This week is Puppy Mill Action Week at the Humane Society of the United States.
I didn’t set out to save a puppy mill dog. In fact, had I known all of the issues that come with a puppy mill dog, I might have hesitated when it came time to adopt Emma.
I knew that puppy mills were unregulated because I worked in North Carolina lobbying to pass legislature to regulate them (it failed). I knew that conditions for the puppies could be horrendous and the animals themselves often had genetic predispositions for a myriad of health issues. I swore never to buy a puppy from a puppy mill.
What I never really thought about, however, was the dog that produced all of these puppies. The breeder dogs.
It was in April 2009 that I ran into PetSmart for one quick thing. There happened to be an adoption fair going on and as usual, I casually strolled by to see all the cats and dogs and give them a quick pet as politely said, No thank you. I’ve got a full house.
But I saw two toy poodles. Two tiny dogs. Small dogs are typically hard to come by from rescue and adoption groups because they are pretty easily adopted. But after having Lhasa Apsos, I had developed a penchant for small dogs and I was drawn in.
There was a white poodle and an apricot poodle, a color I had never heard of. Compared to the white poodle, Emma was quiet and subdued. I took that to mean calm, which was what I was looking for in a new dog.
I picked her up and held her on my lap. She lay her head on my arm while I gently pet her. The staff told me that she had recently had all of her teeth removed because they were rotted and that she had a cataract in one eye.
A half-blind, toothless dog? Sounded perfect to me.
When I went to inquire about Emma, I was told that she came from the Wilmington area and had been a breeder dog for a puppy mill. Little did I know that these breeder dogs are usually treated much worse than the puppies. They don’t directly earn the breeders any money. They are simply puppy-making machines.
A breeder dog, like Emma, is usually expected to produce multiple litters in their short lives. I say “short” because most dogs are often destroyed once their reproduction capacity has been maxed out. Sometimes, these dogs are sold cheaply to another breeder to try and squeeze one more litter out of them.
I suspect something like this happened to Emma. She wasn’t supposed to be a rescue dog but somehow this group got a hold of her and placed her up for adoption.
The whole adoption process was a little shady too. I decided that I wanted to adopt Emma and had to repeatedly call the organization before I could even get a call back. When I did, I was told the woman fostering her was on vacation and we’d have to wait to hear what she had to say. There was concern about adopting Emma into a house with a small child (my son was 2 years old at the time).
I told them he was very good with our animals as we had taught him from day one to love and respect pets. And if Emma didn’t like him? She certainly couldn’t bite him.
Finally, they agreed that I could adopt Emma. I went prepared to write my check for the $250 adoption fee but instead I was told to hold off on payment. I wasn’t given paperwork and didn’t pay the fee. I picked up Emma and took her home, never to hear from the rescue organization again.
Emma has shown all the signs of years of neglect at a puppy mill. She wasn’t housetrained, even though I was assured she was. She is scared of people, especially large men. Whenever anyone raises their voice, even playfully, she runs and hides.
I’ve had to teach her how to go for a walk, although she still zigzags and likes to mark about every 5 feet. I’ve had to teach her how to play. I always thought dogs had a natural instinct to fetch a ball or stick. Nope. That comes with normal socialization, which she apparently never had. I’ve even taught her how to beg. She loves table scraps.
She likes to be by my side all the time. When the weather is tolerable, she takes rides with me in the car while I run errands. When I’m working, she sleeps in a soft bed under my desk. I have vowed never to kennel her because I know the likely trauma it would bring her. Instead, I let family and friends watch her when necessary.
When I was recently in California, I was talking to a friend about pet psychics. We traded stories about our rescue pets and we noticed a similarity in our dogs. Like my friend’s dog, when I first brought Emma home, I set her down outside so she could get a sense of her new home. She took off running. And running and running.
I chased her down the street and practically did a running tackle to capture her. This happened a few more times and I imagined that she must want to escape from us. I wanted her to know that we were there to help.
So when my friend and I traded stories, she mentioned what the pet psychic had said about this behavior.
“Your dog ran because she never knew she could.”
A sense of freedom is something that puppy mill breeder dogs often never know. Even now, when I want Emma to embrace her lack of confines, I have to realize that freedom, to someone who’s never known it, can be overwhelming. I finally started crating Emma at night after too many accidents. I was worried about putting her in a cage but I keep it comfortable and she now knows it’s her safety.
I got Emma when she was 6. Now, she’s 9 and she has improved dramatically but she’s probably the best she’s ever going to be. She’ll never be a “normal” dog and I’m okay with that. I just wish no other dog ever had to go through this.
If Emma’s story has moved you to take action, here’s what you can do. The Humane Society of the United States has information on what you can do to stop puppy mills, as well as questions you need to ask before you buy a puppy to ensure you aren’t supporting puppy mills.