Adopting a Puppy Mill Survivor

What is a Puppy Mill?

A puppy mill is a large-scale commercial dog breeding operation where profit is given priority over the well-being of the dogs. Unlike responsible breeders, who place the utmost importance on producing the healthiest puppies possible, breeding at puppy mills is performed without consideration of genetic quality. This often results in generations of dogs with unchecked hereditary defects.

What is life like for puppy mill dogs?
Puppy mills usually house dogs in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, without adequate veterinary care, food, water and socialization. Puppy mill dogs do not get to experience treats, toys, exercise or basic grooming. To minimize waste cleanup, dogs are often kept in cages with wire flooring that injures their paws and legs—and it is not unusual for cages to be stacked in columns. Breeder dogs at mills might spend their entire lives outdoors, exposed to the elements—or crammed inside filthy structures where they never get the chance to feel the sun or a gust of fresh air on their faces.

Your new dog was likely housed in a cage for his entire life, and had never worn a collar or leash, been on a walk, or met people outside of his caretakers. He and the other dogs at the mill were forced to pee and poop in these cages and have learned to lie in their own waste because no clean surfaces were available to sleep on.

What challenges do I face with my puppy mill dog?
It is going to take a long time and lots of patience to teach a puppy mill dog to be OK with walking outside, with strangers coming over and with peeing and pooping outside—especially with the older ones, whose habits are well-formed.

Because puppy mill dogs missed being exposed to the world during their critical socialization period (up to 4 months of age,) they tend to act as though everything in the world is a terrifying thing. Indeed, since your dog had no idea until recently that there was a world outside of his cage, being adopted into your home will, at first, be a very scary thing for your new pet—almost like moving to another planet!

Your undersocialized dog will require your calm, patient assistance to learn that the world is not such a scary place, and that you and other humans are worthy of trust. Take things slowly, go at the dog’s pace and you’ll have the reward of seeing your shy one overcome his fears.

What should I expect in the first few days?
Your dog has never been away from other dogs, so if you already own a brave dog, he or she is a very valuable role model for your new dog. It is not uncommon for an unsocialized dog to hide under a couch or table for days or even weeks at a time, only coming out to eat and drink at night. Here are some helpful tips:

You may want to give your new dog a crate, covered with a blanket, as a “safe haven.” If your dog is extremely fearful, you may want to choose a plastic crate so you can take the top off if you need to get to the dog.

If your dog is extremely fearful, you can set up a “safe room” such as a kitchen or bathroom with a baby gate, or an exercise pen (a metal doggie “playpen” available at pet stores). Put an open crate, food and water on one side of the room and a few wee-wee pads on the other.

When you first let your dog run loose in your house, you may want to leave a light leash dragging so you can get him out from under furniture if he hides.

You may want to have the dog sleep beside your bed in a crate (for a small dog, perhaps on a table at eye level), so that he’s exposed to your presence and can quietly bond with you while you sleep.

Please do not have a big party to “socialize” your dog as soon as he gets home. Give your new pet at least a few days to bond with you before introducing strangers.

How can I get my puppy mill dog used to wearing a leash?
You will need to acclimate your dog to wearing a leash. ASPCA experts have found that very fearful dogs tend to react better to a body harness than a leash, so often send puppy mill dogs home wearing a harness. Once the dog has acclimated to you and your home, try attaching a leash and feeding the dog delicious treats (chicken, cheese or liverwurst) as he follows beside you. Puppy mill dogs tend to panic and buck around if someone tries to pull them anywhere—this is why they need to be acclimated to leash-walking slowly, indoors, before venturing out.

When can I take my puppy mill dog outdoors?
Many people picture life with a dog as long walks in the park, parties with lots of friends over and playing with other dogs in the dog run. This may be possible with your new dog one day, but please be patient. It may take a long time to get there.

