Many of my readers have read (perhaps ad nauseum?) about my dog, Gus. But I have another dog, whose story I have kept quiet to spare my readers…this week I am going to tell it.
Annie is a beautiful white cockapoo who was rescued from a puppy mill. She is probably 16 now, although the vet says that she is the healthiest 7 year old dog he has ever seen. She has a few cataracts and hearing loss (which has always been selective); but she loves to be by my side or watch Annie TV (watching the birds, squirrels, and bunnies run around the yard). She has a “nails on the chalkboard” bark when a dog or a person approaches. It is a fearful howl designed to keep everything away.
Annie is not a normal dog, nor is she a normal rescue dog. She never will be, but she fits into my household just fine. She lives a happy life, she loves squeaky toys, being petted, bouncing around the house joyfully, and Gus. But when people come, she barks and hides; only after watching Gus get affection does she try to approach visitors.
She is an anxious dog who is frightened by novelty and rain. She is terrified of people walking or in a standing position. If someone is seated, and Gus has demonstrated that person is “safe,” she will walk to that person in reverse and allow that person to pet her backside (as long as she doesn’t have to see the person). She longs for love and affection but is fearful of receiving it. The images from her puppyhood are never far from her present.
Annie came to me through a rescue organization in NJ that I volunteered for. All of the other rescue groups passed on Annie because she was essentially feral. I reluctantly agreed to take her, I already had four dogs (two of my own and two from an elderly friend who passed away) and a busy life; but I was the only real option. The other fosters were taking 8-10 dogs and we knew that Annie was going to need more attention than they could give.
Annie was born in a puppy mill to a puppy mill mother who was so psychologically damaged that she couldn’t teach Annie the basics. Unfortunately for Annie, she was a beautiful, a white cockapoo with big brown eyes. She was larger than most dogs and the puppy miller knew that she would produce a lot of very saleable babies. She was sold to another puppy mill. She fetched a good price.
Annie’s new home was the back of tractor trailer stuffed with dogs in cages. It had no electricity, light, air conditioning, or heat. In this dark, filthy, deafening home she lived on the top cage, there were two cages below her. The dogs barked incessantly, trying to alert someone, anyone, to their plight. Annie stayed in the back of her crate and trembled. There were no trays underneath the cages, allowing the poo and pee from the dogs in the above crates to rain down on dogs in the lower crates. Her feet are splayed from never being able to stand on a solid surface. After three heats, she was still too traumatized to mate, so she was moved to the bottom crate and food was withheld to punish her. When she was covered with feces and urine, she was yanked out and hosed down no matter the weather. Since she was a nonshed, her fur would eventually become completely matted.
A courageous organization goes to puppy mills and talks them out of their dogs. In puppy mills, females are typically killed after six years (because they produce fewer puppies) and males are killed after 10 years. These brave rescuers convinced the puppy miller to let them have Annie, because Annie would never produce those “beautiful babies.”
Annie arrived with severely matted fur all over her body, her eyes were matted shut, she was unable to move, and her butt was so matted she could not poop. Our organization took her, vetted her, shaved her down; took care of her physical needs. It is the volunteer’s job to work on emotional needs.
One of the reasons that I was reluctant to take Annie was that we have an unwritten rule in fostering, if the dogs can’t be rehabilitated, they become ours.
Annie had a long way to go. She was at 60% of her body weight and feral. She bit vigorously and continuously. When she was not attacking, she was running and hiding, always trying to escape. She was terrified of humans, dogs, the outdoors (which she had never seen), and the world in general. Grass was scary, bunnies and birds, everything was there to hurt her. When I took her home in the backseat of the car, fluids came out of every orifice. After I put her in the house, I got distracted and made a cardinal error; I took her leash off. It took me an hour to catch her; she bit me more than 20 times.
I worked with her slowly, but her formative years had taken their toll. She never learned cause and effect. She learned that no matter what she did, her life would be one of abuse and neglect. Even her crate was terrifying. It was the scene of her tortured life. Not understanding cause and effect makes it difficult to housetrain and teach a dog to live in a home.
It was hard to get her to eat quality food. She ate boiled potatoes (a staple in puppy mills), but it took weeks to get her to eat meat and other foods that are natural to animals. Her instincts had left her, replaced by terror.
After a couple of months, she could have been adopted to a very dog experienced and understanding home. There was an adopter who desperately wanted to take her and after a month, our leader relented. I explained for 2 hours how to care for Annie.
When the new owner returned to her home, it took her less than 15 minutes to ignore my instructions. Annie escaped into 950 acres of watershed, filled with bears, foxes, and an occasional coyote. We put up posters warning people not to go near her and call us if they saw her. Eventually when dogs get hungry, they will circle back to where they escaped. Eleven days after she took off we were able to trap her; but she was never going to be placed up for adoption again.
But here was the surprise, we expected her to return to being feral. But as soon as she saw me, she wagged her tail. She had bonded with a human. We had suspected that she would have attachment disorder; but despite her previous abuse, she was willing to bond cautiously to a human.
It has not been the easiest of journeys. It took six years to housetrain her. She may never understand the cause/effect linkages and food is not a motivator. She is suspicious of every treat, food, and toy. She is not a normal dog, she cannot understand my needs, so frozen in her past trauma. If I am not there, her fears take over. It was hard to travel, if I boarded her, she just shivered in the back of the crate. I was her touchstone. If I was there, everything was okay if I was not, nothing was okay.
After my other dogs passed away, I adopted Gus, and she bonded to him. He modeled how to connect with humans. She watched Gus reach out to strangers and she decided to try it. (She can still not face strangers, but she backs up to them to let them pet her back.) I was lucky enough to find a friend who is patient with her and Annie now is comfortable with her in my absence.
Annie had too sweet a disposition for what happened to her. Another dog may have been more resilient. But Annie was too trusting, too loving, and too kind for that treatment. Had she not had this early life, she would have been the best dog that anyone ever had.
Annie’s story is a typical puppy mill parent story. Some millers keep their dogs in pens in barns, which is a little more humane than crates, but the indifference is the same. If you are not sure if your dog is from a puppy mill, click on the link below to see the signs. (You can assume that all puppy stores and most puppies available on the internet are from a puppy mill.) And if you did accidentally buy your puppy from a puppy mill, consider donating to a rescue organization.
But this story is not about puppy mills. It is about Annie’s journey. How she went from a fearful, feral dog, to a loving, sweet, happy, gal. How she never gave up. She taught me how animals and people who are abused in their youth bear permanent scars and how fragile trust can be.
She also taught me about resiliency. The Annie that I first met had no prospect of a happy life. She could only see terror and pain. But she was willing to open up to another world.
After caring for Annie, I now understand the permanent scars that remain after childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse by trusted institutions such as the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts. But Annie’s resiliency is in everyone, and most of these victims have been able to recover. Yet those scars remain and can re-emerge at any time. The path may be long, hard, and painful, but their ability to move past their past makes them an inspiration to all of us.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.