Over the past few years, I have been educating myself about the horrors of puppy mills, which run rampant in the Midwest. This topic has been consistently on my mind ever since I bought a puppy mill dog off the Internet as an impulsive and unsuspecting teenager. Because of the immense guilt I’ve carried with me for almost 15 years, it was only a matter of time before I would walk the walk, right my wrongs, and adopt a “mother of the mill” (as they call the most tragic victims of the mill industry).
Mika, who had no name while living in a decrepit backyard breeding mill for 2 years, was a classic case: she was kept in a small wire cage that was overcrowded with 2 or 3 other dogs for 24 hours a day; she was never free to run, play or engage in any behaviors that you’d associate with a dog; she was underweight, missing patches of hair and had sustained a broken jaw and lacerations to her neck. She would be expected to produce litter after litter of puppies – which would all be prematurely shipped off to pet stores around the country or sold directly over the internet - until she was physically unable to produce. Luckily, there are people and organizations out there that fight against the horrors of this industry. Because some mill operations are regulated (and there for protected) by state governments, rescues have to wait for some other infraction to be made like improper waste drainage before they can receive a warrant to enter, discover and document the abuse and free the dogs.
It was going to be a glorious love story. I would offer this little broken dog the most amazing home full of life’s splendors: treats, toys, cozy beds and endless love.
Things did not turn out as I had expected. She hated all things that brought joy for the first few months… including me. She was borderline comatose and unresponsive for weeks straight – to the point where I feared she had suffered a brain injury of some sort. It was an uphill battle that left me emotionally ravaged at times. This seven-pound, smush-faced fluff caused countless tears, tirades, frustration and a lot of self-doubt. Because I felt more prepared and dedicated than anyone to help rehabilitate a physically and emotionally abused dog, I was heartbroken by the reality that I was failing.
Throughout this journey, I have reached a new height of obsessing about my dogs. It probably seems extreme to most, but this new level of “crazy dog lady” is a result of how difficult this was and how much of an impact this experience had on me. It was an extreme test of my patience and helped me think about a lot of my own shit. I learned so much in the first few months (and will continue to learn – we are nowhere near done yet). Here are some of the “life lessons” that stand out the most:
Minding my Energy
I have enough self-awareness to know that I don’t always put the most “mellow” vibes out into the universe. I move quickly, in a clumsy, herky-jerky fashion, doing five things at once, second-guessing whether or not I unplugged my hair curler, and cursing at the coffee that I just spilled on my white faux fur comforter. So when I invited a dog whisperer over to help get Mika out of her shell, the first thing she said is that I needed to chill out. She explained how dependent dogs were on non-verbal communication and how sensitive they were to the energy put out by the people around them. Because I was so nervous about how she was doing and how uncomfortable she was, and because I kept my eyes on her at all times when she was in the room, I was actually contributing to her feelings of discomfort. Eye contact is a very powerful thing – use it to your advantage in a job interview, do not sustain eye contact with a new rescue dog. This instills terror. In doing this at home, I became more mindful of controlling the output of my energy around people too.
An amazing thing happens when you have to teach a small dog to walk on grass while leashed for the first time: you are forced to slow wayyyyyyy down. This was something that I had been attempting to work on for a few years but never fully committed to. Slowing down – literally and figuratively (see above) - opened me up to a lot of joyful experiences. I began to appreciate my surroundings and felt the positive effects of spending more time outside in the mornings. I heard new sounds and saw delightful things that existed this whole time but had never noticed before. I met new people in my neighborhood and had conversations in the dog park that made me feel happier throughout the rest of the day. I was able to appreciate and show gratitude for mundane things. I started watching the sunrise, which, it turns out, does magical things for your mind.