Because these dogs have never been outside, the park is an alien planet to your new pet, so you’ll need to take things slowly and make sure he’s comfortable on a leash and harness indoors first. If your dog is comfortable in a carrier, you may want to carry him to a quiet place, like a nearby park, then let him sit on your lap or sniff around on his leash and harness.

Any tips for taking my puppy mill dog on a walk?
Walking with another dog sometimes helps increase confidence—consider borrowing a neighbor’s dog if you don’t have a second one!

Make sure that your dog’s walking equipment is very secure, for extra safety in case he gets frightened and tries to back out of his collar or harness. You may want to put one leash on the collar and a second one on the harness at first.
Make sure that your dog has a well-fitted collar with his tags on at all times. And please keep your dog’s microchip information up to date—fearful dogs can be great escape artists!

How should I introduce my puppy mill dog to my friends and family?
Your dog will likely bond strongly to his primary caretaker after a time, but there is a good chance that an older puppy mill dog will remain fearful of strangers for a long time, maybe forever. It is your job to keep your dog safe from invasive human contact; do not let strangers on the street pet or pick up your dog. If your dog learns you’ll keep him safe, he’ll be far less stressed on walks.

When you bring new people into your home, you’ll find it’s often easier to have them play “hard to get” when working with a fearful dog. A friendly human greeting (direct gaze, leaning over, reaching with hands) is actually quite threatening in dog language. Instead, have guests make themselves small, avoid eye contact and just let the dog approach when he’s feeling comfortable.

One great way to get to know a shy dog is to sit on the floor while reading a book, and scatter treats all around you. This way the dog approaches and takes treats as close as he’s comfortable, and is repeatedly rewarded for his bravery. Do not pet the dog until he’s practically “begging for it” or you could undo all your hard work. When the dog is taking treats easily from your hand, start a gentle scratch on the chest and maybe work up to under the collar; these are non-threatening gestures to most dogs.

How do I train my shy puppy mill dog?
Did you know that yawning, looking away and licking lips are signs that a dog is worried? If the dog is shrinking away from something, try associating that thing with his favorite treat or toy in the world, over and over, until the thing is no longer scary. For example, if your dog is afraid of traffic, start in a quiet park with cars far away and give him a tiny piece of chicken every time a car goes by. As the dog relaxes, get a little closer to the road each day. The same thing can be done if the dog is afraid of strangers (or anything!) with treats coming from you at first.

Some sources say that you should never comfort a shy dog as it will “reinforce” the fear. This is nonsense—please go ahead and do whatever it takes to make your dog more comfortable! If the dog is getting more confident, you’re doing the right thing.

Some dogs take great comfort from human contact, and if some gentle petting helps your pup calm down, go ahead and do it! Agility training and obedience classes (using positive, food-based training techniques) may help give your dog confidence.

House training any new dog requires the following:

Frequent trips to the bathroom area
Interrupting mistakes
Rewards for eliminating in the right place

However, house training a puppy mill dog may be especially challenging—he’s most probably been sleeping in his own excrement for all of his life and may not have inhibitions about sitting in his own mess.

Please note, if your new dog is extremely fearful, we recommend training first with wee-wee pads, then slowly transitioning your dog outside.

Create a confinement area—a small, comfy place where your dog will feel safe. Dogs confined to a small area will naturally try to hold their excrement because they don’t want to soil in the place where they sleep.

Short-term Confinement

A crate may be a good option if your dog is not going to be left alone for more than four hours at a time.

Long-term Confinement
If you need to leave your dog alone for longer periods of time, or if he’s too fearful to go outside, create a long-term confinement area. A kitchen with a sturdy baby gate or an exercise pen on a linoleum floor are two good options.

This area should contain a crate with a bed inside (leave the door open), toys and a water bowl. Create a bathroom area by placing a wee-wee pad or newspaper on the side furthest from where the bed, food and water have been placed. At first, you may have to cover the entire floor with wee-wee pads or paper. When your dog begins to use just one corner, gradually remove the unused papers.

When you are not at home or are unable to closely supervise your dog, you must keep him in the crate or confinement area.

