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How to Help Puppy Mill Rescues: Seven Tips to Help Fearful Dogs Blossom

Have I helped dogs who come from puppy mill rescues? Yes!


I know how very challenging it can be for these dogs to acclimate to a home and how hard and heart-breaking it can be to see them struggle with fear and anxiety -- when you just want to love on them!

A small dog being petted and looking relaxed.

I've participated in puppy mill rescues, rehabilitated dogs from puppy mills, and counseled adopters who have brought home these dogs. My own dogs are puppy mill rescues, too. If you have a puppy mill rescue, I encourage you to seek help from a trainer who uses positive reinforcement and fear free techniques.


I would love to help you!


Here are my seven tips for puppy mill dogs:


They will need time. They can absolutely make progress, but plan to see changes over months and even years.


Ask for help from your veterinarian: If you haven't already asked your vet about anti-anxiety medications and/or supplements, do so. It can take 4-6 weeks to see the effects from some of these medications, so it's good to get them on board sooner than later. Dogs can make a lot of progress with love. Adding in medication helps a fearful dog make faster progress.


Ask for help from a trainer who uses positive reinforcement and fear free techniques: If your veterinarian has prescribed anti-anxiety supplements or medications for your dog, your next step is to get help from a certified trainer. Dogs can make progress with love and with medication. Then, when love, medication, and training work together this can be where the magic really happens! Being sure to reinforce and ask for the behaviors you do want instead of relying on potentially scary "no!"s and "off!"s is extra important with fearful pups when you want to prevent them escalating to growls, snaps, or bites; encourage them to come to you and seek out attention; and build trust.

A small dog wearing a leash and harness sitting on a dog bed.

Give your dog a safe space space and this may be a comfy, covered crate. If your dog comes from a situation where she has been confined, you may want to give them as much room to roam as possible and be loathe to offer them a crate. But feeling safe is key for a fearful dog and the safer they feel the faster they will blossom. If a crate is what is familiar to them, give them the option to retreat to one. Make it clean, soft, and comfortable. Put a blanket over the top to make it snuggly and cave-like. You can leave the door off, but let them choose it. In addition, let them have other safe places. Don't touch them or pick them up if they are lying on their bed. Let them eat their food behind a closed door.


Offer choice and control and respect their boundaries. Generally, it's a good idea to let a dog become comfortable with you slowly. You want them to approach you for attention instead of pushing their boundaries. Toss treats away from you to start with instead of hand-feeding. This is the "treat+away=yay!" game. It helps build trust that you aren't luring them into a social interaction they aren't ready for yet. If the dog is backing away, tensing up, or growling stop what you are doing, back off, and give them space. When you do start to initiate touch, do a consent test. Pet for a few seconds and then stop. Watch what the dog does. Do they move closer? Paw at you? Wag their tail? They may be saying, "More." If they move away or do nothing, that's a "no, thank you."


Be aware of bite and flight risks. It may go without saying, but a fearful rescue is always a bite and flight risk. Watch their body language carefully when handling. Give them space when needed. Keep early interactions low key and with few people (and only those who can toss treats from a distance and do consent tests). Be very careful when taking dogs out even into a fenced back yard. You may want to have them drag a leash for the first few days in the yard (to make sure you can get them back in and use two leashes for safety when venturing out for walks (if your pup is up for that). And, absolutely, take seriously any precautions or instructions from the shelter or rescue where you got the dog.


Reward the behaviors you'd like to see more of and keep doing so. When my puppy mill rescues came home they were fearful and somewhat shut down. I focused on making them feel safe and then they began to get comfortable. They were super loving, and as they blossomed began to show more personality and behavior. Among, those new behaviors were demand barking and chasing the cat! Uh-oh! Fortunately, I was rewarding and reinforcing the behaviors I wanted, a quiet down and turning to me and away from the cat, early on. And I tried not to reinforce the demand barking, though this can be a tough one to ignore! Asking for an alternate behavior really helps! So be ready, that when you do get those break-throughs and start to see a more confident, at ease, and playful pup it may not all be smooth-sailing. Again, a fear free trainer can help!



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