What to Expect When Rescuing a Puppy Mill Dog

Person petting a somewhat scared looking terrier

You've chosen to rescue a puppy mill dog. Now, this very special dog is becoming part of your life. This brave little survivor has endured unpleas­antries we can only imagine and has emerged a very unique individual who is now counting on you for help in overcoming that horrible experience. 

Adopting a puppy mill dog takes a very special person. But if you’re ready and willing to take on this challenge, it will be life-changing for both you and your new companion. So many people who have undertaken this journey have reported that it was the most rewarding thing they have ever done — and odds are it will be for you, too.

The following guide will help with what to expect when rescuing a puppy mill dog — including advice on crate- and house-training, socialization, separation anxiety, gaining trust, and more.

Table of contents
1. Introduction to rescued puppy mill dogs
2. How to prepare to bring home a rescued puppy mill dog
3. How to introduce your dog to your home
4. How to introduce your new dog to your other dogs
5. How to gain your dog’s trust
6. How to touch and handle your dog
7. How to socialize your dog
8. How to house-train your dog
9. How to deal with marking
10. How to leash-train your dog
11. How to crate-train your dog
12. How to teach your dog to respond to basic cues
13. How to deal with poop-eating
14. How to deal with separation anxiety
15. How to help your dog progress without causing harm

1. Introduction to rescued puppy mill dogs

Over the next year or two, you will watch a dog who has been deprived of virtually every known pleasure begin first to explore and then to enjoy a life that offers these pleasures. The words that rescued puppy mill dog adopters have used most often to describe their dogs' changes include: “blossom,” “bloom,” and “coming out of their shell.” You’re almost certain to be seeing your dog’s changes in the same light.

But it might not be an easy road for you and for your new canine companion. Puppy mill dogs have had their world turned upside down. Every­thing is different and new. This is often overwhelm­ing for the dog, and helping your dog adjust to this new world can be challenging and might test your patience. But nothing good in life comes without some effort, and helping a psychologically beaten dog heal is one of life’s greatest goods.

Because each dog is affected differently, your dog might not require all of the recommendations below. In addition, the advice below is in­tended for the first time a rescued puppy mill dog enters a home. If your dog is com­ing from a foster home, some of the “work” might already have been done or at least begun. For example, almost no dog straight out of the puppy mill has any experience with a collar and leash, but dogs coming from a foster home might have learned about them.

Some basic facts on dogs from puppy mills

Puppy mills are puppy-making facto­ries. They are large-scale commercial dog-breeding operations where the happiness of the dogs is all but ignored to make a monetary profit from selling the puppies. To maximize profits, the dogs are housed in very small enclosures, live in unsanitary living quarters, are fed inferior-quality food, are denied decent medical care, and are severely deprived of positive human social contact.

Psychological functioning of the dogs

Because puppy mill dogs are born and raised in an impoverished environment and endure severe stress throughout life, their psychological functioning is not like that of normally raised pet dogs. This shows itself in how they interact with people, their desire to make eye contact, their social skills with other dogs, their desire to play, their ability to focus attention and learn — in short, their ability to function like a typical dog.

Fortunately, the dogs have a remarkable capacity to recover from their psychological impairments. Many recover to the point where they appear to be completely rid of their psychological difficulties. Others recover partially but not completely, and others are so severely troubled that they continue to struggle emotionally. 

Every puppy mill dog has a different capacity to adapt and recover, and we almost never know at the outset what this limit will be or when the dog will reach it. What this means is that adopters must accept up front that the dog they are taking into their home might retain some psychological impairment throughout life and might always be a special-needs companion. It is imperative that puppy mill dog adopters commit themselves to unconditional acceptance of what their dog is, what the dog becomes, and what the dog's limita­tions might be.


Rehabilitation of puppy mill dogs is often difficult and fraught with frustration. It might take weeks, months, or even years for the dogs to be free of their fears and other emotional struggles. For some, rehabilitation continues for the dog’s remaining life. 

Just like the terminol­ogy used for alcoholism in people (i.e., those who overcome their troubles are referred to as “recov­ering alcoholics” rather than “former alcoholics”), some puppy mill dogs will always be “recovering puppy mill dogs.” And even with the finest human efforts, some of the dogs coming out of puppy mills are just too emotionally scarred to completely overcome the harm that befell them. But the adopters who open their arms and hearts to these little survivors are all but assured an immensely rewarding experience.

Course of recovery

No two puppy mill dogs’ course of recovery is exactly the same. For some it is fast, but for most it is slow. It can be fast, and then slow, and then fast again. Steps forward are often interspersed with steps backward. Improve­ment can stop at some point, stay unchanged for a time, and then start showing progress again.

All puppy mill dogs are affected by their puppy mill experience in their own way, and their needs for healing are very unique when they escape that life. Methods of rehabilitation will also vary in their effectiveness from dog to dog. Methods that are beneficial for one dog might be ineffective and even counterproductive in another. Rehabilitation can involve some trial and error until you see what works best for your dog.

Normal dog behavior

We know that there are many aspects of normal dog behavior that dogs who have spent their entire lives in puppy mills cannot be expected to show at first, among them:

  • Showing any control or discrimination over when and where they urinate and defecate
  • Trusting humans
  • Desiring petting or being picked up, held, or hugged
  • Playing with humans, other dogs, or toys
  • Understanding any cues
  • Walking on a leash

8 words to live by

These eight words will characterize your life with your puppy mill dog: patience, love, understanding, compassion, for­giveness, calmness, empathy, and perseverance. Write them on a piece of paper, and post it on your refrigerator so you will see it every day.

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2. How to prepare to bring home a rescued puppy mill dog

There are some things you will need to do before your new adopted puppy mill dog arrives in your home.