Nighttime Confinement
Confine your dog beside your bed so that he won’t be lonely and you can hear him cry if he needs to go to the bathroom. He may already like being in a small place that reminds him of his former home, so you could even put him in a small soft crate on or beside your bed.

Don’t let your new untrained dog roam the house unsupervised.
He may just go to bathroom somewhere when you’re not looking and that may become his new “potty area.”

When you are at home, keep your dog confined inside his area with a food puzzle toy like a Kong™ to keep him busy. Or keep him with you on-leash—“umbilical corded”—to your belt if he’s brave enough to walk around the house. You’ll need to get him used to being on a harness before you try “umbilical cording,” though.

Frequent Trips to Bathroom Area
Take your dog outside or to the indoor toilet area every couple of hours—that means immediately after meals and after your dog wakes up. Wait three minutes for him to relieve himself. If he doesn’t eliminate, go back inside, place him in his confinement area for 15 minutes, then take him outside to try again.

Sometimes playing with another dog will jostle your dog into peeing or pooping, but please be patient—he may be too fearful to play at first.

Always give a delicious treat if your dog eliminates in the correct area. You may want to keep a record of when your dog “goes” so that you start to see his pattern.

If and when your dog lies in his own mess, you must clean him up each time. If bathing is too traumatize at first, use a mild puppy shampoo or one of the dry shampoos or wipes sold at pet stores. Former puppy mill dogs need to get used to the feeling of being clean—they’ll eventually learn to like it!

If your male dog is lifting his leg in the house, belly bands are an option. These are Velcro “diapers” that go around the waist and keep urine from hitting furniture.

Interrupting Mistakes
Never leave your dog unsupervised. Keep a close eye on him, interrupting any pre-potty behavior that you see—sniffing, circling, walking with stiff back legs—by getting him outside fast.

Rewards for Eliminating in the Right Place
When your dog does go to the bathroom outside, praise him softly and give him yummy treats, like small slices of hotdog, string cheese or freeze-dried liver.

Common Mistakes:
Waiting Too Long in Between Bathroom Trips
Start by taking your new puppy mill dog outside every two to three hours, and more often if he is extremely active indoors. Once house trained, healthy adult dogs can be expected to hold it for no more than eight or nine hours—this means he’ll need at least three trips outside each day!

Punishing Your Dog for Eliminating in the House
Punishing your dog for going to the bathroom in inappropriate places will only make him afraid to potty in front of you, which will be a big problem when you want him to do exactly that outside. If you catch your dog in the act of peeing or pooping indoors, interrupt him very gently by clapping your hands and saying, “Outside, outside,” then taking him out.

Punishing After the Fact

Your dog won’t understand if you punish him for something he did already. If you didn’t catch him in the act, you weren’t supervising carefully enough!

Not Rewarding with Extra Delicious Treats

House training is a hard job for a new dog to learn, especially when he’s come from a place as horrible as a puppy mill. You want your dog to be very eager to go to bathroom in the right place. So use really delicious treats like small pieces of hotdog, string cheese or dried liver instead of a plain old, dry dog biscuit.

Going Inside Right After Your Dog Potties
Walking your dog until he relieves himself, then going back inside immediately teaches your dog that his fun walk is over as soon as he pees or poops. Therefore, he’ll hold it to make the walk longer. So praise and treat your dog for going to the bathroom outside and then continue the walk as an additional reward.

Most important, have patience. A puppy mill dog may not find walking outdoors fun for quite some time. If your dog finds being outdoors frightening, it’s fine to bring him straight in afterwards—coming in can become the reward for pottying outdoors and will help your dog learn to relieve himself more quickly.


Common Puppymill Survivor Behaviors

Terror of humans hands: The only time most mill dogs are removed from their cages, it's a painful experience. The dog may be grabbed by the first reachable part of it's body: tail, leg, scruff, ears. This takes lots of patience and non-threatening touches to overcome.

