Imagine living in a world in which your feet had never touched grass and your skin had never felt the sun. Imagine a world so devoid of stimulation, so small and cloistered, so unchanging – that you had never experienced one single good new thing for as long as you’d been alive. The phrase that I heard over and over again from rescuers describing the dogs was: petrified. The 3 former puppy mill dogs were not simply timid or cautious; they were literally paralyzed with fear.
When Almost Home Dog Rescue of Ohio (AHDRO) got the call about 2 collies and a sheltie that were rescued from a small rural puppy mill with 32 other dogs, they immediately committed to help. The rescue had taken in puppy mill dogs before and they knew something about the long, hard road to recovery that these dogs faced. Unless you’ve seen it first hand, the suffering in puppy mills is hard to grasp. Puppy mills are factories where the product is puppies. Profit drives these facilities and they maximize profits by cutting costs: housing animals in the smallest space possible, minimizing contact, feeding them as cheaply as possible, providing only enough care to keep them alive, and discarding them when they no longer produce. The result is suffering on a massive scale. There are an estimated 15,000 puppy mills in the U.S. alone. Some house hundreds of dogs.
The volunteers who drove the collies to their foster homes in Ohio said they had never seen more shy and fearful dogs. The dogs were afraid of collars and leashes and refused to stand on the grass, walk, or be led. They had to be carried from their crates. When let out into a large fenced area, they were desperate to return to their crates and press themselves against the back bars. Despite their intense fear, the dogs showed no aggression toward anyone; they seemed simply to wish to be invisible and disappear.
Imagine the terror of never being touched by a human and then suddenly having humans holding you, carrying you, and talking to you. Imagine growing up in a small cell and suddenly experiencing open space for the first time.
Where does one even begin with these dogs? How do we teach them about love in a world in which everything is terrifying for them? Fear is hard to overcome, for dogs and people alike. Suzanne Clothier, a dog trainer and author, says that no learning or connection can happen if the mind is fearful. Fear shuts down our circuits, making it impossible to connect.
Kira was the most fearful of the 3 dogs that came to Almost Home. When she was alone with a person, she had no idea how to respond; rather she shut down, paralyzed with fear. Almost Home volunteer, Beth, spent hours sitting with her and telling her softly what a sweet and beautiful dog she was. Beth’s goal was to be able touch Kira without her flinching or freezing. Kira never made eye contact, didn’t accept treats or approach Beth, but finally she did allow Beth to pet her. By the end of the visit, Kira had relaxed enough to lay her head between her paws and close her eyes. This tiny step was her first huge victory, and for rescuers it was cause for great hope, a sign that one day, with enough patience and love, Kira could move beyond the trauma she had experienced and begin to heal.
Kira’s foster family was nervous at first about their ability to handle such a difficult case, but they realized that what they had to give was just what Kira needed most, patience and love. They agreed to take her. When they picked her up from the vet they found her nearly catatonic with fear, motionless, with an empty expression in her eyes. Once home, Kira cowered in their backyard and would not leave the perimeter of the fence. She huddled in the corner until they carried her into the house where she immediately hid under the desk. The fastest they saw her move all day was when she saw her crate and raced in to press her body tightly against the back wall. She did not chose to come out again over the next several days, except to cautiously extend her head just far enough to reach her food and water. Six days after coming into her foster home, her family wrote of her “She just lays there, unresponsive, in the same spot, all day long, even though we visit her, gently stroke her, talk to her, offer her treats and toys, and encourage her to come and play. We have high hopes that she will become more comfortable in time….and each baby step is cause for celebration as she travels her long road to recovery.”
This is the damage that puppy mills do. The physical damage can be unspeakable – rescuers often encounter dogs with curled nails, fur matted, covered in feces, plagued by parasites and skin conditions, malnourished, sometimes with permanent deformities. But dogs can bounce back physically. The emotional scars are far worse and many puppy mill survivors will struggle throughout their lives to overcome the isolation and abuse they experienced. The rescuers of such dogs face heart wrenching weeks and months when they look into the empty eyes of a dog who is trapped inside itself, a dog who has absolutely no idea how to navigate the world.
Skye, Kira’s sister, seemed slightly less damaged. It seems safe to assume that the dogs never spent any time out of a kennel and had little to no positive contact with people. All of the dogs were unfamiliar with toys, blankets, dog beds, collars, steps, grass…. everything except each other. Despite that, Skye learned quickly that dog beds were comfortable! Lacey, the 8 year old sheltie, seemed to be the bravest of them all. Physically, however, she was in the worst condition. Even after multiple baths, her coat reeked of the feces she lived in. She wouldn’t play with toys, but quietly stole them from the toy basket and hid them. She piled them up and laid on top of them; perhaps because they were the first objects that ever belonged to her… or perhaps she nurtured and protected these small, soft toys as she had done for the many litters of puppies she had cared for during her years as “breeding stock.”
Kira’s foster family had heard about puppy mills, but never understood how cruel and neglectful they could be until they met Kira. In the weeks since she has come to their home, she has made some slow progress. They cheer the smallest of steps and cherish the tiniest improvements. She will now go outside on her own, though she hides in a patch of daylilies. She will wear a collar and leash. She no longer pushes her body into the corner if someone walks past her, although she still won’t leave a small corner of the kitchen and refuses to enter the carpeted living room. Most encouragingly, her vacant stare has been replaced by an alert expression and she now sniffs the air with curiosity. As her foster mom sits and strokes her gorgeous, soft coat each night she finds hope in the gentle, alert expression on Kira’s face. A couple of times Kira has played in the yard with their other dog and her foster family says that in those brief encounters, it is clear that there IS another dog inside there and that she is capable of moments of joy. They say that of all the dogs they have fostered, Kira is the one they cherish the most, for her incredibly sweet and gentle nature.
Some puppy mill survivors will not recover enough to learn to trust or play, but many, many more will slowly learn that humans can be trusted and overcome their fears. Kira, Skye, and Lacey were the lucky ones. They have suffered terribly, but they have found people who are deeply committed to doing whatever it takes to help them. They will form relationships and enter, for the first time, into a world with soft, green grass and sunshine, good food, comfy beds and couches, and, most importantly, people to watch over them and care for both their bodies and their souls. These ones, with our help, will get to become whole again.
If “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” as Ghandi claimed, then we have a long way to go. But let us be the change we hope to see in the world and extend our compassion where we can. Let us help these animals to heal the parts of themselves that have been so broken.
This blog follows Kira’s journey to become whole again.
Update: Sweet little sheltie Lacey was overjoyed to find her forever home where she was spoiled and was finally getting the love she deserved. Tragically, after only being in this loving home for a month, Lacey began to get sick. Her family took her to the vet where she received care and had multiple tests to help determine what was wrong. Lacey’s past mistreatment at the puppy mill just could not be overcome and her new family was heartbroken when she passed away. Rest in peace sweet, beautiful girl.
Video about Puppy Mill Rescue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-31c_E5VIk
I want to mention the role of Red Rover Rescue Responders in assisting the local shelter with this rescue and with housing and care for the dogs the first days. Their volunteers are trained to move quickly into crisis situations and assist local organizations with large scale rescues, providing volunteers, supplies, and expertise. They are a wonderful organization!