The psychological damage suffered by dogs living in puppy mills is profound and exists long after they've been rescued, a new study shows.
"This study gives us strong evidence that the dogs kept in these large-scale breeding facilities don't just suffer while they're confined there, but carry the emotional scars out with them for years, even when they're placed in loving homes," says Frank McMillan of Best Friends Animal Society, who conducted the research with James Serpell and Deborah Duffy of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. It will be published in an upcoming issue of Applied Animal Behavior Science.
Advice on helping rescue dogs adjust:
What are the best strategies for helping a former mill dog adjust to its new adopted life?
That’s what researcher Frank McMillan of Best Friends Animal Society asked owners in a follow-up questionnaire that was not part of the published findings. The owners said:
Be patient; don’t push the dog past its comfort level.
Have another, well-adjusted dog in the household.
Be sensitive to the dog’s reactions. Being held and cuddled helped some dogs a lot, McMillan says, but some owners reported that being hugged made the dogs worse.
Theresa Strader, founder of National Mill Dog Rescue, says it’s her experience that about 70% of former puppy-mill dogs recover markedly in two to three months, and their emotional state can continue to improve as time goes on — though “almost all will have some remnants of their past,” which she refers to as “quirks.”
Owners suggest patience, sensitivity and the company of another, well-adjusted dog.
Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that lacking normal human contact and living with the pain and discomfort that are systemic in puppy mills leave these dogs with post-trauma-like behaviors. This is the first large study comparing mill survivors to dogs raised in homes.
The study compared owner-reported psychological and behavioral characteristics of 1,169 former breeding dogs recovered from puppy mills with those of 332 pet dogs without the mill history.
The dogs from puppy mills showed significantly elevated levels of fears and phobias, compulsive and repetitive behaviors, and heightened sensitivity to being touched.
"The most prominent difference was in the level of fear," says McMillan. "Compared to normal pet dogs, the chance of scoring in the highest ranges for fear was six to eight times higher in the recovered puppy-mill dogs."
The behavioral differences within that group existed whether they came from filthy, inhumane puppy farms or from cleaner, law-abiding large commercial breeding operations that have sought to separate themselves from the more unsavory breeders, McMillan says.
That fits with the experience of National Mill Dog Rescue in Peyton, Colo., which has rescued nearly 5,300 mill dogs in four years. "What may be more pleasing to the eye does not necessarily positively impact their emotional state," says Theresa Strader, the group's founder.
In either case, the animals are confined with little or no interaction with humans or experiences outside their confines. "The ones that have never been positively handled are in the worst shape psychologically," Strader says.
Legislative efforts to improve the lot of mill dogs have focused on mandating clean water, regular food, larger cages and regular veterinary care, and all are vital, McMillan says. This study "offers a different perspective on the problem."
The former mill dogs had been in their new homes an average of two years, he says. Many owners saw "dramatic improvement over time," but some dogs continued to struggle.
Yet in a follow-up questionnaire that was not part of the published study, 95% said they would adopt another puppy-mill rescue. "When you break through with a mill dog," says Strader, "the bond is as deep as a bond can get."