alternative, most dogs will generally choose to sleep in the crate and potty on the pee pad. You can eventually transition off of the pee pads.

Because these dogs don’t yet know the rules, it is necessary to treat even the 10-year-old dogs as though they are eight weeks old again. The keys to house training are always supervision and consistency. It only takes a few seconds for a pup to make a mistake if you aren’t watching them, so set them up for success from the outset. Keeping them contained in some way is imperative if you cannot watch them. Too much freedom too soon is the biggest mistake most people make when house training any dog. I keep Shumai either in the room with me so that I can consistently check in to see what he is doing, or I have him attached to me via a leash and a carabiner clip so that he cannot run around the couch or the corner and have an accident. The rest of the time he is in his crate.

If you are diligent, you will see the signs that your pup needs to go to the bathroom: circling, sniffing, scratching the floor, running quickly and erratically and then circling, etc. If you see these signs, quickly (but gently!) pick up your pup and take him outside to his designated potty spot. I like to keep Shumai on a leash when I do this even in the fenced yard so that he cannot get distracted and forget why he is out there. I give him his verbal cue to potty (“Go Potty”), then once he goes I throw a big ol’ praise party and give him a treat in the moment. Then I will let him off leash to run around some. Keep in mind that most dogs will need to potty after waking, after a busy play session and after eating.

I suggest keeping a record for a week or so of what times your dog is fed, and when they urinate and defecate. This gives you a great snapshot of your pup’s habits and internal schedule so that you can plan potty breaks accordingly. It is also important to feed your new friend on a consistent schedule and feed a good quality food (preferably without fillers such as corn). This will help to keep their bowel movements firm and more regular and end up making the house training process easier.

Male dogs that come from mill situations will sometimes have a problem with marking. A belly band (a diaper for a male dog) is a good tool to help with this while you are helping him learn to not mark. A good long daily walk for a dog that has marking issues is a great way to not only exercise him but to get a lot of the marking out of his system so that he is less likely to do it in your home. If your new arrival does make mistakes in the home, use a cleaner with natural cleaning enzymes (such as Nature’s Miracle) to get up the mess. This will help to remove the smell and make him less likely to revisit the same spots. Ultimately, the success of your pup’s house training is dependent on your commitment to the program!

Practice Love and Patience

Remember that with all of these behaviors and situations, you want to go at the pace that is comfortable for you new pup. Expecting more than he is ready to give or pushing him to offer a behavior that still makes him uncomfortable can cause big setbacks. These are living creatures with quirks and feelings and they must be given the space and time to learn at their own pace. Granting them this patience and time will result in faster progress in the long run.

Bringing home a rescued puppy mill dog can present its challenges, but it is also incredibly rewarding to watch your new family member experience so many novel things on an almost daily basis. The bottom line is that adopting a puppy mill survivor, while not always easy, is well worth the effort as the rewards far outweigh any challenges!

Kat Martin served as a Shelter Manager for the Warren County puppy mill rescue and is the owner of Dogs & Kat Training and Behavioral Counseling and See Spot Eat: A Doggie Bakery

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