Puppy Mill Breeding Dogs: Proof of the Psychological Price They Pay

Fearful dog by Noiseburst on FlickrI recently spoke at the annual conference of the American Animal Hospital Association where I reconnected with an old friend, Dr. Frank McMillan.  We were small animal medicine residents at UC Davis together back in the day. Dr. McMillan’s professional journey has been an interesting one. Most notably, he has become a passionate, world renowned expert on the emotional well being of animals.

Dr. McMillan’s research on puppy mill breeding dogs was recently published in Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science. In his study called, “Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments”  he compared the psychological and behavioral characteristics of 1,169 rescued former puppy mill dogs with those of 332 pet dogs without a mill history. The most striking difference between the two groups was in their fear level. Dogs originating from puppy mills exhibited far more fear in response to people, other dogs, stairs, and touch. For many of these dogs, an increased fear response continued even after years spent in their adoptive households. Dr. McMillan’s research also documented that the puppy mill dogs demonstrated more house-soiling and compulsive behavior as well as reduced trainability, energy, and aggression towards other animals.

Dr. McMillan and his coauthors discussed two likely causes for the behaviors demonstrated by the puppy mill dogs. The first cause, known as “stress-induced psychopathology” refers to behavioral responses to stressors such as spatial restriction (confinement to a small space), extreme temperatures, aversive interactions with humans, lack of ability to avoid or regulate exposure to aversive stimuli, and limited access to positive social interactions with humans and other dogs. Most if not all of these stressors certainly come into play in most large scale breeding operations.

Also discussed as a cause for behavioral abnormalities in puppy mill dogs was inadequate socialization during the first few months of life (the critical period for normal socialization to develop). For puppy mill breeding dogs, most of this sensitive developmental time period is spent behind bars with little to no exposure to psychologically “nutritious” environmental surroundings.

For those who work with rescued puppy mill breeding dogs, none of Dr. McMillan’s conclusions come as a surprise. It’s common knowledge that such dogs are damaged by years of emotional negligence. The true importance of this study is that it provides the very first scientifically documented proof that conditions prevailing in puppy mills are profoundly detrimental to the emotional well being of dogs imprisoned there. This research is one more arrow in our quiver as we do whatever we can to exterminate puppy mills. Kudos to you Dr. McMillan for the important work you are doing!

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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15 Comments on “Puppy Mill Breeding Dogs: Proof of the Psychological Price They Pay

  1. I adopted Lydia, a beautiful Mini Schnauzer two years ago this July. She was used for breeding in an Amish puppy mill and had spent her life in a cage. She was brusquely handed over to a Schnauzer rescue worker who inquired if the farmer had any dogs to get rid of. If not for her rescuer she would have been shot as she was of no more use to those people. I have another Schnauzer, Barney, and two cats. Lydia gets along with all the other pets but she still exhibits the symptoms described in the article. She loves to be petted, but not held; she is nervous and shakes very hard when something new or different happens in the house. She hates riding in the car; I use travel crates for both dogs but she shakes and is frightened just for a short ride to the groomer. Even though she is showered with love I feel she is still somewhat wary and is quick to run back to her safe spot if she is afraid. She did abandon her crate as a safe spot a few months ago…I placed her bed in the spot she chose and she only uses the crate now when I leave the house for shopping. I hate puppy mills with a white hot passion and wish I could do something to shut them all down. Thank you for the article; it reinforces what most of us rescuers know.

  2. What a great article!! I wish I had it to refer to a year ago when fostering a puppy mill dog. I read many articles at the time looking for helpful information. I find your article very insightful. I had no idea what we were getting into when agreeing to foster Poppy and found the experience very emotional. Fear was a big factor with Poppy as well as house-soiling. It seemed as tho at times we would take one step forward and three backwards. Such a sweet little girl with such sad eyes. She left us after three months and went to another foster family with experience with a puppy mill dog as they have an adopted one of their own. Last I heard, the family has adopted her and she is now with her forever home.

  3. Dr. Kay, the wife of a local physician (who was my “savior” and did my TAH/BSO for Stage IV endometriosis) adopted a puppy mill dog. The poor baby was afraid to step on the grass, as he had spent his entire life in a crate and didn’t know what grass was. He had to learn to drink out of a bowl. (don’t know how he was fed and watered in the puppy mill).
    Thank you for this article and for your willingness to step up to the plate for those who have no voice.

  4. This article couldn’t have come at a better time for Louisiana. A bill was introduced regarding, in some part, to the standards of care and caging for breeders; it never made it out of committee. The AKC came out in full force to fight every sentence in the language, and with hunters, purebred buyers on the committee, and the opposition of the AKC, it didn’t stand a chance. I sent all committee members the link to your blog, hoping they will bother to read it, with a comment that it was time to think outside the box. Thank you for backing up our arguments with conclusive facts.

  5. Thank you for this wonderfully insightful article. It is crucial that we convince the people in power (i.e. lawmakers) that emotional/psychological abuse of animals is still abuse, even if the animals are “adequately housed and fed”. I’m absolutely going to share this with my networks, including my Facebook page!

  6. In my 37 years of hands-on experience with dogs I worked with too many puppy-mill animals. I had to deal with stress-induced psychopathology, the most frequent symptom being claustrophobia as well as agoraphobia. For this reason I do not allow the use of crates and “crate training” (there is no such thing). I prefer to use a spacious and comfortable puppy play pen, without a top. This is useful in giving the the animal the feeling and reassurance that he is not being isolated (after all, that’s what he came from) and being with the owner at all times. There is also the mind-bending fear that these animals suffer from, of people, of children, of anything that moves, of sounds they’ve never heard before, of textures they are unfamiliar with (grass, carpet, dog beds, etc., and too often will not eat unless left alone to finish their food.

