I have been asked to write an article on the topic of "Puppy Mill Dogs" because of the recent media coverage by Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately I haven’t seen the show, but hopefully she has educated people on reasons not to purchase a dog from these “dog barons,” as I call them. The show may have closed the gap between shelters, rescue organizations and high-end breeders, which is something I have been trying to achieve. I know this is Opera's style and I will commend her for that, especially when these Puppy Mill Producers are lacking the basic human emotion of empathy or compassion.
Let’s start with what a Puppy Mill Dogs is. Basically, it is a captive-bred creature that does not get any affection or socialization. They usually begin life in a rabbit cage or chicken coop similar to a system used to breed Chinchilla's. These rows and rows or stacks of cages are often times located on some farm where people don't use lights or electrical power and the men usually have extended beards and black hats. These people being one of the producers, the others are farms set up as puppy assembly lines. They go to auctions much like livestock auctions and are bid on and, finally, I have seen or heard where the ones that don't get sold are either killed or disposed of in some dumpster behind the auction facility. I am sure you have heard it all before.
So lets get down to the chase. The marketing scheme is to mostly produce cute, little dogs or powder puffs anywhere from purebreds to Beaglepoo's. (Maybe because they take up less space and are cheaper to feed?) There is no care into the genetics of the dogs produced, from health to temperament. This scheme is geared to pull on heart strings in order to sell these cute, fuzzy puppies rapidly. As we all know when our heart strings are pulled, we forget about our minds sometimes (forgetting what we’re enabling to happen.)
Further, the females are bred with each heat period and this does not stop until the dog is finally not healthy enough to produce puppies. What I need people to understand is a dog’s gestation period is 62 days, and another 6 to 8 weeks before weaning. We are now at 4 months total, 8 to 12 weeks later the female comes into heat again and is bred. She seldom has a chance to recover, food quality is poor, I doubt she is de-wormed or checked for any other parasites. As the cycle repeats itself, then the puppies’ quality drops. Just based on that health issue alone, this could definitely have an adverse effect on the puppies’ behavior at maturity, if not sooner. Anything from shy behavior to paranoid schizophrenia is what I have witnessed.
The breeding process these dogs go through is also a concern and makes me question the mental stability of the puppies produced. It is extremely important for a mother dog to get away from her puppies so she can see which dogs are not mentally or physically sound. A mother entering and exiting a whelping box is such a crucial part of the proper development of these puppies. Removing this ritual from a whelping box can create so many problems that it would make a book to explain them all. Read my Food Aggression & Resource Guarding blog for just one good example.) The breeding process is also the reason why rescued female Mill Dogs are harder to rehabilitate than the males. In some cases a female breeding dog is kept in a cage with two other males. The domination and the competition that goes on in that cage never stops, which removes any self-esteem the female might have. During the rehabilitation process, especially at one of the rescues I’ve worked with (see my links page) , you will see these females become more comfortable in their own fur and their personalities blossom (which is quite an exciting time!).
During my extensive work with the rescued adult Mill Dogs, the trend is the same, they are shy, insecure, “frozen statues,” and jumpy-almost-bucking, with health problems (missing teeth, severe ear mites, malformed feet and legs, etc.) They are difficult to train, however this does not mean that training can't be successful. I have to be completely honest here:
The rehabilitation process will take a lot of time, effort, personnel, and funds, and that can take a toll on a rescue’s ability to save other dogs that aren’t as badly off. But if you do take in an adult Mill Dog and rehabilitate it, you’ll find it to be a very rewarding, incredible learning experience.
Here are some tips on rehabilitating a rescued Puppy Mill breeding dog:
Do not feel sorry for the dog with the notion of “you were caged all your life and deprived, so let me make it all up to you immediately.” The dog cannot handle this concept or all of the attention as this is forced acceptance. Give the dog something to strive for, as THAT is the best gift you can give it!
Keep the dog in a crate for the majority of the time at first, so it’s out only for bathroom breaks or feeding. This is similar to where it came from and this is all the dog knows, regardless of what we think is right or not. Allowing a Mill Dog to run free in your house is almost a form of mental torture, since it cannot handle the stress. Take it to your back yard only and let it investigate on a lead. If it isn't leash trained (most aren’t), just let a long, lightweight line drag (Try a 10’ - or longer - braided nylon tie-out.) The dog will get used to a leash this way. (DO NOT use a retractable leash since this puts constant pressure on the dog’s neck and adds anxiety to the already anxious dog.)
