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

Tip #1: Give Your Dog a Hiding Place

Ursula mentioned that her puppy mill rescue dog hides under the furniture. Many former puppy mill dogs may be more comfortable in small spaces, since that’s what they’re used to, and hiding is a natural response to fear. Set a comfortable crate in a corner, maybe in a room where you spend a lot of quiet time. This allows your dog to observe you while feeling as safe as he can. If he doesn’t like the crate, don’t push it. And no dragging him out of whatever secure spot he’s chosen.

Tip #2: Let Your Dog Set the Pace

The surest way to ease fear is to let the dog – or any animal, including a human – control her exposure to whatever scares her. Little by little, she can relax enough to investigate them on her own without being overwhelmed. You can encourage, but never push.

Many websites about puppy mill dogs advise feeding them by hand. I wouldn’t jump to do this – it may present your dog with the ugly choice between going hungry or eating while terrified. If she’ll take food comfortably from your hand, great. But if not, then just hang in the same room with her at first. You can gradually decrease the distance between you over days and weeks. Have I mentioned patience?

Tip #3: Feed Regular Meals Instead of Leaving Food in the Bowl All Day

This is housetraining advice! If you know when your dog ate, then you have a good idea of when she’s likely to eliminate. The better you can time toilet breaks, the better your dog’s chances of learning to hold it till she gets outdoors.

While we’re on the subject of housetraining: Treat your puppy mill rescue like a tiny puppy – give her many more toilet breaks than a normal adult dog needs, and supervise her carefully in between. But unlike a new puppy, your dog may have had years of practice eliminating indoors or in her kennel. Remember it takes much longer to undo a problem habit than it takes to learn a good habit in the first place. Once again: patience.

Tip #4: Keep Your Dog on Leash, Even in Your Backyard

A puppy mill dog who’s had no chance to learn that humans can be safe and friendly will not come when you call her. If you chase her, she will almost certainly run away. A loud sound that would startle another dog may panic her. Until she’s comfortable in her new environment, always take her outside on leash and be sure her collar or harness is secure. That goes even in your own fenced backyard!

If possible, create an “airlock,” with at least two closed gates or doors between your dog and the world outside. If you can’t make an airlock, consider having her wear a light leash inside as well, so someone can hold her as people go in and out. (Why a leash? Because she may be afraid to let you hold her by her collar or in your arms.)

Tip #5: Be Predictable

Routine may be hell on romance, but when you’re anxious and your life is out of your control, then routine is the high road to feeling safe. Feed meals at the same time, give walks at the same time, keep human explosions to a minimum, and make household rules clear and consistent.

Tip #6: Use Rewards, and Plenty of Them

Reward-based training is best for all animals – it not only teaches them the behaviors you want, but also builds their confidence and their trust in you. Yes, most normal dogs will bounce back from punishments, but your puppy mill dog’s life experience has already strained her to the hilt. Work with a good trainer if you aren’t already familiar with how reward-based training works.

Tip #7: Already Have a Confident, Friendly Dog at Home

Alas, you can’t do this one retrospectively. But if you already have a relaxed, confident dog at home, you’re in luck. Most of a puppy mill dog’s social experience involves other dogs, and dogs who are social partners will often take cues from each other: Is that person scary? What the heck was that sound? Your well-adjusted dog can help your puppy mill rescue learn to navigate the world.

As always, you can write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I get so many questions that I can’t respond individually, but check out past episodes – I might already have answered yours, especially if it’s about housetraining, humping, or aggression. And please visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer.

Did you know that Quick and Dirty Tips has a brand new show? The Savvy Psychologist is now in session. Dr. Ellen Hendriksen takes the mystery out of psychology and reveals tips and techniques you can use today to become happier, relaxed, and more importantly, yourself. Make sure to check out her new show at quickanddirtytips.com/savvy-psychologist.


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).