top of page

Training a Puppy Mill Survivor

Dog Training Basics: Anxiety

So you did your research and found a reputable breeder who ended up not being so reputable. Or maybe you felt sorry for the puppy in the window at the local mall. Or perhaps you visited the local animal shelter and adopted a puppy from a hoarding situation. Regardless of where you got your new dog, if they came from a puppy mill scenario, it's likely your dog is anxious and fearful. But does that mean they aren't good pets?

Puppy in cage

They still make wonderful pets, and are just as loving and fun as every other dog, if not more so! As a matter of fact, both my late Orion and my Arwen are puppy mill survivors. But most rescues have been through a lot, and the place to start training a dog is with empathy.

Scared Dog on Leash

Your Dog's Behavior

Most puppy mill dogs and mall pet shop puppies have been raised in cages until the bare minimum age that they can be sold for profit, which can be as early as 5 weeks - far to young to be taken from their mother and siblings. Older breeding dogs have spent most of their lives in cages, isolated from any semblance of human interaction, aside from meals being chucked into their cages once or twice a day (although weekly feeder bowls are common, too). They are literal breeding machines who are abandoned once they are no longer of any monetary value.

Rescue Puppy Training

So how does this affect your dog's training? In some ways, it doesn't change anything: you still give them the Piloting, Activity and Work they require.

But in other ways, it changes everything. Your new dog will be very sensitive to the new world they have been thrust into, and may not immediately think this new world is safe.

A puppy mill survivor can get overstimulated and seem reclusive, as if they've shut down. This is normal, and will pass with patience, empathy and understanding.

They have no sense of normalcy right now, as their whole world has been shaken to the core.

Gaining Your Dog's Trust - Controlling Yourself

The biggest mistake I see with any anxious dog is an owner who is desperately trying to "make friends" with their new dog. A dog who's been through a lot doesn't want to make friends, and are incapable of doing so, at least in the short term. They first need to understand that they are not in any kind of danger, and that you are not going to hurt them. You can only start to gain their love, friendship and trust after you've been able to establish those things first. Let them decompress.

And the best way to help them trust you? Don't force your presence nor affection on them. Don't breach what little trust they may have in the situation by forcing contact or touch.

If your dog is acting withdrawn or shy, avoid eye contact with them, as that can be interpreted as aggressive or threatening.

Also, pay attention to your body language. Facing your dog , even from a squatting or crouched position, is confrontational.

Too strong and too direct.

Confrontational body language. Don't face your dog, even when crouched. It's...creepy.

Rather, any interaction with your dog should come with your side or your hip facing them. Your navel should be pointed away from them. Avoid looking directly at them if you can, merely giving side glances when necessary.

Non confrontational body language. Hip facing your dog.

Her hip facing the dog, eyes averted - she's indicating she wants peace, not aggression.


At feeding time, your dog may feel insecure. Depending on the situation your dog was rescued from, they may not have been fed individually, but rather with food slopped in one area, so there may have been competition for food. This doesn't mean your dog will be a resource guarder, but they have become habituated to being picked on during meals. In other words, don't expect your dog to immediately start to gorge themselves on their food. They may not have an appetite while they decompress, and they also might not feel comfortable and safe to eat.

Again, this is a great time to afford them a luxury they've never had: privacy. Don't make them eat out in the open if they aren't comfortable. Put food in their crate or another safe and quiet spot.

Let them eat in there, when they feel comfortable. A common occurrence with the puppy mill rescues that I work with is that they only seem to eat after everyone has gone to bed. That's the only time they are pretty certain they won't have to defend themselves while they are trying to eat.

Put their food down, and leave them to it. If you try to coax them, it will backfire. This isn't about you, it's about them. They will let you know when they feel safe enough to eat.

Feel free to make their dry dog food more enticing by adding gently warmed low sodium chicken broth, or even warmed (not hot) canned dog food or a small amount of warmed peanut butter (always ask your vet if it's okay first).

If your dog seems to be okay with eating, and they have not shown any signs of food reactivity, you can start to hand feed them. Again, you aren't going to face them, but rather, take some food, and while facing away from them, stretch your hand out with the food. Don't make sudden movements, or even praise them at this point. Too much stimuli can backfire, and send them scuttling back to their corner.

Dog eating near woman
Feeding from below their head, holding still, facing away.

As your dog feels more comfortable with this situation, start to change your position each time you feed them by aiming your body closer to theirs, very gradually. Remember to read their "tone". If they suddenly stiffen up, or give you hard side eye, you must remove some of your presence. A dog who bites is rarely aggressive; they're typically frightened and overstimulated, so don't force it and don't push boundaries. You're just gently massaging those boundaries.

By doing this, you are establishing a relationship of trust, and proving you will respect their boundaries. As your dog gets more inquisitive and more comfortable, you can slowly start to introduce yourself more naturally, with slightly more stomach-facing and eye averting.

