I have been volunteering for National Mill Dog Rescue (NMDR) since January 2012 and have been the rehab team lead since January 2013. I have also had the opportunity to go on seven rescues this past year. Unfortunately, too often we take dogs who have suffered for years in horrible conditions.
My First Mill Dog Rescue Experience
When I first walked through the doors of Lily’s Haven, a kennel Peyton, Colo., I was overwhelmed by how many terrified dogs there were at the kennel. I had dealt with many behavior issues in dogs (aggression, territorial, dominance, runners, etc.) but had never seen fear on this level. At that time they had just gotten in 17 extremely fearful German Shepherds who needed extensive rehabilitation. I volunteered to start working with them as I could see most of the volunteers had limited experience with large breeds and seemed to be fearful to get in the kennel with the barking, growling, big dogs.
The first German Shepherd I worked with happened to be the first time I really interacted with a fearful mill dog. He was an all black dog named Baron and was pacing back and forth barking aggressively every time a person or dog walked by. He was very insecure and had the temporary label of a fear biter. As I opened his kennel and stepped into his domain I felt my heart leap to my throat. I felt confident that his aggressive displays were simply out of fear and frustration but being new to the mill dog world, I was not sure I could trust my previous dog knowledge completely. Thankfully my assessment was right and the big guy simply tried to avoid me rather than rip my head off. After many sessions I was able to slowly gain his trust and he was fostered out to someone who had the time and patience to help him in his rehab process. This started my passion and determination to work with these fearful mill dogs and help them overcome their paralyzing fear.
The Life of a Mill Dog
Most people cannot even comprehend the level of emotional scarring and damage that many of these dogs go through. Imagine a puppy being born, raised, repeatedly bred, and then ultimately dying, in a small wire cage in a dark building or possibly outside, exposed to all the elements of weather. There is little to no vet care, water licks as opposed to bowls, cage cleaning can consist of a power washer while the dog is still in the cage, and the minimal human touch is typically reserved for when dogs need to be moved in and out of cages for breeding and whelping. There is never a paw touched to the ground and never a night spent sleeping in a house or near a loved human.
To rehabilitate a dog like this takes a lot of patience, a ton of self control, and even more time. These dogs can be so shut down that they don’t even understand how to use their noses, one of their most primal behaviors. To use treats, toys, attention and love, or any of the other typical doggie rewards, is just not feasible with many of these special pups. It is difficult to shove aside my feeling of sadness and helplessness and anger as I see a dog come in frozen with terror and riddled with the physical evidence of neglect and abuse. Some of these breeders I want to scream at while simultaneously scooping up the poor pup, holding her close to my chest to and trying to make it all better. However, neither of those are an option. To hug a petrified dog close would simply escalate her fears and would be a selfish act to satisfy my desires instead of healing the dog. To express anger at a breeder could break their trust and result in dogs no longer being released to us.
Meeting the Breeders
When I go on a rescue and meet a breeder I must be kind and respectful. We share pleasantries and a laugh or two. All while they hand over their filthy, sick dogs and I wonder how they cannot see, or simply don’t care what horrible shape their “commodities” are in. It is such a dichotomous event for me as I truly love people and all their intricacies. It is natural for me to find the good in people I just met and to sympathize with, although never excuse, the bad. Some of the breeders I find myself talking to and even liking, and then they will hand over another dog who is in terrible shape, and my internal rage will return. Going on rescue is a very polarizing event for me, and all I can do is keep reminding myself that everyone has their own story and no matter what we are saving dogs.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
To see a dog that was at one point huddled shaking in a corner, a dog that would defecate every time she was touched, or a dog that would spend 24 hours hiding under a six-inch Kuranda bed, finally walk confidently beside you on a leash is one of the most rewarding experiences imaginable. To then see this dog in a home and watch as she gradually learns the joy of toys, treats, rolling in the grass, and someday getting a belly rub, makes one realize that no dog is unreachable. These are the experiences that keep me going when we leave a kennel full of dogs behind that the breeder won’t release to us. My heart breaks every time we drive away with a lucky few yet leave hundreds behind.
NMDR rehabilitates and adopts out dogs that many other rescues and shelters would give up on and deem to have no potential for quality of life. The unstoppable determination and dedication of NMDR’s many volunteers ensures that each one of these shut down dogs is guaranteed a shot at a quality life in a loving home. For the dogs that we save, this means the beginning of a whole new life they never knew existed. For me personally, it means that when I go on a rescue and am handed over a sick, frightened, emotionally distraught dog and tell him or her that everything will be okay, I can mean it.
Image source: National Mill Dog Rescue/Facebook