Rehabilitating a Puppy Mill Dog
Rehabilitation of a Puppy Mill Dog
Disclaimer: The following is the opinion of the authors and is based on our years of experience with dogs and the knowledge we have gained. Also, please note that an adopted puppy mill rescued dog may be at different “stages” of rehab so we have tried to start this from the beginning stand point.
Every mill survivor is different. What works on one or many, will completely fail on another. The only thing that is consistent is that they will need lots of patience, understanding and love. And probably most importantly, acceptance. Unconditional acceptance of what they are capable of giving, and taking.
At first glance a mill survivor may look like many of your friends’ dogs. Maybe not a perfect example of the breed, but close. 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 very infected and the teeth have excessive buildup on them. The condition of their teeth can make it difficult to assess their age. Many survivors also suffer from swollen, splayed and sore feet from so much time walking on wire. So while finally getting some good nutrition and extensive medical care can go a long way on the outside, the real damage has been done to the inside.
I’d love to say that every puppy mill survivor only 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 need to be honest with yourself, and us, about your expectations. These dogs have been through more than they ever should have already. If the entire family is not willing to make the commitment, the dog is better off staying in our care until the perfect home for them is found.
Handling: Many mill survivors have spent their entire life in the mill. No romping around a living room playing with friends of the family for them. Only a cold wire cage or kennel, and one person “tending” to them. Puppies who grow up in a mill miss out on many crucial socialization periods with humans. They don’t learn to trust, to love, to play. They have had very minimum physical contact with people. No cuddling and kissing for them.
The physical contact that they have received probably has not been pleasant. For one thing, because they are not handled enough, they are scared. Many mills handle their “stock” by the scruff of the neck. They have work to do, and don’t really want to stand around holding some stinky little dog any longer than necessary. So it is not uncommon for these survivors to be sensitive to the backs of their necks. 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 that 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 onto their backs in submission.
Always be gentle and try to avoid picking them up until you see that they are receptive to it. The bottom line is that these dogs have to progress at their own pace. Anything you force them to do will not be pleasant to them.
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 supervised with other family pets. 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 used 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. During this time 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 also will offer your dog confidence in the future.
Gaining Trust: A mill dog has no reason to trust you. Your trust needs to be earned, little by little. Patience is a very important part. I have seen a lot of mill dogs not want to eat whenever people are around. It is important that your mill dog be fed on a schedule, with you near by. You don’t have to stand watch over them but should be in the same room with them. They need to know that their 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.
While you shouldn’t overly 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 will get used to it. Some dogs sadly, never do though, and I’ll talk more about them later.
Never allow friends to force attention on a mill survivor. 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 avoiding quick movements. Ask that any barking be ignored. Remember that 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.
Housebreaking: A child spends the first 12-18 months 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 UNteaching 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 pattern (which will put them on a regular potty pattern) and observe them closely after feeding time.
Getting them on a premium, low residue food is very important. This will produce a stool which 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’ right after eating. As soon as they are finished eating, command “Outside”. 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 I said, every dog is different. As long as you always keep in mind that housebreaking and potty training are one in the same. 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 learn. Never give up and never accept ‘accidents’ as a way of life. In most cases, the success of housebreaking depends on your commitment.
Marking: Puppy mill survivors all have one thing in common…they were all used for breeding. A dog which 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 normally a 2X4 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.
Normally, marking is seen in dogs with a dominant nature. This is good in the sense that these dogs can normally withstand verbal correction better than submissive dogs. The word ‘NO’ will become your favorite word as you try to deal with the problem of dogs that mark. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice and let the dog know that you are not happy. Always use the exact same word and don’t follow ‘NO’ with “now what has mommy told you about that, you are a bad dog.”
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. The only way to do this is to constantly show your disappointment and stimulate their need to ‘dominate’ by taking them outside and even to areas where you know other dogs have been…like the park, or the nearest fire hydrant.
While you and your survivor learn about each other and your survivor develops a sense of respect for 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. 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 to encourage a puppy to go on the pad instead of the carpet. You might check at a home medical supply store. The blue and white pads used to protect beds usually work best. Staple, tape or pin these pads to any area that your dog is prone to mark (walls, furniture, etc.). Do not replace the pads when your dog soils them…simply spray them down with vinegar. 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 really nothing more than a paraffin based protector. It puts a waxy substance down which repels water and spills (and in our case, urine). You can make your own product by filling a spray bottle about 1/2 full of hot water. Shave off slivers of paraffin wax into the bottle (about 1/4 a bar should be fine) and then microwave until you don’t see the slivers anymore. 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 homemade 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. I have never had any problems, but it is always best to check beforehand.
4. Belly Bands. Sometimes these can be a (male) mill dog owners best friend. Belly bands can be easily made at home out of things you probably already have. Depending on the size of your dog you can use the elastic end of your husbands tube socks, the sleeve of sweatshirt, etc. Simply fit the material to your dog and then place a female sanitary napkin under the penis. Another easy way is to measure your dog, cut the fabric and sew on Velcro to hold it in place. There are also many sites on the internet to order these if making them yourself is just not up your alley. Just remember to take the belly band off every time you bring your dog out to potty. Again, this is not a solution, but a protective measure.
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 are the dogs that have endured so much suffering that they remind me of children who are abused who survive by separating their mind from the body. They 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 excepted 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.