Rehabilitating Puppy Farm Dogs


If you’re not familiar with what constitutes a puppy mill, or puppy farm, check out my post, 5 Reasons Why Puppy Mills Must Be Stopped. It’s not easy reading – you’ll learn a lot about what is a totally reprehensible, incredibly cruel practice, and the so-called “humans” who operate puppy farms.

If you’re reading this because you’ve made the decision to adopt a shelter dog that was rescued from a puppy farm, then I just need to say that I admire you. What you’re about to do (or perhaps have already done) will not be easy. Puppy farm dogs are, quite simply, survivors of abuse, and rehabilitating puppy farm dogs requires a lot of love and patience.

Make sure you’re fully committed, though – sometimes, all the love and patience in the world isn’t enough to bring puppy farm dogs around completely, and even when it is enough, it can take a long time to reach the point where you have a well-adjusted dog. If you’re not 100% sure you’re willing to be in it for the long haul, take a pass.

The following information should help you to determine if rescuing a puppy farm dog is right for you, and also give you some insight into how to deal with your new friend.

How to Handle Puppy Farm Dogs

Just as a note before we go any further, most puppy mill dogs are bitches. This is because one dog can fertilize many, many bitches, so not all that many males are needed. The likelihood is that your puppy farm dog will be female. For that reason, I’m going to use the pronouns “she” and “her” when referring to dogs throughout this post.

A good many survivors of puppy farms have never known anything other than life as a breeding animal – nothing more. These dogs are not beloved pets. They’re not even properly cared for livestock. They’re not socialized, and they have no concept of the pleasure of human touch and affection.

What this means is that, at least in the early stages, puppy farm dogs do not want to be cuddled or kissed. They might also be very sensitive to having the back of their neck touched. This is because usually, the way the puppy mill operator handles them is to pick them up by the scruff of the neck. These dogs will usually always want to face you, and very much dislike being approached from behind.

When you’re approaching puppy farm dogs, you should always do it from the front – if you approach your puppy farm rescue from behind, you’ll startle the dog, and will have pretty much eroded whatever little trust she may have had in you. Always let your dog know that you are planning to touch her or pick her up, by using both words and gestures. This is as simple as reaching down slowly, and offering a word like “up” or some other verbal cue that works for you.

If your dog drops down, or rolls over in submission, forget about picking her up. Just let it go and try again later. This is something that has to proceed on the dog’s timetable, not on yours. If you force her to be picked up, you’re just going to frighten her, and again, she’ll lose any trust that she has in you.

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Introducing Puppy Farm Dogs to Their New Home

Your puppy mill rescue has been taken from a horrible situation, and that’s the only kind of situation she knows. Additionally, your house or apartment is probably a lot bigger than the pen she occupied. I know that your heart is probably telling you that you want her to see that she has all sorts of space now, but it could be too much too soon.

A crate can be very helpful. I’m not suggesting putting her in the crate and closing the door – that’s not much better than what she was accustomed to. Instead, put a blanket in the crate, along with food, water, and some toys. Leave the door open, but don’t disturb her if she wants to go into the crate and just stay there for the first little while. She’s going to need time to adjust to all sorts of new sounds (people talking, phones ringing, the television or radio, and even the clatter of cutlery when you take it out of a drawer to set the table).

You should keep the crate in a well-traveled area. This is so that your dog can observe what’s going on around her, and become accustomed to it. I would suggest, though, if you’re using a wire crate, that you drape part of it with a blanket or towel – this is so that if your dog feels overwhelmed, she can retreat to an area where she has some privacy.

Building Trust

Puppy farm dogs have absolutely no reason to trust humans, and in fact, plenty of experience to suggest that humans can’t be trusted. What this means is that your puppy farm rescue has no reason to think that she can trust you, and you’re going to have to earn that trust.

Food helps to build trust.

I know, you probably think that sounds crazy – wouldn’t kind words and gentle touches be the way to go about building trust in puppy farm dogs?

No, it’s food.

Feed your dog on a schedule, and stay close by while she’s eating. I don’t mean that you have to hover over her, but you should be in the same general area. You want her to get the idea that food comes from you, and that you can be relied upon to feed her at certain times every day.

Offer treats, too, but don’t be surprised if she won’t take them right away. She’s suspicious, because everything in her background has led her to believe that it just makes sense to be suspicious of humans. You might want to place the treats on the floor in front of her to begin with. Once she gets to the point where she’ll take them out of your hand, believe me, this is incredible progress when it comes to building trust!

While you’re feeding your dog, talk softly to her. She likely hasn’t heard much in the way of kind human voices, so this is important. If she’ll let you touch her, pet her gently. She might not be overly receptive to touch at first (and in fact, may never be, but more on that in a bit), so take it slow.

It should pretty much go without saying that people should never shout at puppy farm dogs. For that matter, I see no need for anyone to shout at any dog, but it’s that much more important when you’re dealing with an animal that’s been traumatized. The same goes for spanking, grabbing, or alpha rolling. Puppy farm dogs will see these actions as assault, and having been freed from horribly confining pens, could respond with aggression.