  • Dog-proof your house. In particular, remove or place out of reach small objects that might be ingested and anything you do not want chewed. Secure any cabinets, especially those con­taining cleaning products and other potentially toxic materials.
  • Buy a dog crate that is the right size for the new dog. The crate should be tall enough for the dog to stand and long enough to accommodate the dog lying down from nose to base of the tail. If possi­ble, get both a wire cage–style crate and a plas­tic airline-approved crate, as dogs show prefer­ences for one or the other. Wire crates provide more ventilation, but the dogs feel more exposed (correctable by draping blankets over the top and sides). They also most resemble puppy mill cages, which we think can be a comfort for some puppy mill dogs but an elicitor of fearful memo­ries in others. The plastic crates are more den-like, thus providing a greater sense of security. The tops also can come off, allowing a fearful dog to be removed without pulling the dog through a crate door. 
  • Be sure that the bottom of the crate is very comfortable to walk on. Many of these dogs have walked on nothing but wire cage flooring, and their feet might be injured and painful. A soft blanket or pad works well for this.
  • Gather other dog supplies. Have these additional items already at home before the arrival of the dog:
    • Nylon leash, 6 feet in length
    • Sturdy nylon collar of the correct size (You should be able to fit two fingers comfortably under the collar when it is on the dog.)
    • Harness (You might have to wait until the dog arrives for proper sizing.)
    • An engraved identification tag to attach to the col­lar, containing your current contact information
    • High-quality dog food: canned and dry
    • A variety of delicious treats: sliced hot dogs, cheese, spray cheese, small pieces of chicken, tuna, beef strips, beef jerky, turkey jerky, liver­wurst, freeze-dried liver, commercial dog treats
    • Puppy pee pads (piddle pads)
    • Exercise pen (tall, collapsible wire enclosure)
    • Baby gate(s)


  • Fail to protect items in your home. Hide or protect any object, material, surface, or floor covering that can be urinat­ed or pooped on and not cleaned up easily.

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3. How to introduce your dog to your home

You will almost certainly adjust to your new dog well before the dog adjusts to you, your family, and your household. By far the strongest emotion ruling the puppy mill dog’s life is fear. Because of this, one of the strongest inclinations for newly adopted puppy mill dogs is to hide — behind, under, farther away — in any way that lessens the fear. 

The hiding can be for days or weeks, with the dog coming out only at night to get some food and water. When a puppy mill dog enters your home, your most important job is to protect the dog from things that frighten them.


  • Be patient.
  • Bring your puppy mill dog into your house in the crate you’ve obtained for them. (Important note: Many puppy mill dogs are terrified of crates and cages, which is understandable because they’ve spent virtually their entire lives — and unpleasant lives at that — in such enclosures. For these dogs, use of a crate will likely have to be omitted from any steps during the adjustment phase to the new home.)
  • Provide a safe haven for your dog as they ad­just to their new home. Ideally, give the dog a quiet room where they can adjust without threats and disruptions for the first few days. This could be a bathroom, utility room, base­ment, or guest bedroom. After “dog-proofing” the room, set the dog in their crate in the room and open the door of the crate. Place a bowl of water and a little dry and canned food in the room not far from the crate. Put newspapers or pee pads on the other side of the room. Then leave the dog alone and just peek in occasionally for the next few hours. Fully expect to find that your dog has urinated or had a bowel movement in the room.
  • After a few days in their own room, bring the dog in their crate to an area of the house that has some human activity but not a lot. The crate should either sit backed up into a corner or be shielded with towels or blankets draped over its top, sides, and back end to give the dog a sense of safety behind them. The door to the crate should be left partially open. Here, the dog can feel some security in the crate but begin to be exposed to the all-new experiences of a human household. Things we take for granted — such as telephones ringing, someone knocking on a door, sounds from the TV, clinking of dishes being set on the table or washed, the noise of a vacuum cleaner, and humans talking — are all very foreign to rescued puppy mill dogs and take some get­ting used to.
  • Next, set up the exercise pen in a room so that your dog can safely venture out of the crate but still feel somewhat protected. The pen also prevents the dog from going into parts of the house that you or the dog are not quite ready for.
  • Always try to move slowly when around your puppy mill dog. Sudden and fast movements can be very frightening.
  • Minimize loud and sudden noises. They also can be very frightening to a dog from a puppy mill.
  • Get help from doggy friends. It’s now well known among rescue groups that puppy mill dogs often trust new dogs before they trust new people. In fact, having another friendly and compatible dog in the house is what adopters tell us is the single most effective thing you can do to rehabilitate the adopted puppy mill dog. If you do not have another dog, try to have your friends, relatives, or neighbors bring their dogs over (if they are friendly and well-social­ized), and allow your dog to spend as much time as possible with them.
  • Have your dog sleep next to your bed. This can help them adjust to you in a non-threatening way. However, it might not be suitable for all adopters or the dogs themselves, so each adopter must decide which nighttime sleeping arrangement is best.


  • Allow anything to threaten or frighten your dog when they're in their safe place. You want them to learn that nothing bad happens in the safe place, which then allows them to feel more relaxed at all times because they know they can always go to the safe place. (With that said, the dog shouldn’t remain in the crate all the time. 

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4. How to introduce your new dog to your other dogs

The vast majority of puppy mill dogs benefit from the companionship of one or more friendly dogs to guide them. Introducing puppy mill dogs to other friendly dogs in the house usually goes smoothly, but here are some tips to encourage a successful meeting.