Get a Martingale no-slip collar (with the chain so it relaxes easy, the 100% cloth Martingales “stick” on smaller dogs) as these collars are usually loose around the dog’s neck unless they pull - then they tighten only to that of a regular buckle collar and relax again (DO NOT set these to choke...the two metal end loops should touch keeping the dog from slipping out when it bolts/bucks, and that’s it.
In the beginning, leave a thin, indestructible lead on the dog while it’s crated (the small, thin, green tie-out lines for these smaller dogs work great), that way you don't reach in with your hands forcing it to back off. If you reach in a Mill Dog’s crate, it thinks you are going to grab it and harm it in whichever way the dog barons did. It is important you do not do this or the dog will lose the little bit of trust it started to build.
When the dog is able to come out of the crate without it leaving the back legs in the crate for security (it has to come bouncing out happily and eager), then a short walk down the driveway or sidewalk in front of your house. DO NOT TAKE THE DOG FOR A WALK for the first few weeks, it is not ready for it.
Keep the dog in a restricted, quiet environment. Pick a room with a door that is close to the back door/bathroom exit to start (i.e. a spare bedroom that no one goes into.) Again, this is similar to where it came from. When it feels comfortable in its new closed room and gets the bathroom routine down, then move (or “graduate”) the crate to a room with minimal human activity, i.e. the office. Do not move the dog where people come in and out, like the kitchen, that is not a good place. This whole process is important as the dog needs time to mentally detox from its past and get a grip of its new “indoor” surroundings. When you move the crate, the dog will relapse a bit temporarily, and that’s okay...it will think its way through it and become stronger emotionally because of it. You have to think in the long run, this dog may even enjoy a car ride, so graduating crate locations helps to prepare the dog for this.
Cut back on food and build food drive, then supplement what it is lacking with tasty treats or food for recall. At first the dog may not eat because it is nervous. That is okay. The dog will come to you for food, just be patient...these dogs can easily feel your impatience, so make sure you are truly calm. Take deep breaths if you have to.
Feed the dog out of your hand, open with palm up with the food on your fingertips. Even the slightest movement of your thumb can startle the dog, so stay perfectly still. When the dog gets comfortable with taking the food from your fingertips, try moving your thumb, then try putting your hand close to your thigh, or move the food to the center of your hand making the dog really reach for its food, this builds confidence, trust and self-esteem.
Remember: do not go to the dog, it comes to you. These dogs have been forced to accept so many things their entire lives, let them figure things out on their own (i.e. getting them to come out of their crate, learning to go down steps, walking on tile/hardwood/carpet/grass, etc.) and be patient. The act of your arm reaching for it brings back bad memories. So, if the dog won’t come out of its crate, grab the end of the indestructible line and coax the dog out with treats and calmly praise it for each baby step. Eventually the dog will see your hand as a positive thing (from the food exercise), that is when you will move into actually touching the dog.
Forget obedience classes at this point - this will remind the dog of the dog auction it came from.
Do not ask it to sit, of any sort, or force it to. As I always remind my students, dogs already know how to sit. It’s teaching the word association that gets the dog to sit. Find the BEST treat you can get (roast beef, hot dogs, etc.) and give yourself about a half an hour to teach the dog to sit. A Mill Dog has to feel comfortable with you enough to sit, so pick a spot in the dog’s comfort zone (i.e. crate room.) When the dog does finally sit, say the word “sit” and give it the treat immediately. The dog will stand back up with the excitement of the treat, but don’t stress...these dogs do think, so allow the dog to think about how it got the treat and it will sit quicker and quicker each time. Remember, timing is everything. Focus and patience is the key here.
Don’t give the dog too much affection all at once, this is something it can’t handle just based on its upbringing. Remember, the dog is fearful - too much affection could cause the dog to stay that way just based on the attention given. (Many Mill Dogs stay in foster homes for months because of this reason alone.) Give the dog praise for being confident in whatever small issue. Even when walking around in the back yard, when the dog follows you, whether voluntary or involuntary, in a happy-yet-calm voice say “good girl/boy!” If the dog accepts touch, only touch them on the chest or sides of their shoulders, not the back of the neck or top of the head (again, this brings back bad memories.) Do not pet the dog if it is shaking; wait for it to calm down then acknowledge it. This will reverse the timid issue in time. Sometimes it could take days if not weeks, so be prepared for this in advance.
Do not allow the dog to play/interact with other dogs in your house in the beginning. This is what it is used to. It will readily bond to dogs as opposed to you or people, making the progression more difficult for you and the dog. Many people have noted the “one step forward, five steps back” sequence. Mill Dogs bonding with your other dogs is the primary reason for this...the Mill Dog is letting your dogs do all the mental work for it, and the Mill Dog’s success will plateau. As you may think this is harmless, watch the Mill Dog closely and ask yourself, “will a forever home be happy and satisfied with a dog that they can’t pet?” You owe it to the dog and the potential adopters to do this correctly and get the dog to trust and love humans.