Introducing Puppy Farm Dogs to Other People

Once your dog is used to you and your family, it’s time to begin the socialization process that she would not have been offered as a puppy farm dog. It’s best to begin with people you know, and who understand your dog’s background.

The first contact should be initiated by the dog, not the person. Your friend should wait for the dog to approach, and then offer a hand, palm up, at chin level. If the dog barks, both of you should just ignore the barking. If you try to correct it at this stage, you’re probably just going to end up fostering the idea that there’s reason to bark – in other words, something to fear.

You don’t want your friend to back away, either. If that happens, then the dog gets the message that barking makes potential threats go away. Just wait it out, until the dog gets the message that barking is not going to have any effect at all.

Patience is the key here.

House Training Puppy Farm Dogs

This can be one of the most difficult aspects of rescuing a puppy mill dog. For puppy farm dogs, the cage is their whole world. It’s where they live, sleep, eat, and yes, pee and crap. You’re going to have to undo all that conditioning.

The main thing is to get the dog on a schedule. Take her out when she wakes up, and about half an hour after she’s eaten. Withhold food for a couple of hours before bedtime, and take her out before you turn in for the night. In short, approach potty training in much the same way as you would with a new puppy.

If an accident happens in the house, just clean it up. Don’t scold the dog and put her outside – this wouldn’t be much different than yelling at a toddler and putting her on the potty after she’s already messed in her diapers.

Also, keep a close eye on your dog for the first little while. You might want to use a baby gate to partition off a certain area where the dog can stay when you’re not able to supervise. Ideally, this would be an area with vinyl or other non-permeable flooring so that messes are easy to clean up. Confining your dog in a carpeted area is not going to have a good outcome.

A Word on Marking

Another problem with puppy farm dogs is the tendency to want to “mark” their territory. You may be familiar with this sort of behavior in intact males, but when you’re dealing with puppy farm dogs, much of the time, the females will do it too. After all, when your whole world is a tiny little pen, you need a way of telling other dogs, “Stay away; this space belongs to me!”

Don’t be alarmed if your female rescue “marks.” To her, this is normal. You can show your displeasure by adopting a stern tone of voice and saying, “No.” Again, though, don’t shout.

Taking her outside isn’t going to help, because she doesn’t really need to pee – she’s just doing it as a way of establishing her territory. The way to overcome this is to show her that you’re not happy when she does it. Use your “I’m not happy” voice, and then clean it up using a disinfectant like Nature’s Miracle or Dettol. You want to get rid of any odor, because even though you might not remember where she marked, believe me, she will.

Another thing you can use is vinegar. It neutralizes urine smell. Don’t use cleaners that contain ammonia – ammonia smells like urine, and can actually encourage marking.

For the first couple of weeks, don’t worry too much about eliminating marking. Instead, work on building trust. If you’re going to be shouting at the dog, rushing toward her with soap and water every time she marks, and otherwise doing what my young friend Megan refers to as “losing your s***,” then all you’re going to achieve is more stress – for both you and your dog. So just smile, stay cool, clean it up and soldier on.

After a couple of weeks, your dog is probably going to get the idea that you’re not all that unpredictable, and neither is her home situation. Still, keep a close eye on her, and if she looks like she’s gearing up to mark, take her outside. You can also raise your voice a little more, but again, it should still be an “indoor” voice. You don’t want to shout and undo all your hard work.

Leash Training a Puppy Farm Dog

You’re never going to find puppy farm dogs who have any concept of what a leash is for, or a collar either for that matter, simply because they’ve never been walked – just caged all their lives. They’ve probably never even felt grass underneath their feet. So, the leash is going to take some getting used to.

First, show your dog the leash and collar. Let her sniff them and nose them around. Don’t try to attach them right away – you’d be doing something very unfamiliar, that could be very frightening.

Once your dog is used to the appearance and smell of the leash and collar, you can try putting the collar on her. Don’t be surprised if she resists. Work at her speed – if she panics, back off and try again later. You can try distracting her with treats if you’ve gotten to the point where she’ll take them.

You don’t want to push it to the point where she snaps, and loses trust in you.

Also, resist the temptation to just corner her and make her submit to the collar and leash. Again, you’re breaking what is already a very fragile trust.

Once she’s okay with the collar, you can attach a light-weight leash and let her drag it around the house or yard. You don’t want to pick it up at this point, and make her feel that you’re controlling her. Once she’s accustomed to the feel of the leash, you can pick it up, but don’t proceed in the same way as you would with a normal, well-adjusted dog. With dogs that have not been rescued from puppy farms, your goal would be to lead the dog, not to have the dog lead you. With puppy farms, it’s just the opposite – let her lead you until she’s completely comfortable with the leash, and then you can work on having her go where you want her to, instead of the other way around.