  • Be patient.
  • If possible, carry out the first contact between your newly adopted puppy mill dog and your current dog(s) in a neutral location. That means go someplace that none of the dogs has been before. Because puppy mill dogs are often very frightened, it should be an indoor location, such as a friend’s house. If a neutral indoor meeting place isn’t available, you can conduct the first introduction in your own home.
  • First, allow the puppy mill dog and your cur­rent dog to see and smell each other through a screen door or fence-like barrier, such as a baby gate. With you supervising, allow them to watch and smell each other for a few hours. Then, if possible, switch the dogs’ places so that each is now on the other side of the barrier. This strategy allows a more thorough sharing of one another’s smells. Let the dogs stay there for another hour or two.
  • Next, do face-to-face introductions. If you have several dogs, do the following introduction with just one dog at a time. Put a collar and leash on your dog and also on the puppy mill dog (if the dog accepts it). Have someone else bring the other dog into the room where you and your puppy mill dog are waiting. 
  • Be ready to use the leashes to separate them promptly. Watch out for either dog showing any signs of aggression (growling, snarling, baring of teeth, attempting to bite). If there are no signs of aggres­sion, allow the dogs to sniff each other. Speak in a friendly but soft voice using encouraging words (“That’s the way, good girl”), remembering that some puppy mill dogs will be frightened by any­thing spoken by a human. When they start to show interest in other things in the environment rather than fully focusing on each other, it will tell you that they are generally accepting of each other.
  • Allow the dogs to interact together in your house. But during the first week or two, supervise them carefully at all times when they are together. If you have to leave the house, confine the dogs separately so that your puppy mill dog and your other dog(s) cannot physically interact. You can keep them in separate rooms or use a dependably strong baby gate to separate them so that they can still see, smell, and hear one another. The puppy mill dog’s confinement area should always have a crate or other safe haven, so they can retreat if they feel the need to hide from the view of your other dogs.
  • Feed the puppy mill dog in an area at least 10 feet away from where the other dogs are fed. Preferably, they should be where they cannot see each other while eating. Pick up the food bowls after the dogs have eaten or after 20 to 30 minutes, which­ever occurs first.
  • Give your puppy mill dog their own bed, sepa­rate and some distance from your other dogs’ beds. If your puppy mill dog appreciates toys, they should have their own. Sharing things like toys, beds, food, and treats will come later once your dogs become friends.
  • Don’t leave desired items around that they might com­pete over. This is a precaution against conflicts in the first few days of actual togetherness between your other dogs and your puppy mill dog. These “high-value” items include food bowls, chew treats, and even toys if the puppy mill dog shows an interest in them.
  • Praise all the dogs for friendly behavior toward one another. Maintain a soft and soothing (that is, not excited) tone of voice, so you don't startle or worry a noise-sensitive puppy mill dog.


  • Allow the dogs to become overexcited or aroused during interactions and play time. If you notice this happening, keep interactive sessions short until the dogs appear more calm during play.

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5. How to gain your dog's trust

For a dog to fully trust humans, two things must happen: The dog must receive significant pleas­ant interaction with humans during puppyhood, and the dog must not have highly unpleasant interaction with humans during his growth and adulthood. Puppy mill dogs suffer on both counts. And because of this, puppy mill dogs arrive in the human home with very little willingness or ability to trust you or any other human.

Many people mistakenly believe that trust and fear are opposites — that trust comes when fear re­cedes. This isn’t quite true. Just because you don’t fear someone doesn’t mean that you trust the per­son. Getting a dog to trust you starts, but doesn’t necessarily end, with the dog no longer fearing you. 

More importantly, the trust you want to help your dog develop is a trust in the world, of which you are one (very valuable) part. You want your dog to de­velop a sense of security that things in the world are dependable and relatively predictable, something the dog can grow comfortable with.

For puppy mill dogs, fear diminishes and trust grows in small increments over time. The vast majority of puppy mill dogs come to trust humans, but we have also learned that for some of the dogs this trust is extended to only one or two people. And that’s OK. As long as the dog has at least one person they can trust, the opportunity exists for them to fully enjoy life.


  • Be patient.
  • Establish a consistent schedule that the dog will learn to depend on. This is a critical part of building trust. Make a schedule for feeding times, going outside, play, rest, and sleep — and stick to it. You want to teach your puppy mill dog that they can trust the world and that they can depend on the world to function in a reliable and nonthreatening way.
  • Teach your dog that you are the source of good things in life, starting with food. Most puppy mill dogs will not eat from your hand at first, but with patience you can almost always teach this degree of trust. If and when your puppy mill dog is will­ing to eat from your hand, make hand-feeding the routine at mealtimes as much as you can.
  • Try using treats. Sit on the floor with delicious treats placed at varying distances on the floor around you. It could take minutes or it could take months, but over time almost all puppy mill dogs will eventually start coming closer and closer to you to get the treats. When the dog is within arm’s distance, gradually move your hand closer and closer to the treat so that the dog learns it is safe to eat a treat near your hand. Then, gradually shorten the distances between the treats and your body and between the treats and your hand, until you can place a treat in your upturned palm and have the dog take it out of your hand. When this happens, it is a huge sign of acceptance and trust.
  • Simply teach your dog that you mean them no harm whatsoever. Show your dog that you are not something to fear. Sit (on the floor preferably) and talk very softly to your dog. Many people read aloud in a soothing tone, which benefits both your dog and you — because you can get some reading done. If your dog is very frightened, you can read to them as they lie in their crate.


  • Force yourself on your dog. Don't try to hurry any aspect of your dog’s develop­ment of trust in the world or in you.
  • Do something that the dog will find threatening. Examples include yelling at, rushing toward, hitting, grabbing, or “alpha-rolling” the dog. These actions will completely derail all of your efforts to gain your dog’s trust.

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6. How to touch and handle your dog

It is human nature to want to comfort frightened creatures by holding and embracing them. Giving hugs, cuddling, and showering them with love seems to be just what rescued puppy mill dogs need. But it isn’t. 

