Understanding and Caring for Dogs Rescued from Puppy Mills

Why are puppy mills bad?

Commercial breeding establishments, or puppy mills, have existed for more than half a century, and in that time tens of thousands of the dogs held in these facilities for breeding purposes have been fortunate enough to escape their confined existence and make their way into adoptive homes. Over the years, it has been abundantly clear that a large proportion of these dogs show evidence of psychological harm in their behaviors and emotional responses to normal life.

Puppy mill definition

At the outset, it’s important to clearly define what we’re talking about. Here is our definition of “puppy mill”: any profit-centered breeding facility in which the number of dogs has exceeded the owner’s ability and/or willingness to meet the physical and emotional needs of all of the animals to a degree that permits the animals to have a decent quality of life.

Defining what we mean by “puppy mill” is crucial because many in the commercial breeding industry define “puppy mill” in a way that applies only to those facilities with deplorable conditions (i.e., “those things you see on Oprah”). They dismiss talk about the misery of dogs in puppy mills with “That’s not us.” They are even fond of proclaiming that they don’t want puppy mills any more than anyone else does, because puppy mills tarnish the reputation of the “licensed and inspected breeders” — that is, themselves. (For an example of how large-scale breeders try to distinguish themselves from puppy mills, see this article from The Kennel Spotlight, the trade journal for commercial breeders: www.kennelspotlight.com/The_Never_Ending_Battle.pdf.)

Rescuing and rehabilitating mill dogs

With the extensive personal experience by those who find homes for these dogs as well as the adopters themselves, much anecdotal information has arisen and spread by word of mouth and in some written formats. This information has provided some useful guidance in trying to help these dogs overcome their psychological and emotional challenges. Until recently, however, there was nothing scientific to our understanding of these dogs’ psychological issues, the best methods for their rehabilitation and the outlook for their recovery. A science-based manual for the care of these special dogs was also lacking.

Scientific studies of adult breeding dogs

In a series of scientific studies undertaken by Best Friends in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, we have made great headway in advancing our knowledge about former puppy-mill breeding dogs. I have compiled all of this information in this publication. Detailed descriptions of many of the specific methods used and difficult issues encountered in the rehabilitation of puppy mill dogs, such as getting the dog to trust you, socializing the dog to other people and house-training the dog, are included in the companion publication entitled Help for Specific Issues with Adopted Puppy Mill Dogs.

Because puppy mills involve two different groups of dogs — the adult breeding dogs confined in the facilities and the puppies that come from puppy mills to be sold to consumers — I want to clarify that the puppy mill dogs we are referring to here are the adult breeding dogs. (The puppies are the subject of a different study that was recently published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.) One minor point is that many of the participants in the studies were fostering the dogs, so to avoid the wordy “adopters and fosterers” throughout, I will use “adopters” as shorthand for both.

The information I present is divided into these parts:

Part 1: Psychological and behavioral characteristics of rescued puppy mill dogs
Part 2: Rehabilitation and treatment methods for rescued puppy mill dogs
Part 3: The outlook for the dogs’ recovery and long-term well-being
Part 4: Adopters’ experience
Part 5: Advice for adopters
Part 6: Comments from adopters

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