Puppy Mill Rescue Dogs

A puppy mill dog may have spent her entire life in a cage before being rescued. In a frightening new world, how can you help her adjust and learn to feel safe?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #231

A reader, Ursula, writes:

“Three months ago we adopted a 9-year-old Sheltie from a rescue group. She spent most of her life in a puppy mill at a breeder. The dog is terrified of all people. She runs and hides under furniture. She still poops in the house at least two times a week, even though she is walked and let out several times a day. She reminds me of a wild deer. When we tried crate training, she had diarrhea and sat in it. I am desperately frustrated.” Help!

This week, puppy mill breeding dogs, and how to cope with the challenge of rehabilitating them.


On the Dog Trainer podcast, I’ve emphasized how important it is for young puppies to enjoy wide, pleasant experiences of the world. Up until the age of about 12 weeks, puppies are developmentally prepared to learn about what’s normal and commonplace in the world – from people and animals to surfaces that dogs walk on and sounds they might hear.

Life in a Puppy Mill

Now picture the normal and commonplace world of a puppy who grows up in a factory for making more dogs. All she sees, week in and year out, is the cage or kennel she lives in. It’s crammed with other dogs, some of whom are sick or injured. No one takes her for walks. There’s no place comfortable to sleep. Human contact? What a joke – someone comes and provides food and water, but not friendship or comfort or play. From time to time maybe the cage gets hosed down.

As horrible as all that is, it’s familiar. Not only is it familiar, but what’s unfamiliar is cause for fear. That’s why we socialize puppies so carefully in the first place. For the ex-puppy mill dog, your gently extended hand, the sound of the coffeemaker, a door swinging open, the wide-open space of your backyard, a person with a beard, a car ride, the neighbor’s cat: all of these are new and alien, and probably frightening.

And then there’s housetraining. Remember that a dog who grew to adulthood in a puppy mill may never have been out of his cage or kennel before being rescued. Usually, when we housetrain a puppy, we leverage dogs’ preference not to eliminate when they can’t move away from their urine and feces. We might crate a puppy between toilet breaks, for example, to help him learn to hold on little by little. But puppy mill dogs have no choice – they have to urinate and defecate in their pen or cage.

Result: The inhibition that helps us housetrain our puppies is long gone. Like Ursula’s Sheltie, your puppy mill rescue may eliminate in his crate and then just sit in his waste.

To rehabilitate an ex-puppy mill dog, you’ll need patience, consistency, and some healthy realism. You’ll also probably need more support and guidance than you can get from a podcast episode, too. Hopefully, the rescue group you got your dog from has your back. A great online resource is Debbie Jacobs’ website, FearfulDogs.com. Best Friends Animal Society provides an excellent short guide. And here come 7 tips to get you started:


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).