Most puppy mill dogs are uncomfortable with physical contact by humans, and some are outright terrified. And, in light of their life experience, they have every reason to be. They have received very little or no positive human touch their whole lives. As a result, their brains are not “wired” to perceive physical touch — even the most gentle and loving touch — as something positive.

Change takes time, so be patient. Even the most compassionate person with the most heartfelt empathy can’t make a puppy mill dog love human touch overnight.


  • Be patient.
  • Occasionally and gradually edge your arm, hand, leg, or body closer to your dog to show that nearness is no cause for alarm. Ultimately, though, let your dog be the one who decides when it’s time for human contact. Given enough time, almost all puppy mill dogs will eventually get close enough to sniff you — a huge step for them. Sometime after that, the dog will usually touch you with their nose or a paw. This is as monumental as a baby’s first step or first word. Let your dog have several weeks of developing confidence in them touching you before you try to touch them.
  • If your puppy mill dog accepts your touch, you can try to pick them up. But do it in gradual steps. First, make sure they allow you to touch their sides and then allow you to place a hand under their body. Next, try gentle upward pressure with your hand under them, then a very brief lift that doesn’t fully lift the dog off the ground, then a longer lift in which the dog is still in contact with the ground, and then a very brief lift fully off the ground but staying very close to the ground.
  • Work at an even slower pace if your dog “flattens” on the floor whenever you attempt to lift them. Dogs who do this also might roll onto their backs and even pass some urine. All of this is a show of submission. It doesn’t mean the dog will never accept being picked up, but it does mean that the dog will take more time getting to that point than those who don’t display these submissive behaviors.


  • Get discouraged if your dog isn’t accepting of your touch at some point. Just back up to the point at which the dog did accept it, and move through the steps more slowly. If at any point the dog seems distressed, stop and give it a few days before trying again. Keep in mind that not all puppy mill dogs will allow being lifted until they’ve been with you for a long time (and some won’t ever allow it).
  • Force yourself on the dog in any way. Never insist that the dog accept contact or try to make the dog feel better by hugging and “loving on” them.
  • Celebrate your dog making their first physical contact with you. Instead, remain absolutely calm and silent. Any sound or movement could erase the big step the dog has just made.
  • Place your face next to the dog’s face. This might frighten the dog, and they could bite in defense.
  • Make direct eye contact at first. Point your head a bit off to the side and keep visual contact out of the corner of your eye. Direct eye contact is often very threatening to puppy mill dogs because they’ve never learned to associate it with anything positive.
  • Startle a puppy mill dog by touching them from behind. These dogs’ heightened sensitivity to touch is sometimes more pronounced when the touch is coming from behind them, especially without warning or notice.

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7. How to socialize your dog

It is rare to see puppy mill dogs' true personalities when they arrive in a home. It is buried — sometimes very deeply — under a mass of emo­tions that the under-socialized dogs need to protect themselves from this overwhelming change in their lives. But watching your adopted puppy mill dog’s true personality emerge is one of the most amazing, gratifying, and rewarding things you will ever experience.

The largest contributing factor to the squelching of these dogs’ personalities is the extreme deprivations of life in a puppy mill, where the dogs receive very inadequate socialization. Early exposure to and interaction with humans during puppyhood is essential for the developing canine brain to form the connections that make for positive social relationships with humans throughout life. Conversely, without such early socialization, the dog’s brain is not properly equipped to form close bonds with people, and the dog will fear humans.

When we speak of socialization, we often use it in the very broad sense of becoming familiarized to anything — not just “social” activities (such as interaction with people, dogs, and other animals) but also comfort around everyday objects and events. So if a puppy is exposed to stairs in a positive way, for example, the dog's comfort level with stairs will be natural throughout life. By contrast, if a puppy grows to adulthood without ever encountering stairs, that dog might have a persistent fear of stairs.

As you can imagine, puppy mill dogs are routinely deprived of exposure to so many things that dogs living in homes experience every day. So our overall goal in socializing puppy mill dogs is to lessen their fears of the basic, normal things that pet dogs encounter. 

We are striving to have them feel comfortable with being around humans and other dogs, being outdoors in wide open spaces, walking on solid ground, going through a doorway, playing with toys, riding in a car, hearing a vacuum cleaner, going up and down stairs, getting bathed, and so much more. Our greatest efforts, of course, are directed at helping puppy mill dogs to become comfortable around and bonded with people, so they can enjoy living in human society.

Because of the uniqueness of each rescued puppy mill dog, socialization plans must be tailored to the individual. No two puppy mill dogs’ socialization plans are the same. Every aspect of the plan — what they are socialized to, where they are socialized, what specific steps and pace are required, what supplemental help (e.g., anti-anxiety wraps, nutritional supplements, medication) is needed — is quite different from dog to dog.

There is one thing, however, that is a valuable benefit to virtually every puppy mill dog’s socialization plan: having at least one friendly, well-socialized dog already in the household. Other dogs serve as a valuable role model for everything from how to play to where to go to the bathroom. Many people have described it to us by saying, “My other dog showed her how to be a dog.”

Considering puppy mill dogs’ socialization on an individual basis has been shown to be so critical that it even includes whether socialization is helpful or harmful for each dog. Based on extensive reports from adopters, socialization efforts are very beneficial for many puppy mill dogs, but for others it can actually create distress. The two factors determining which of these two groups your dog will fall into are: your puppy mill dog’s mental makeup (genetics, past experiences, and capacity for change) and the way the socialization is done.

Each puppy mill dog’s different capacity to adapt and recover is especially important in socialization. First, it is crucial for the puppy mill dog adopter to accept that every dog will maximally socialize to a different level. For example, some puppy mill dogs may be initially unwilling to walk on stairs but over time will become completely comfortable running up and down stairs. Others may become better on stairs but never comfortable. And still others may become comfortable going up stairs but not down — or vice versa. 

