The story a puppy mill victim carries with them continues to affect that dog during his daily life. Even once a kind hand, warm bed and nutritious food have been provided, the abuse he previously endured can be seen in the actions he takes to continue protecting himself for survival. A great amount of patience, empathy, understanding and knowledge are required to successfully rehabilitate the puppy mill survivor.
The first time his paw has felt grass, a gentle pat on his chest or a collar around his neck can be just as traumatizing to a puppy mill victim as the abuse itself. It may seem obviously positive to humans, as we find such things a wonderful step in the right direction of teaching these little furry victims to be dogs, trust humans, and enjoy life. Think of the entire fiasco from the dog’s perspective without adding in your own beliefs of human ideas such as freedom and love. All you know is your cage, the cold or extreme heat, the rare occasion that a human brings you food or water, and always pregnant or breeding. This is the world of a puppy mill dog, and once he has been rescued his world has been flipped upside down. He needs help to navigate his new life, as well as learn to cope with the limited emotional and social development he was allowed previously.
At the time of the rescue, most of these dogs are suffering in some form of physical problems. They could be in pain from infected paw pads due to walking on rusted wire flooring, have open wounds from other animal attacks or even mange, fleas or ticks. They are uncomfortable, in one way or another. Some may be in such agony that the touch from a human, even when meant to be a comforting pat on the head, is painful. Keep this in mind when your foster dog or newly adopted puppy mill dog flinches from your hand, according to Michelle Bender and Kim Townsend. He could be scared due to a lack of socialization, or so used to touch causing pain that he automatically reacts from a conditioned consequence that had previously occurred from a touch.
After living life in a small cage, the openness of the outdoors or even a small bedroom can be easily overwhelming to a dog who never knew such things. Compare it to being abducted by an otherworldly being and placed in a totally new, and vast environment while aliens are standing over you attempting to pat your head. This is virtually the same thing for your puppy mill victim! Almost all puppy mill dogs feel safest in the confines of a crate, so it may help to start out with a good sized crate with the door open at all times, providing him the choice to come out and explore on his own terms. Moving at his pace is one of the most important steps in building trust!
Place the crate in a quiet room, or a quiet corner of a somewhat busy room. If he likes other dogs, and if you have other canines in your household, they should be allowed access to visit him in his crate. It is a dog’s nature to read the body language of others, and if he sees dogs that are comfortable in this seemingly strange environment then he may, in time, also become relaxed. Whenever you walk past his crate, feel free to toss a small bite of cheese or real meat his way while quietly saying his name, then promptly walking away. This will help to condition him to view your presence as a rewarding thing!
Trust is probably the biggest learning curve for a puppy mill dog in rehabilitation, but building his confidence to face normal, everyday challenges goes hand in hand with trust! He must first trust that you will not harm him, and that you are a positive thing in his life. Next, he must be able to use that trust to face things that may scare him, such as walking on a leash on a sidewalk with traffic passing by. It may be ordinary for us, but he is used to not moving outside of his cage! He will use that trust that you would not put him in harm’s way to conquer leash walking skills as well as passing by loud, large, and frightening people, objects, and even flooring types.
According to Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project, confidence building can occur in the simplest basic obedience sessions. As he learns to sit, lay down and stay put his confidence in you and himself will grow in each session. Even trick training will help him grow and thrive, and you will soon see his true personality begin to pop out of that protective shell he has been living in. Make everything you do together a positive and gentle event, so that he learns quicker and will look forward to every session as well as everything else you two may do together!