Housebreaking Your Rescue Dog

Almost immediately, your dog may need to go outside to potty. This can be difficult if you are working with a dog who has spent most of their lives in a crate or cage. Outside is scary and overwhelming. Resist the urge to force your dog outside. You are trying to find your dog's base level of comfort. If they feel secure when they are out of their cage but not in another room, now is not the time to force them into a 5 mile hike outside.

Your dog may relieve themselves in their safe spot...inside the house. This does not mean housebreaking has failed. It may not even mean they haven't been housebroken. It means right here, right now, your dog is too overwhelmed to go potty outside. This is where empathy and compassion come into play.

Scared dog
Give your dog time to adjust. This is momentary, but they will remember your patience forever.

Allow your dog time to adjust. Yes, you may get frustrated with cleaning up messes, but bear in mind your dog did not wake up this morning trying to figure out how to make your life more difficult. At this stage of their life, they are trying to get through the next day, hour or minute of their lives. It's okay to be frustrated; emotions aren't right or wrong, they just are. But what they are not going to do is sabotage your budding bond with your dog.

Clean up the mess and then go rage on your elliptical/bowl of ice cream/video game. Take it out on something inanimate, but not your dog. Just remember, trust comes before housebreaking. That is the most important thing to work right now.

First Contact with your New Dog

As I mentioned above, now is not the time to try to play rope toy with your new rescue, nor is it the time to try to cuddle. They may be in survival mode. They may be full of energy and completely coping the moment you get into your house. There is not one-size-fits-all rule to how you interact with your new dog, except that you let them take the lead.

If your dog is in the back of their crate, plastered against the wall of the cage, they are currently at a 1/10 for comfort. There is literally nothing physical you can do for them at the moment except to prove to them at you are not forcing your attention on them. In other words, don't pull a Harvey Weinstein on them. When they say "no", it means "no". It doesn't mean "convince me". Let them be, and you will start to notice the money in your Piloting Piggy Bank filling up. It's about trust, not strength and not obedience.

However, if your dog is acting rambunctious and initiating play at a level 5/10, you reciprocate at a 3/10. In other words, make sure you are controlling the situation at all times, because if your dog becomes overstimulated, you may not have a way to get them back to calm.

And make sure you are following at this point, not leading. If your dog is at a 8/10, don't ramp them up to a 9/10. You are better able to control a situation with lower energy than higher.

The Leash

The worst thing I see owners of stressed out dogs do is to immediately try to put a harness on their new dog, thinking it's more humane.

You have a dog who is already scared, and not sure if you're going to eat them, and you're going to try to manhandle them into a harness?

The safest and most comfortable thing you can use right now is an all-in-one slip collar. It's what I bring to every training session.

Best budget brand (which I always have in my training bag):

Best leather slip lead (what I use at home for my dogs who are spoiled and pampered):

Slip leashes are a safter alternative and more humane way to leash a scared dog. Simply make the loop very large, slip it over their head from the side. Do NOT face the dog when putting on the collar, but rather the dog will be at your side, facing the same way as you or away from you, but never facing each other.

Leash walking dog
As wrong as you can get. Stop looming over your dog, and don't face your scared pup!

Quickly loop it around their head, and gently pull the safety tab to make the loop smaller so they don't slip right back out.

You are going to tread the line between adding more stimuli and controlling/managing the current stimuli you have in place.

For example, if you loop the collar onto the dog, and the dog just stares at you with an, "Okay, now what are we supposed to do?" look, then you're probably safe to start moving around the room with them, constantly watching them for cues to see if they are getting overwhelmed or overstimulated.

If your dog immediately panics after having the leash on them, let them panic. Don't fight their response. Allow them to get all that yucky panic out of their system. Simply extend your arm, and follow them (from your side, not facing them!) allowing there to be some slack on the leash as much as possible. In other words, you aren't giving them anything to fight against.

Under no circumstances are you to hold that leash tight, or try to pull them into any specific direction. Again, let them take the lead (as long as it's not right into something dangerous).

While they are getting all of that out of their system, you will be giving a series of gentle tugs on that leash every 2-3 seconds. It's not a correction; they aren't doing anything wrong. It's a gentle, gentle negation of what they are doing. Imagine you are playing the triangle back in middle school. You didn't wrap that wretched piece of metal as hard as you could. You would delicately tap it. That's what your leash should be doing.

Remember, you aren't trying to get your dog into any specific location, except for a place of calm(er). You aren't leash training your dog, you are getting them accustomed to wearing a leash and not panicking. Don't shorten the leash (yet).

The hard part about all this: you have to remain silent the entire time. Don't coax, cajole, bribe, threaten (asshole!), or convince. The more noise you make, the more energy you are giving them, and that's the last thing they need. You are a calm, quiet presence.