The same is true with regard to socialization to humans. Some dogs may never achieve a comfort level with certain people in their lives. Only time will tell. However, all but a few of rescued puppy mill dogs will bond to their primary person.


  • Be patient.
  • Have another dog around to help socialize your puppy mill dog. If you do not have one already, consider adopting another dog in need of a home. Because this other dog will serve as a role model, the dog should not be from a puppy mill. (Misery may love company, but misery also compounds misery when two fearful dogs live together.) Your “role model” dog should not be fearful of humans and should have demonstrated — perhaps through time spent in another home or a foster home — that they're absolutely friendly with other dogs. If you don’t have an­other dog in your home, try to have your relatives and friends bring their friendly, well-socialized dogs over to spend as much time with your puppy mill dog as possible, keeping in mind your dog’s comfort level.
  • Have willing friends and visitors to your home try the technique mentioned above for gaining your dog’s trust. Instruct them to sit on the floor and read, with treats scattered around at various distances.
  • Use desensitization and counterconditioning to help socialize your dog. These techniques make the fearful stimulus (e.g., humans) less fearful by exposing the dog to the stimulus bit by bit over time (desensitization) or by changing the per­ception of the fearful stimulus in the dog’s mind from something unpleasant to something pleas­ant (counterconditioning). A classic example of counterconditioning is when the staff at the veterinarian’s office give dogs yummy treats whenever they go to the vet. The goal is to get the dogs to associate good things with going to the vet. The same technique can be used to get a dog to enjoy the presence of people, other dogs, or a new baby in the house. When using desensitization and counterconditioning, everything is done in small, gradual increments. Progress can occur rapidly or very slowly, and different dogs have different limits.
  • Have all interactions between your dog and the people they're shy around or fearful of occur only after the dog approaches them. Don’t allow people to approach your dog until the dog shows they're ready by remaining relaxed, not trying to escape or hide behind you, and not trying to scare the person off with barking or aggression. The person should stand sideways to the dog, crouch down if possible, not make direct eye contact, make no sudden movements, and talk to your dog in a calm, quiet tone of voice. If it is safe to do so (i.e., your dog has never shown any sign of aggression, especially biting), have the person slowly extend a palm upward toward the dog. If this goes well and your dog remains comfortable, give some treats to the person to place in the palm of the hand that they extend to your dog.
  • Avoid the avoidable when possible. Many things that we’d like our dogs to be comfortable with are not essential aspects of life, such as going to a dog park. If certain things cause your dog fear, anxiety, or distress and do not seem to be accepted by your dog in spite of your efforts, minimize or elimi­nate your dog’s exposure to these things.
  • Try pheromone therapy, which can ease anxiety and fear in many dogs. Dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) comes in a spray bottle, a plug-in wall diffuser, and a collar. It is available through many websites and at pet supply stores.
  • Try prescription anti-anxiety medication if other methods of easing fears are not suc­cessful. Consult your veterinarian to see whether this option is appropriate for your dog.
  • Provide whatever comforting words and gestures seem to help your dog cope with emotional challenges. When working to social­ize your puppy mill dog, ignore completely the common but mistaken advice to avoid comforting a fearful dog under the rationale that doing so will reinforce the fear. How this absurd notion ever got started is a mystery, but it is scientific nonsense.


  • Rush any type of socialization — to people, things, places, or events. Trying to push social­ization before the dog is ready is one of the best ways to impede progress because you run a high risk of actually increasing the dog’s fear.
  • Use “flooding” techniques. This means sudden, extreme, and prolonged exposure to something that the dog is fearful of — in the belief that by be­ing forced to “face their fears,” your dog will no longer fear those things. Use common sense here. If you had a snake phobia and were placed in a box where 100 snakes were poured on top of you, would you come out of the box less or more fearful of snakes?
  • Make socialization anything other than a very calm and nonthreatening experience. No excited introductions, no loud and boisterous displays of how fun this is to try, no socializa­tion parties.
  • Respond to a fearful dog’s barking by backing away from the dog. Ignoring the barking is the best response because it prevents the dog from being rewarded for trying to get people to go away — hence reinforcing the behavior. This doesn’t mean simply standing there and causing distress to the dog. But any backing away shouldn’t occur right away, and it should be done very slowly.

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8. How to house-train your dog

After puppy mill dogs are adopted into human households, almost all these dogs have urination and bowel movement “accidents” in the home. But we must realize that bodily eliminations inside the house are not accidents at all to the puppy mill dog; in fact, to these dogs this is perfectly normal behavior.

Dogs in puppy mills are neither taught nor expect­ed to eliminate in any special area. They go wher­ever they want to, whenever they want to. The concept of “holding it” is completely unknown to them. To make matters worse, most of these dogs are very fearful, so training them to do anything — even with strictly positive techniques — can make them even more fearful.

Your puppy mill dog is not the “normal” dog for whom dog-training books have been written. All of the usual instructions — what to do if you catch them in the act, how to use crate confine­ment as a tool, even the strategy of praising the dog profusely when they do their business outside — might be different when it comes to house-training a dog from a puppy mill.

For puppy mill dogs, the basic rule is this: Reward the good; distract from the bad. “Distract” means directing the dog’s mind away from the undesirable behavior that they're involved in. Punishment is never a good idea when house-training a dog, but it can be even more harmful for the fragile and sensitive emotional makeup of rescued puppy mill dogs, impeding and even reversing any progress they are gaining in trusting people.