You may have to lie on the floor face down with your eyes averted to get the dog to approach you at all. Let him come near you and sniff. It may take an hour, or days for this to happen. You can sometimes begin by holding the dog, petting him gently for a few seconds, speaking softly, then place him carefully down. Let him know you do not wish to restrain him. Lengthen the time for this ritual each day. Never raise your voice, clap your hands, or allow loud noises in the home during this adjustment period. You must strive to create a totally non-threatening environment. Behave as submissively as possible. Build trust slowly.

Aversion To Eye Contact: Many puppymill survivors refuse to make eye contact with humans. This indicates fearful submission which decreases as the dog comes to realize he will not be harmed by you and begins to trust. Talking to your dog in a soft, calm voice helps speed the process. A dog may not speak English, but the gentle tone of your voice and the fact that he is the focus of your concern will be understood.

The "I'm Afraid Of My Food" Routine: Anytime the cage door is opened on a mill dog, fear is the response, because an evil human is behind it. Of course, the cage door must be opened to insert a bowl of food, which may also be used to entice the dog within reach. It's not unusual to see your puppymill survivor run in the opposite direction when you sit dinner on the floor. Turn your back and walk away until the dog feels "safe" enough to eat. Let him eat undisturbed.

Marking/Housetraining: No puppymill survivor comes housetrained. Some never grasp the finer points. Most males will mark, and many females, too. Crates are useful in housetraining. Belly bands (a cloth band which wraps around male dogs covering the ureter) will help prevent marking. Nicely fitted doggie diapers are available from Foster and Smith. Human diapers can also be used - just cut a hole for the tail. Put your dog on a schedule. Take him outside first thing in the morning, at lunchtime whenever possible, after dinner, before bedtime. If you see him lift his leg in the house, a shaker can (jar filled with small pebbles) or clicker can distract him long enough for you to get him outside. Never raise your voice. Never hit a dog. Take him outside and reinforce by saying, "Potty outside", or something similar. Use positive reinforcement when the dog does his business outside..."Good boy! Potty outside! Good, good boy!" Lots of petting must follow. : )

Flight Risk: All puppymill survivors are high flight risks. Never take your dog outside a securely fenced yard until you are thoroughly bonded. Then if you take your dog outside the fence, double-check to be sure harness is secure enough. I sometimes use a collar and harness, then run the lead from the collar through the harness for extra safety. If a mill dog gets loose outside a secured area, he will likely run until he drops; catching him will be quite a feat. Prevention is by far the best policy.

Coprophagy: Stool-eating is common in puppymill survivors. There is much contention as to the cause. However, most rescuers feel it is a learned behavior. Again, prevention is the best policy. Pick up the yard frequently. Some mill dogs stop this behavior over time.

Fear of Water: Many puppymill survivors are frightened of water hoses. Puppymillers generally don't bother removing the dogs before hosing down their cages. I have known adopters whose puppymill survivors have become well-acclimated to homes, families and leashed walks only to have the dog bolt when they chanced by a neighbor watering his lawn.

Fear Biting: Fear biting is more common in abuse cases than in puppymill survivors, but we do see it occasionally. 90% of all dogs who bite do so out of fear. Puppymill survivors, like feral dogs, usually cower in the presence of humans. Fear biting can frequently be overcome with proper training and commitment, but it generally requires a professional animal behaviorist, not to mention a strong commitment from the adoptive family. Sadly, because of both the enormity of the canine overpopulation problem and the abundance of more easily salvageable dogs, most fear biters are euthanized.


These are a few of the most common puppymill survivor behaviors and suggestions for working with them. Working with a puppymill survivor is not an easy undertaking. But for those of us who have witnessed the miracle of these frightened beings growing to love and trust, to play with toys for the first time, to learn to take soft beds and good food for granted, it is one of the most joyful and rewarding experiences of our lives.

The puppymill survivor who ventures to trust a human being despite a history of cruelty and neglect is a triumph of the spirit from which we can all learn.

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