When we went to meet Pepper, she stood like a little statue and shook. I'd not seen anything like it. Her fears and nervousness were so deep that her foster mom thought she would never find a home for her, because no one would want her or want to try to take care of such a scared little being. Pepper had been rescued from a puppy mill situation and her foster mom had been told she was pregnant, but Pepper lost her puppies pretty quick because of all of all the stress.
In puppy mills, most dogs are kept in horrible conditions with multiple dogs stuffed in small wire cages and they are only handled to be forced to breed. They are bred as soon as they come into their first heat as puppies and are bred often continuously until their bodies fail taking away their usefulness. Most every pet store gets their puppies to sell from such mills. Most of the dogs on the web for sale come from mills as well - you have to really look, ask, and know people to get legit breeders on the web. Mill dogs don't get vet care, love, care, food, etc.
I was nervous. I didn't know what to do for it. Heck, I'd only had one dog, Misty, and frankly, she'd been awesomely perfect. I didn't know anything about puppy mills or puppy mill dogs, until I got Pepper. I remember holding Pepper, trying to look her in the eye and I whispered in her ear that if she came with me she would be loved and spoiled forever. She risked it and we chose each other to walk the path of life.
Taking on a mill dog isn't for the impatient, but the rescues and fosters work with both the dogs and the people who want to bring one of these pups home. Even for a mill dog, Pepper was more nervous and scared than most.
Pepper was just starting to learn how to drink water out of a bowl. (Often they put the rabbit bottles in the cages for the mill dogs... who knows how often they had fresh water or if they ever had enough.) She had to learn how to go up and down the couple of stairs to get in and out of our house. She had to learn how to go through a door and over a threshold. She had to get used to the door closing or the screen door slamming. She had to learn how to go for a walk and that every crack, noise, or object wasn't out to get her. With a mill dog, you learn to see, notice, applaud, and appreciate everything - especially the little things because they are so huge. Even things like playing with a toy or fetch- my girls don't do that. Daisy plays a little with toys (mostly to chew them into small bits), while Pepper leans towards the "smart toys" where you have to figure out and work to get a treat. Neither fetches. Misty just "knew" how to play and loved to do it... Mill dogs don't know what "play" or "toys" are (some can and do learn or figure it out, some never do).
I was trying to engage Pepper in some light play and roughhousing and kind of flipped her over and was going to rub her belly. I stopped immediately when she went stiff and just looked at me panicked. She laid there like an abuse victim. She was scared, hoping that it would just be over very soon, and she would be ok. It broke my heart, knowing how independent and spunky schnauzers are, that anyone could crush one's spirit so badly. What would it take to totally take their confidence and personality away? I learned I had to take things really slow. I needed to find ways to build her confidence and to let her rebuild her self-worth and truly, herself. A huge part of this was for me to make sure that she always had a choice and that I respected her choice. She had to be able to say "no" or chose not to. I couldn't force her to do anything.
We went to training together. I was hoping it would help her for basic skills, self-esteem, socialization, and maybe even play. The popular types of training include rewards and positive reinforcement: treats and clicker training. Pepper didn't seem to like any treats and wouldn't take any. And she startled and didn't handle sharp/loud noises well. So with no treats or clicks to work with and an environment filled with scary people and strange dogs, we went through training together.
We started learning how to read cues from each other. I had to get creative and we had to use different currency for rewards. I would give her lots of vocal compliments (ignore people who say dogs don't get anything from you speaking to them), petting & touch, and honestly- happy, proud looks. (I forgot to mention that I didn't know if Pepper had a voice at this point either. She was always quiet. We had been together ten months before I ever heard a peep out of her.)
We started learning how to communicate and work together. Their "normal" training goals were not our goals, we were discovering and creating our own goals as we were discovering each other. I can't tell you how many people saw us working together and would see her look up at me and me back at her and say they'd never seen a dog look with such love and focus at someone. Like we loved each other and it showed (we do too).
Each new thing that comes up, each challenge, each new situation... We work on it together, with love, trust, and patience. I see miracles every day when she does just about anything. Most people would just think she's a mostly quiet dog, that doesn't sit when they tell her to. What I see is how much she's grown, learned, and accomplished over the last couple of years. I see strength, bravery, smarts, trust, love, and perfection in practice.
Fear Pt 2: Puppy Mill Pups and the Storms of Life and Being Under Fire
Fear Pt 3: How Knowing Fear Informs Your Writing