  • Be patient. House-training might take a week, it might take a month, or it might take a year. Try not to get discouraged. Many puppy mill dogs will achieve full mastery of eliminating in the right place.
  • Be very careful when using even the gentlest-sounding house-training methods with puppy mill dogs. Because of the fear these dogs can have, even the most benign things, such as rewarding the dog for urinating in the right place, can scare them. Your tone of voice when praising the dog might be scary, the dog might fear your reach­ing toward them to hand them a treat, or the dog might feel like you’re throwing something at them if you toss them a treat. The usual recommendation for what to do when you catch your dog eliminat­ing indoors can also create problems in fearful puppy mill dogs. The simple act of interrupting this behavior, no matter how carefully it’s done, might frighten the dog. And the standard advice to “quickly take the dog to the appropriate area to eliminate” is difficult to do without rushing toward the dog, which, again, can be frightening.
  • Keep in mind that many puppy mill dogs are very frightened of being outdoors. This is, of course, a major hindrance to training a dog to do their business outside. For these dogs, use piddle pads or newspaper to train the dog to eliminate indoors initially. As the dog’s fear of the outdoors lessens, the training can be transferred to a spot outside. 
  • When training the dog to go outside, take the thing you used inside (such as pee pads) and place it in the outdoor spot. This will help the dog learn the new “right” place to go. And remember, not everyone wants or needs to train their dogs to do their business outside. For them, having the dog eliminate indoors on piddle pads or paper is just fine.


  • Expect perfection — ever. It might happen, but do not allow it to be your expectation.
  • Scold or discipline your puppy mill dog for any "accident," even if you catch them in the act. Instead, gentle interruption is the cor­rect response.

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9. How to deal with marking

Marking is when a dog (most often a male but occasionally a female) urinates on specific objects or locations because of the influence of sex hormones or some source of stress. 

Male dogs in puppy mills, all of whom are not neutered (obviously), mark in their cages and enclosures as a territorial signal to the other nearby males. The longer they do this before they leave the puppy mill, the more habitual it becomes and the lower the likelihood that it will fully stop even when they are neutered.

In addition to the influence of sex hormones, marking can also be triggered by stress, anxiety, and fear. And because we know that these emotional states are prominent in rescued puppy mill dogs, it is not surprising to find that marking is common in their new adoptive homes.


  • Be patient.
  • Get any male dog neutered. Some dogs might already be neutered when you adopt them.
  • Examine your home situation for any correct­able causes of fear, anxiety, and stress for the dog. Resolve all that can be corrected. Causes can include conflicts with other dogs, fear of certain people, or disruptions such as furniture be­ing rearranged or not having a reliable schedule for the dog’s activities.
  • Examine your home situation for any poten­tial conflict or rivalry between your puppy mill dog and other dogs. Competition over human attention, sleeping places, access to certain locations (e.g., a corner of the living room or a second bedroom), toys, and food can all cause a dog to mark. Seeing other dogs outside, such as neighbors’ dogs as they are walked in front of your house, can also elicit marking behavior.
  • Try dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP). This comes in a spray bottle, plug-in wall diffuser, and a collar, and it is available for purchase via many websites and pet stores.
  • Use belly bands (available at pet stores and online) if needed. They do not solve the problem, but they do protect your household items while the dog’s need for marking diminishes.
  • Clean all urine markings very thoroughly. Use with white vinegar and an enzymatic product, which neutralizes urine odors (available at pet stores and online).


  • Punish, scold, or yell at your dog for marking. Avoid de­livering any unpleasant consequences.

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10. How to leash-train your dog

It is extremely rare for dogs in puppy mills to have ever been on a leash. And if you've never used your neck to pull against something (like a leash and collar) in your life, it would be a very unusual and possibly even scary sensation. This is likely why puppy mill dogs tend to pull against a leash much less often than typical pet dogs. 

Similarly, any pulling of the puppy mill dog with a leash is likely very frightening to them because they've never had something pull against this part of their body. For some reason, the actual wearing of a collar is usually well-tolerated; it’s the pulling that the dog finds strange and troubling.

Why leash-train? An attached leash early in your new dog’s time in your home allows you to gain a quick hold if you need to (e.g., the dog dashing for an open door). It allows you to gently get your dog out of a tight hiding place, such as out from under furniture, if need be. And it allows you to gently lead the dog to the chosen potty area if the dog is frightened of being picked up and carried.


  • Be patient.
  • Purchase a sturdy nylon collar and a harness of proper size and fit. Attach the leash to the dog’s collar, and let the dog simply drag it around when they're not in their crate. This will provide a mild pulling sensation on the collar that should not be upsetting. Be sure to always supervise the dog very closely to prevent the leash from catching on something and endangering your dog.
  • Use the same leash-dragging strategy with the leash attached to the harness. You can alternate this with the sessions of collar attachment. Use only the harness if the collar is upsetting to your dog.
  • Use delicious food treats as enticements and rewards when you first attach the collar, harness, or leash if your dog seems resistant but not distressed. Feed the treats while another person is placing the collar or harness on or attaching the leash. Doing this in short trials over several hours or days should lead the dog to associate the apparatus with the treats and then be accepting of having them put on and wearing them.
  • When it appears that leash-dragging is well tolerated, pick up the leash and follow your dog as they walk around, occasionally giving a very slight pull on the leash. Slowly increase the amount of resistance, so the dog can learn what a little tension against the collar or harness feels like. You’ll want to do it slowly, so it doesn’t scare the dog. Using this method, most dogs become quite comfortable with walking on leash.
  • If your puppy mill dog is frightened of the outdoors, take your “walks” in the house for several days or weeks. When the dog seems relatively confident with the outdoors, you can take them outside on the leash. The best assurance that your dog won’t slip out of their collar and escape is to use the harness on your outdoor walks. But because even harnesses aren’t foolproof, if you have any reason to believe that your dog might get spooked and panic, you should use both a collar and a harness, each with a leash attached.


  • Force your puppy mill dog to accept anything that seems distressing to them. This includes wearing a collar or harness or going outside. Almost all of these things are eventually achievable, but you must go very slowly and be guided by what your dog shows they're ready for.