Separation Anxiety in Puppy Farm Dogs

Separation anxiety can be a problem in any dog, but it’s even more common in puppy farm dogs. This is a disorder that occurs when the dog is so dependent on her owner being present that she becomes very anxious, and maybe even destructive, when she’s left alone.

If you’ve provided your puppy farm dog with a crate, then she has a place where she feels safe. So, if you have to be out of the house for any length of time, put her in the crate. Give her some toys to keep her amused. Then, when you get back home and let her out of the crate, take the toys out as well so that she can continue to play with them. What this does is prevent her from associating the offering of the toys with you leaving.

Before you put your dog in the crate, make sure she’s had an opportunity to go potty. If she’s reluctant to enter the crate, you can lure her in by tossing a treat toward the back of the crate.

For dogs with separation anxiety, it’s best to start getting them used to being in the crate before you actually leave them alone in the house. So, begin by crating the dog, and then leaving the room. Be alert to the point where she starts to whine or cry. When she does, let her out.

Next time, let her whine for a couple of minutes before letting her out. Repeat this as often as necessary – gradually, you’ll notice that she’s spending more and more time in the crate before she becomes distressed. You always want to let her out before she panics, but you also want to build up her tolerance threshold.

Coprophagia in Puppy Farm Dogs

Coprophagia is the “medical” term, but most people simply refer to it as “eating poop.”

This is another behavior that can occur in almost any dog, but is more common in puppy farm dogs. This is, sadly, because most of the time, puppy mill dogs are underfed – after all, the breeder doesn’t want to spend any more money on the dogs than is absolutely necessary. This would cut into the profits. So, one of the ways they cut corners is on food. Puppy farm dogs are often underfed, and will turn to their own feces (or that of other dogs) as a food source.

To a puppy farm dog, feces actually doesn’t even taste all that bad. This is because much of the time, the dogs are competing for food, and eating so quickly that much of the food value is actually eliminated before it gets used. That poo might taste nearly as good as the dog food that was originally offered, so why not eat it?

There are products that you can get from your veterinarian, to add to your dog’s food to discourage the behavior. You can also use behavior modification. Once your dog has “done her business,” give her a treat, clean up the poo, and take her back in the house.

Another issue that’s quite common in puppy farm dogs is pica. You know how, on “The Simpsons,” RalphieWiggum eats paste? That’s pica. It’s simply eating something that was never intended to be food. Dogs that have pica will often eat rocks, dirt and other non-food items. Don’t confuse this with the natural tendency to chew – most dogs, at one stage or another of their development, are going to gnaw on things that aren’t really meant to be consumed. True pica is the compulsive eating of non-food items, and again, with puppy farm dogs, it goes back to never having enough to eat. It’s a psychological disorder, and it can be hard to cure, so see your vet for advice.

Dealing with Problems That Might Be Insurmountable

Early on, I told you that some puppy farm dogs might never really come around. It’s a sad fact that some of these dogs are simply too traumatized to ever make a full recovery. In fact, they’re a lot like abused children, who can only survive what they’re going through by “letting their mind go somewhere else” while the body stays in place and endures what’s inflicted on it. These dogs are never going to trust humans, not completely. So, what kind of future can they have?

The good news is that even the most brutalized animals can have a decent life. They need stability, calmness, and acceptance, though. That means that you might have to understand that your puppy mill rescue is never going to leap joyously onto your lap and demand kisses and cuddles. However, in the context of what she’s been through, she might think that just having a clean bed, good food, constant access to fresh water, and the occasional gentle touch is all she needs to consider life worth living.

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9 Dog Breeds That Will Guard Your Home

The Final Word

If you can give a good life to a puppy farm dog, you might have to accept, as I’ve just suggested, that she will never experience joy – the most you might be able to hope for is contentment. When you compare mere contentment, though, to the utter horror that she went through before, contentment looks pretty good.

Puppy farm dogs may never end up being “normal.” Normality is so far outside their frame of reference that to expect them to get to that point might not be possible, or even something that you can reasonably expect.

If you’re the type of person who wants to give a puppy farm dog a second chance, though, and you’re willing to be in it for the long haul, you can bet that the dog will know, on some level, what you’ve done for her. She might never fully trust you, but she’ll trust you more than she has anyone else in her life. And you’ll have done something wonderful. In fact, from where I’m sitting, you’ll be a hero.

If this post has tugged at your heartstrings (and I hope it has) and you want to rescue a puppy farm dog, or donate money to help rescued dogs, check out National Mill Dog Rescue is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and re-homing puppy farm dogs, and they can only carry on this important work if people care, and show that they care in some tangible way. So please, show that you care. If you can’t adopt a puppy farm dog, you can still help by making a donation.

In a perfect world, there would be no puppy farms, and no puppy farm dogs. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and until we do, it’s important for people who genuinely care about dogs to do all they can to protect them from people who indisputably don’t.

And now, I’m going to go cuddle Janice and Leroy and tell them how much I love them. This has been hard to write, and even if they don’t need a cuddle, I know I do!