After they have calmed down a bit, if they are able to take treat from you offer one (from the side). If they don't, it's okay, too. Think of it as a compliment they aren't able accept right now (but yes, you do indeed look beautiful today, even if you can't accept that compliment, you know it's there).

If they are able to start to move in any direction calmly on the leash, go ahead and move with them. You are still letting them lead, as your goal right now is movement on a leash, not necessarily leash walking politely.

As you get more and more trustworthy, you can start to "suggest" a direction to go by gently tugging the leash towards you while you are facing the opposite direction. Don't face them, but rather away from them to see if you can get them to change course. If you can, awesome! If not, that's okay, but see if you can guide them into a slightly different direction.

Wash, rinse, repeat, gradually adding stimuli as they are able to take it. How about changing direction? How about going down the hallway? No? Then let's just cross the threshold and head right back into the room you feel safe in. Just watch out for tight spaces, where your dog may panic. They should always feel as if they have an escape route, because without the option for flight, the only response left is fight.

Never go farther than their courage allows. At this point, you are there to guide, not dictate.

As a bit of trust starts to happen, you can turn away from them, allowing a long leash, and gently tug them towards you. If it's an inch closer, nice job! If they're right next to you, nice job! But focus on anxiety levels, not distance. You haven't accomplished anything if you managed to get your new rescue dog right next to you, but they are a quivering, shaking mess.


How long does this take? Depends on the individual dog, the circumstances they endured, and how much patience you have. I train puppy mill rescue dogs probably at least 2-3 times a week. Sometimes it's instantaneous, and we are out the door and walking around the block immediately. Other times it takes longer.

I'm really damn good at working with frightened rescue dogs. I'm amazing, actually. I've been training dogs like these for almost 20 years, and even if I've had 5 sessions in a week with a frighted dog, it still feels just as amazing as the first time when they finally start to trust you.

Bottom line is: I shouldn't have to be this good at a skill like this. Puppy mill dogs are an indication of a problem with our society, and the fact that I have had to develop this skill is shameful. No sentient creature should be traumatized in such a way that they are unable to even think of trusting a human.

It is what it is, though. I will continue to try to change the laws regarding puppy mills and puppy mill brokers. I will continue to fight against back yard breeders, but even as the last puppy mill closes there will still be dogs left behind who need our help and compassion to learn to trust. So while I would love my skills to get rusty, unfortunately, they are remaining exceptionally sharp due to my constant need to hone them.

By doing puppy mill protests, attending city council meetings, and bringing awareness to the puppy mill survivors, I am doing all that I can to help end this cruel industry, because I'm looking forward to a time when someone asks me what it was like, working with all those mill survivors all those years ago.

But unfortunately, I have 4 frightened dogs scheduled for training this week already.

Scared Dog

Dog Training vs. Dog Life

By focusing on dog life, rather than dog training, our goals can become so much more attainable and clear-cut. Most of us don't want an obedient dog, we just don't want a dis-obedient dog. Robot-style dogs who are afraid of stepping out of line are for certain types of people I guess.

But that's not my style. That's why I developed the Piloting method of dog training over 20 years ago, a force-free method of dog training and puppy training that didn't rely on abusive shock collars or cruel prong collars, yet didn't constantly bribe with non-stop click-n-treat style dog training. I want a bond with my dog based on trust and communication.

Learn more about our Piloting method of dog and puppy training here.

Find out more about our private in home 30 Day Best Dog Ever and 30 Day Best Puppy Ever training packages here.

Have questions about our puppy training or dog training?

border collie dog

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training and Puppy Training

Greater Cleveland Area

Northeast Ohio

Recent Posts

See All


Apr 19

This is great advice! Hopefully we’ll meet up again on a puppy mill run. This is Joni by the way


Apr 09

I have a 5/7 year old, gorgeous little Schnauzer Jesse. She is a rescue dog from a Puppy Farm/Mill in Western Australia. She has been with us since August 2023. I am so very grateful to have found your amazing site yesterday. It is Jesse through & through!! Whilst she is getting more trustworthy every day, it has been a long process. We have done much of your advice so far, but you have now pointed out some other issues where we have gone wrong. We’re looking forward to a beautiful little dog becoming a total companion dog. Of course, time & patience.

Thank you so so much.

Vicki 👌


Feb 22, 2023

I have an Aussie rescue for About 4months now she is almost 1 1/2 yrs now smart going to train her for agility


Anzelle Whitsett
Anzelle Whitsett
Jan 31, 2023

Great blog. Some helpful cues as we have 3 puppies that we are currently raising to find a good home.

Kerry Stack
Kerry Stack
Jan 31, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much. I find that so many rescues and shelters are trying to find homes for the more introverted and shy dogs, but nobody really has the info to learn how to bring them out of their shells. 

Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page