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11. How to crate-train your dog

The first thing to know about crate-training a puppy mill dog is this: Not all puppy mill dogs can be — or should be — crate-trained. Many puppy mill dogs are terrified of crates and cages, which is understandable because they’ve spent virtually their entire lives (and unpleasant lives at that) in such enclosures. Seeing, and especially being in, a cage-like enclosure can arouse memories of the puppy mill. 

Why crate-train? For the dogs who aren’t extremely frightened of them, crates serve two functions. First, the crate is the dog’s den or cave, a true safe haven to which your dog can reliably retreat when events in life cause fear or stress. It’s a place the dog can go to seek peace and calm. For this function, the crate door is left open. 

The second function is for the dog’s confinement. There are times when you need your dog to be in a crate, such as during the night or when workers are in the house and your door might be inadvertently left open. For this function, the crate door is kept closed.


  • Be patient.
  • Make being in the crate a positive experience for the dog. Try feeding the dog in the crate and offer treats in the crate. In fact, anytime you lead your dog into the crate for the purpose of confinement, include a favorite treat (e.g., hot dog slices, a rawhide chew, a Kong toy with peanut butter or cheese inside) to continually reinforce the association of the crate with a positive experience.
  • Leave the door open whenever it isn’t absolutely necessary to close it.
  • Make sure your dog has had the opportunity to go to the bathroom first anytime they're put in the crate with the door closed.
  • Start with short periods of time in the closed-door crate and slowly work up to longer periods of time. This means first observing how long your dog is comfortable in the crate before showing any indications of anxiety, such as pacing, pawing at the crate door, digging into the corners of the crate, crying, whimpering, or barking. Knowing this, you will want to place the dog in the crate for periods of time that don’t reach the onset of anxiety. If possible, do several of these sessions each day. Then, over the next few weeks, very gradually increase the time the dog is spending in the crate during each session. In most cases, you will be able to extend the length of time that the dog can comfortably spend in the crate by several hours.


  • Force a puppy mill dog who acts very fearful of crates to live in a crate. The dog will very quickly form a mental association between crate and fear, and that might simply escalate the fear level.
  • Use the crate in any way as punishment.
  • Allow anything to make the crate an unpleasant experience. For example, if the dog is in the crate while rambunctious children are visiting your home, do not allow the children to go near the crate without you being there to assure that the children don’t frighten the dog.

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12. How to teach your dog to respond to basic cues

Teaching your dog to respond to basic cues (e.g., “sit” or “come”) is extremely beneficial in many ways. It allows you to protect your dog from danger; for example, “come” can be a lifesaving cue if your dog is in a risky situation. It allows your dog to coexist better with humans; if your dog knows “sit” or “down,” they can be taught to greet people politely, rather than jumping up on them. 

Basic training also establishes a leader and follower relationship, which is the most basic foundation for correcting any problem behaviors that might arise. Finally, training your dog in a positive, gentle way strengthens the bond be­tween you and the dog.

However, for puppy mill dogs, basic training is beneficial for some in that it helps them recover from their emotional struggles. But for others, such training creates dis­tress and can hamper their emotional healing. For the dogs who are negatively affected by training, there are two main factors at work: fear and an impaired ability to focus and concentrate.

Actual training methods can be found in many books and online videos, including Best Friends resources. What you need to know here is how standard methods of basic training must be modified for the special needs of puppy mill dogs.


  • Be patient.
  • Use positive training techniques only — ab­solutely no punishment should be employed. Positive training methods tend to help build a puppy mill dog’s confidence and trust in you, whereas punishment can damage the dog’s already fragile levels of confidence and trust.
  • Make certain that the professional trainer (if you use one) is knowledgeable about rescued puppy mill dogs and has had experience with them. Take your dog to training classes if you prefer having the structure of a class but only if the other dogs, people, and commotion do not cause your dog distress. Or have the training conducted in your home if you prefer the more private setting or if train­ing classes are too distressing for your dog.
  • Always keep in mind that some rescued pup­py mill dogs have an impaired ability to learn. Learning requires the mind to concentrate and maintain focus. And when compared to typical pet dogs, puppy mill dogs are less able to do this. In addition, puppy mill dogs aren’t familiar with the concept of respond­ing to cues and being rewarded for doing so. None of this means that puppy mill dogs cannot learn, but they will have different capacities for how fast and how much they can learn.
  • Try desensitization and counterconditioning techniques. This can help if your dog seems very fearful or distressed by attempts at training.


  • Use any techniques that employ punishment. And don't allow anyone else, including a trainer, to punish your dog.
  • Force training on your dog. Stop (at least temporarily) if your dog is distressed by any attempts at training.
  • Use “flooding” techniques. This means sudden, extreme, and prolonged exposure to something that the dog is fearful of in the belief that by being forced to “face their fears,” your dog will no longer fear those things.

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13. How to deal with poop-eating

Dogs coming out of puppy mills do some strange things, but eating poop (known as coprophagia) is certainly one of the most unappealing to us humans. And yet as repulsive as we consider this behavior to be, it’s not so distasteful (literally and figuratively) from the dog’s point of view. 

Puppy mill dogs eat poop for many reasons — ranging from hunger to relief of boredom. Interestingly, while this behavior is reported frequently by adopt­ers of puppy mill dogs, our research has shown that the incidence of coprophagia was no higher in puppy mill dogs than is reported in typi­cal pet dogs. No doubt it’s the disgust factor that makes it stand out in adopters’ minds.


  • Be patient.
  • Use products available from your veterinar­ian if you need them. There are food additives that can make poop distasteful to a dog. (The additives must be added to the food of any dog whose poop your dog is eating.)
  • Try giving your dog something more desir­able to go after when outside. For exam­ple, keep a supply of popped popcorn (unbut­tered and unsalted) on hand, and sprinkle it on the lawn before taking your dog out to do their business. Other things that your dog might prefer over poop include crumbled dog treats or small bits of bread.