    The inadequate socialization is also heartbreaking. It is somewhat akin to the behaviour of feral cats, many of whom will never develop trust with humans. Dogs can be rehabilitated in such cases but with limited success, i.e., they will trust only a small number of people (immediate family), they will not accept other animals, housetraining is either delayed or sometimes a losing battle, hiding, and many more.

    It is beyond the comprehension of any sane person why these facilities are allowed to continue such business of extreme cruelty, why the laws are circumvented, ignored and bypassed. Slave markets do exist – the animals are the victims and the sellers are shameless, unprincipled and greedy.

  7. I keep meaning to read this paper. I have it saved on my computer, I just need to find the time to read it thoroughly and reach some conclusions. But I have a couple of points to make before then:

    Firstly, I think the dogs in these establishments may be more stressed due to their lack of environmental enrichment (among other things..). I wrote about environmental enrichments affects on stress here: http://leemakennels.com/blog/research-dogs-and-politics/environmental-enrichment-and-stress/ (After reading an article by Ilin and Richter-Levin.)

    Second, I wonder if the tests were actually fair for these dogs. I have to read the paper properly myself, of course, but I wonder if the ‘non-mill dogs’ would display fear in a kennel setting, but mill-dogs probably would not (or display less fear). Mill-dogs may be less fearful of loud dog noise (barking) than non-mill dogs, never exposed to that kind of stimulus. I have to read the article before I can clearly organise my thoughts about this.

    Thank-you for your post, and I hope I can add to it in one of my future posts.

  8. It is nice to see documentation of the sad existence of the poor dogs in mill breeding programs (and I use that term loosely) and the toll it takes on their mental state. Having worked in a shelter for many years and now owning a rehabilitation business, I see it every day. We have good success helping these animals reach a higher potential, but they are never “whole” and that is so sad. Thanks to Dr. Frank McMillian for his exceptional work.

  9. Your report has described our 7yo Doxie breader girl Louise. We have had her 2mos now and had great difficulty with her soiling in the house. She is improving though, and i think we will crate train her when we are out of the house. She cringes anytime you put your hand over her and is very submissive. On walks (her ultimate fave, other than eating) she can be very dog agressive. On the leash she will charge any animal she sees! I am hoping this will all calm down when she sees that her life has changed forever. Time will heal! Thank you for that informative but sad article! We must change this dynamic!!

  10. I have a papillon that is ~10.5 years old. She spent 8.5 years as a puppy mill breeder. Blossom has come so far in the two years we’ve had her but she has many of the symptoms described in your article. She feels most comfortable in a crate, under or behind something. Sometimes she will warily climb on the couch but any sharp noise or fast movement and she is off to a hiding place. The one place that she has come the farthest in is that she loves being part of our “pack” of dogs. She enjoys them and has learned how to play to some extent with them. She has a forever home for as many years as she has left.

  11. “This research is one more arrow in our quiver as we do whatever we can to exterminate puppy mills…” I am appalled that we allow puppy mills to exist. The research confirms what we all expected. With the sort of results reported here, in my mind, it would take an exceptional person to adopt a puppy mill survivor and help it thrive. It takes a special person to love, understand and nurture a puppy mill survivor. As someone currently looking to adopt a small dog, I’m find the prospect a bit daunting.

  12. Dr. Nancy – thanks so much for this really important report. I’m going to pass on the link (again). I agree, BIG kudos to Dr. Franklin McMillan – we NEED this information.

    Also, breeders other than puppy mills can use the information – and not only “backyard breeders” (who, typically, breed through love, seldom do the crucial health tests, may breed mixes on purpose as “designer dogs” because it’s fun and profitable, and so forth) “Reputable breeders” too can use this information, perhaps assisting puppy-buyers in learning more of what they need to learn.

    May blessings shower upon you, Dr. Franklin McMillan, and all others engaged in doing their very best for dogs and cats.

    Tue, 17 Apr 2012 09:06:18 (PDT)

  13. Puppy Mill Breeding Dogs
    We adopted Molly, a female Yorkie, three years ago. She is now probably 9 or 10, given the estimated her age when we got her. We saved her from life in a bird cage in an unheated basement where her job was to produce as many puppies as possible.
    You printed a piece about her on your blog:
    So here is an update. She has done well with proper medical care, nutrition and kindness. She was 3 pounds when we got her and very ill. She is now a healthy 6.5 pounds, which is her proper weight according to our vet.
    She has very few teeth; most had to be extracted when we got her. She is not afraid of adults but is very clingy and wants to be near one of us 24 hours a day.
    She will not go up stairs which I assume is a result of her very short legs. A physician told me that when pregnancy occurs at an early age, in both humans and dogs, growth stops.
    She has never been completely house trained and is getting worse. She is still not pleased about peeing in the grass and greatly prefers the tiled kitchen floor.
    Her eyes are getting cloudy which concerns us.
    In total, she is a wonderful companion. Knowing the life we saved her from makes her a very special.


  14. Thank you, Dr. Kay, for again bringing attention to the horrific affects of
    puppy mills on dogs and validity of Dr. McMillan’s research. Puppy mills
    are filthy, inhumane mass breeding facilities that need to be stopped. The
    more awareness we can bring to shed light on this horrific treatment of puppy mill dogs then hopefully we can get legislation to ban puppy mill breeding completely across this country. We need to advocate for the lives and well being of these poor mistreated dogs and their puppies. Let’s all do our part to get this information out to all we know so we can make a difference.