Do not try to introduce this dog to people right away, it needs time. A resurgence of many people and the dog withdraws. This accelerates the fear issue. Use one person at a time and do not introduce a new one until the dog is confident with the initial person.
When going out to environments, pick one. For example, drive to a park that’s not busy, open the car door or back hatch of your vehicle and sit next to the dog while it is in its crate. The more visits to this park, the more comfortable the dog will get, and you can eventually let it out on its leash. When the dog stabilizes and comes to you, then proceed to another one and begin the process again. Be prepared, this could take weeks before the dog can visit all locations without shivering.
Finally, the most important Mill Dog rehabilitation technique is what I call “Breathing.” This is where you sit with the dog on a 12-inch leash in a progression of locations for 15 minutes at a time.
Start with the crate room, then the hall, then the office (while you work on your computer), then the living room (while you’re watching TV), etc. Practice this in the back yard as well as the the previous technique when you take the dog out to different locations.
The key to this technique is that, at first, the dog will pull the leash tight to get away from you, but as they relax, give them a little slack to where their collar is loose again. Again, patience on your part is important, and you will need to check yourself and make sure you are “breathing.”
A watched pot never boils, and a Mill Dog that’s being watched like a hawk will never relax. Take a book or magazine with you to read if it helps you to ignore the dog. Eventually the dog will sit, then lie down, then fall asleep. After all, a dog that can sleep lying next to you is one that is in the process of building trust!
These are just some of the tips I use to rehab a dog like this. It is also important that drastic change and forced socialization causes adverse effects as to what we are trying to achieve. Mill Dogs are slow learners and slow absorbers, so take as much time as the dog needs and don't be in a hurray. The Whelping Box Theory is a perfect template for this. Remember, it is our job to help these dogs overcome their fear issues. If we fail through forced change or just plain thinking "the dog will always be that way," then the dog suffers a life of paranoia, no different than where it came from.
In a society where our dogs are hurting our children - whether we have children in our families or we have children in our neighborhoods - I would think that a healthy, sound dog - physically and mentally - would greatly reduce the risk of child biting, aggression, and attacks. One of us has to think about that and I can bet that the dog barons do not. Your rescue, shelter or high-end breeder does. It is tough enough to raise a sound dog from healthy genes!
In the event that you may not have the funds for a high-end dog, please,
please go and save a dog from a shelter. You will find the reward is far greater on two levels 1) you saved a life (shelter dog) and 2) you saved a life from fear and pain by keeping another mill dog from being produced. These producers work on the basic concept of Supply and Demand. After all, if people would just stop and realize that the puppy in the pet shop window came from a place of pain and neglect, and acquiring one would only cause another one to be produced, I’m certain that would put these backyard producers out of business. There are many cute, fuzzy powder puffs in shelters and rescues (with papers) and, of course, if that is not the route you want to take, then at least make sure your dog comes from someone who loves them and wants to do right by them and the breed. It should have nothing to do with “revenue.” When it’s all said and done, I cannot put a price on a suffering animal or child's life.
I really don't know what the complete answer is in order to shut down these Puppy Mill barons. Not to sound heartless, but going and picking up these breeding dogs is like helping these backyard producers take out their trash. Helping them empty out their pens of non-producing, sickly dogs just makes room for more. This is not going to help stop the chaos! Breeders, shelters, rescues, law makers and politicians, let’s make it stop.
Citizens, call your congressmen, state and federal!</b> Ask them to put a restriction on how many dogs a breeder can produce per year, this is a good place to start. Otherwise balance is only achieved through education, purchaser support and self integrity. A dog is a creature of incredible devotion and care, we must show the same devotion and care when we create them. After all, they did not ask to be brought into this world. Let us breed responsibly and let us visit a rescue and shelter first.
Let me make one last plea to those considering to purchase a puppy from a pet shop: Try fostering a dog from your chosen breed first. There are so many breed-specific rescues out there that need help, and just a couple months of your time can help save a dog, teach you about the breed (the good and the bad), and it can help (even temporarily) take the load off the people that fight the good fight each day. It’s win-win-win. Go to petfinder.com and do a search in your city/state for the breed you’re interested in and email one of those rescues that show up in the search. Trust me, you’ll learn a lot about yourself and you will grow from the experience.
If we are not compassionate with whom we touch - be it dog or human - then those we touch will be just as uncaring.