Patience is a Worthy Virtue
It’s been said that the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a new result. While this can be true, it is not true for those who are training an adult dog to go to the bathroom, on a schedule, outside after two years of going to the bathroom through the floor of a suspended wire crate - the same place that she eats and sleeps. It takes doing the same thing over and over A LOT, and lots of “I am going crazy” feelings before you get your desired result. Patience is a hard thing to master especially in the everything-instant/Amazon-Now era. Everyday I had to learn to celebrate the small things, whether it is walking an extra half of a block, or peeing out of fear only once a day versus two times a day. I realized that patience becomes a lot easier when paired with visualization. When you focus your energy on the desired outcome rather than the task at hand each little failure didn't seem like such a major set back. It was important for me to paint a clear "big picture of success" in my mind to give me something to work towards.
Being Fully Present
Prior to adopting this dog, I would interpret my morning walks with Dublin like this: My feet are moving and one hand is holding a leash, but that leaves me with an open hand, two free ears, and 50% of my visual awareness to designate to another purpose. I am addicted to my phone and multi-tasking. In fact, if I am only doing one thing, I become distracted with the all of the additional things that I am NOT doing but could be doing simultaneously. Because of this preoccupation with doing as much as possible, I often feel that I am never fully present. Adding another dog to the mix, especially one that is constantly terrified and unable to casually walk in a straight line on a leash, fixed this very quickly. I no longer have an extra hand so I began leaving my phone at home, and for once, I was reminded what if feels like to channel all of my attention into a single thing for a prolonged amount of time. This exercise was challenging for me and revealed how much I need to work on maintaining a single focus in other areas of my life.
Passive Support is Unfulfilling
Social Media has had a positive impact on raising awareness for various causes, surfacing important social and political message and giving people access to information. However, it has also created an army of passive activists. The more anti-puppy mill groups I joined on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the more upset and angry I get that these things exist. It seemed as though these horrible things were becoming more prevalent which leads to even more frustration as I lay in bed marking stories with an angry smiley face or thumbs down, and sharing things to my Facebook, (which probably created a wave of eye rolls from people used to selfies and pictures of delicious food). I wasn’t really doing anything to help.
Saving only one dog may seem insignificant on the grand scale, but taking an active approach made a more meaningful impact on me and on others. The best way to really reach someone isn’t by pushing information in their face that they didn’t ask for, which happens frequently on social media. You have to get people to the point where they seek out the information themselves and then make a meaningful connection. Because people could see and feel her, they were genuinely curious, sympathetic and connected- and there lies the big opportunity! I have been able to reach people in a more meaningful way and spread a message more effectively than any repost, like or public comment left on social media could.
The Importance of Community
I learned to take advantage of a real life support network. In times of stress, isolation rarely helps you learn what you need to learn in order to pull yourself out of a rut. As I began to reach out to more people, I was shocked at how many were willing to help - even strangers. It turns out that people in my own apartment building had a similar experience and gladly handed over resources and tips. Additionally, reddit.com/dogs was a huge help and provided a real sense of online community. Generally, I found this site to be more troll-free than your average group of online individuals.
All I had to do was put it out there. Upon seeing a new furry face in the building and in the park, people would ask, “How are things going?” Rather than sugar coat, I answered honestly, “Well, terribly….” From there I would get recommendations, other resources to reach out to, and a general feeling of support. Strangers would sit with me in the park demonstrating training tips – sometimes for 20 minutes! Neighbors offered to check in on her during the day. Even our mail lady would ask for updates from the building staff. The first time Mika successfully walked home, one of my doormen cheered from the front door.
As a result, and in the case of my neighbor who just lost her 16-year-old pug, I feel compelled to provide comfort to others more often and easily than I ever did. The second part of this life lesson was the reminder to give back and support others now that I know how much it helped me.
I am aware that people adopt dogs every day, every where in the world and that I did not become a superhero through this experience. But I feel validated in being proud of myself for getting through it because at one point, I was convinced we would not be able to keep Mika. I was prodded by some of my friends and family to return her to the rescue because I didn't "need this complication in my life." I missed a whole section in here on commitment because one of the most impactful things that my best friend said to me was, "Well, you decided to this, so now you just need to DO IT." It's always easier to give up and go the easy route, but you never learn anything by doing that.