  • Panic. It’s not as horrible a problem as your instinctive disgust tells you it is.
  • Punish your dog for eating poop.

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14. How to deal with separation anxiety

Many dogs who come from troubled back­grounds, including puppy mill dogs, show differ­ences in their social attachments and emotional bonds with their adopters. In scientific termi­nology, they often display insecure attachment behavior, which means that they appear as if they constantly fear being left alone or abandoned. 

These dogs are extra clingy, becoming their adopters’ “shadows,” following them from room to room in the house. Many of these dogs are very distressed when left alone at home, a condi­tion called separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is one situation in which the standard treatment is exactly the same for puppy mill dogs and for dogs who aren’t from puppy mills.


  • Be patient.
  • Use well-established techniques for treating separation anxiety. This Best Friends resource on separation anxiety can help.
  • Provide your dog with something mentally and/or physically engaging when you leave home. Interactive toys, food puzzles, and treat-filled Kong toys are all excellent choices.
  • Try dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP). This has been helpful for many dogs with separa­tion anxiety.
  • Try a Thundershirt. This is a body wrap that helps relieve anxiety in some dogs.


  • Use any form of punishment. It will only increase the dog’s anxiety.
  • Use crate confinement unless you know for a fact that your dog’s separation anxiety is not worsened by being in the crate. If you’re unsure, take a video of your dog in the crate during a few short periods (15 to 30 minutes) after you’ve left the house.

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15. How to help your dog progress without causing harm

One of the biggest challenges in rehabilitating a rescued puppy mill dog is finding a good balance between letting the dog advance at their own pace and encouraging them to advance. Letting any animal (humans included) choose what to do results in choices that create the greatest comfort or pleasure, which includes opting for whatever causes the least displeasure.

Sometimes, though, there can be no emotional heal­ing or advancement without some discomfort. This is well-known to us humans. For example, a shy person cannot overcome their shyness if they always stay in their comfort zone and avoid contact with other people. Likewise, if a puppy mill dog is given a safe haven and is allowed to choose whether to be in it or to leave it, they will stay in it all the time — and never learn to overcome their fears. 

The dog has to exit their comfort zone to “get over the hump” and go on to heal. If the dog is allowed to remain perpetually in their comfort zone, they will never do the less pleas­ant thing that can help them to feel better.

So how do we follow advice that seems contra­dictory — don’t push, but push? 

A good guide for working through this dilemma is the treatment method for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The main component of therapy for those with PTSD is to expose the person to that which they fear but do so in gradually increasing increments and, most importantly, in an atmosphere of emotional support and assured safety. In this way, the person can encounter the fearful stimulus but with a sense of safety, so the fear is within their ability to cope with it. The goal of this method is for the person to ultimately overcome their fears.

For puppy mill dogs, then, the key is to have the dog encounter what they're frightened of in a way that keeps the fear level within their coping capaci­ty — where they might be a little uncomfortable but not in distress from fear. There is no perfect way to determine where this level lies. It not only varies from dog to dog but also varies within the same dog, depending on which fearful stimulus it is. For example, the dog’s ability to cope with an encounter with a woman might be much higher than that dog’s coping ability when encountering a man.

The dog’s level of fear might also depend on other external factors. For example, the dog’s ability to cope with an encounter with an unfamiliar per­son might be much higher when the dog is inside their own house rather than on a walk around the neighborhood. 

It’s up to us to make the best determination based on how the dog is reacting. If the dog is showing a low degree of anxiety, such as making frequent looks at their caregiver as a stranger approaches, then it is usually appro­priate to proceed. But if that same dog indicates that they want to flee by pulling forcefully on their leash, that encounter is clearly not within that dog’s ability to successfully cope with the emo­tional discomfort.

The objective is controlled exposure, where expo­sure to fearful stimuli is not permanently avoided but rather is done in a very controlled way that assures the dog isn’t made to suffer distress. The two ways that the fear is kept within the dog’s ability to cope are: keeping the exposure to the fearful stimulus at a very low intensity and easing the dog’s fearful response by providing emotional support.

Here is an example: We don’t want a dog who is fearful of humans to spend all of her time in her crate (her safe haven) because that would cause her emotional healing to proceed very slowly if at all. We want to nudge her just outside her comfort zone. 

We can do that by closing the door of her crate when she’s outside the crate, so she can’t hide in there. To keep the fear at a low intensity, we can make the outside-of-crate episodes very brief and also not force her into a room of 30 partying humans. We can also nudge her outside of her comfort zone by allowing her to remain in her crate but placing the crate in a location where there is more exposure to humans. Again, the intensity of the fear is kept low by putting the crate in a place where some, but not much, hu­man exposure occurs (e.g., not in the middle of a dozen loud and rowdy children).

In addition to the low-intensity expo­sure to the fearful stimulus, we want to provide emotional support for the dog using whatever she regards as comforting. It could be speaking in a soothing voice, petting the dog, holding the dog, or simply being a human shield that she can hide behind.

It is important to reiterate here what was mentioned earlier about the mistaken belief that it’s bad to comfort a fearful animal because it will reinforce the fear. It is simply tragic that so many dogs have been, and continue to be, left entirely on their own to cope with their fear because the person caring for them didn’t want to reinforce the fear. What parent would fail to comfort their terrified youngster for that same reason? Consider this: Simple learning theory dictates that if it were possible to reinforce fear by rewarding it, it would be equally easy to lessen fear by punishing — which, of course, is just not the case.

Please join us and take a stand against puppy mills. Life in these “factory farms” is no life at all for dogs.

Learn more about puppy mills at bestfriends.org