Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson once wrote, “To the world, you may be one person — but to one person, you may be the world.” Arguably, the same sentiment could apply to our canine companions. A loyal dog can make his human feel like the most important individual on the planet, and numerous pet owners would agree that dogs tend to hold an irreplaceable spot in our hearts.
But for many rescue dogs — and puppy mill dogs in particular — that cherished “one person” just doesn’t exist. Mill dogs live for a purpose that makes them “special” to no one, other than a mill breeder who views them as a way to make a profit. This would come as no surprise to anyone familiar with puppy mills, which churn out puppies for pet stores and private sale across the country.
In contrast to private, reputable breeders, mills often accomplish their output goals by keeping dogs in close, cramped captivity. “This maximizes volume,” explains Debbie Fahrenholtz, founder and president of Rhode Island-based Just A Touch Rescue (JATR), “and most dogs are bred far longer, and far more frequently, than vets would ever recommend.”
The upshot is that puppy mill dogs frequently die of illness or maltreatment while in captivity. But those who do make it out often bear pronounced signs of acute physical and emotional distress. And it’s dogs like these for whom JATR strives to make a meaningful, lasting difference.
“We’re a small 501(c)(3) rescue organization with a mission to focus on one dog at a time,” explains Fahrenholz. “We work with as many pups as we possibly can — though our focus is on helping neglected, mistreated, aged, or abused canines who need extra patience, understanding, and compassion. Many are mill dogs, some aren’t. But our commitment to each one is unwavering. We come alongside them — no matter how much time, money, or care a particular dog might require.”
Fahrenholz founded JATR in 2007, after years of involvement with puppy mill rescue work. The organization includes a board of directors, plus an ever-growing network of dedicated, carefully screened volunteers and foster families who help to identify these dogs and transition them into the program.
“Some of our dogs come from shelters or facilities in other states,” says Fahrenholz. “Many mill dogs — or breeders, as they’re sometimes called — have never even received their own name. These canines are often facing imminent euthanasia because they’re far too traumatized to adopt out. So shepherding these pups into the safety of our program is often a sustained group effort.”
Once an animal has been safely rescued, JATR and its foster network provide veterinary evaluations, medical follow-up, and crucial behavioral care, including rehabilitation and socialization. “It’s often a lengthy, meticulous process, demanding tremendous empathy and patience,” says Fahrenholz. “This type of fostering can require a willingness to back up, rethink, try things a little differently. But once we find the right combination, it’s amazing how a beautiful dog like Split can begin to come around.”
According to Fahrenholtz — whose own current foster pups include a Yorkshire Terrier named Iris, a Bichon named Contessa, and a Poodle named Skye — a dog’s overwhelming fear and trauma can frequently manifest itself in a series of one or more repetitive behaviors. These might include pacing, spinning, chewing, cowering, trembling, hiding, and reactive urinating and defecating. “Often you can tell by their face, their posture, everything,” she observes. “A light has gone out.”
JATR foster mom Mariana Ovnic has cared for a number of these severely traumatized canines, those who have essentially shut down. While many of her pups have eventually gone on to successful adoption, one of her first fosters — a Toy Poodle named Pooh Bear — still resides with her.
“These dogs act defeated,” observes Ovnic. “There’s no fight or flight left. They’ve just given up — they have no hope. They crouch down and freeze. If panicked by a loud noise, they run blindly. They try to make themselves small — as if willing themselves to disappear.”
Fellow foster mom Linda Adams agrees: “Looking into their eyes reveals one of two things: despair and sorrow, or fear.” But both women emphasize that there is often great hope, as well. “Inside each of these lost souls is a life so full of love,” says Adams, “just waiting for someone who cares enough to show the way.”
Adams distinctly remembers one case in particular. “About four years ago,” she recalls, “a local shelter let me know they had a Chihuahua who had been there for more than six months and was still unapproachable. They knew that [JATR] works with these little ones, where others often won’t.”
“When I arrived, this pup was in a long run by himself,” she says. “I could tell he was terrified. The moment I approached the run, he charged and attacked the caging. I immediately knew I was going to be part of his journey.”
Over time the Chihuahua, who came to be known as Opie, formed an intense bond with Adams and her husband — but the process wasn’t easy. The day she first brought Opie home, recalls Adams, “I placed a clean, soft bed attached to a large x-pen in my bedroom. During the day, I put music on low to soothe him. At night, I’d sit inside the x-pen with him for hours — watching TV, talking to him, offering treats, or simply just lying on my pillow waiting for him to be ready to accept me.”
Numerous weeks into this process, Opie tentatively climbed into Adams’ lap with his front paws only. Eventually, he began to curl up and allow himself to be petted. “It took a good year or more before we felt that Opie truly understood he was safe and loved,” she says. Even to this day, Opie remains so fearful of his hindquarters being touched that a board-certified neurologist conducted tests to rule out physical complications. “We believe we’re seeing a protective response from a past experience,” explains Adams.
Ovnic has found that sometimes former mill dogs need the subtlest bit of coaxing —“just a gentle nudge to help them move into the freedom of their new world,” she says. If a dog will tolerate being picked up, Ovnic often places the animal near her, not making eye contact but very gently touching “until I feel the dog’s muscles start to relax. This can take quite a long time, perhaps an hour or more. I repeat this once a day, until it becomes routine and begins taking less time for the relaxation to occur.”
Her cherished Pooh Bear has become like a member of the family, but Ovnic notes that “it took my husband a couple years of giving her cheese before she ever allowed him to pick her up. With me, she is totally and fiercely bonded.”
While JATR eventually finds loving, adoptive homes for many of its dogs, the screening process is stringent. “As a fostering organization, we want to ensure that these dogs will be accepted, loved, and carefully nurtured for the rest of their lives,” notes Fahrenholtz. “So we’re extremely diligent and selective when screening potential adopters. We realize our dogs may not be right for everybody, and that’s okay. Because we’re looking for the right somebody who will recognize and cherish their enormous worth.”
In some instances, the foster and the dog have simply worked so hard together, and forged such an unbreakable bond, that the partnership lasts a lifetime. “We’ve had several cases where a pup simply stays with the foster family whose unconditional love provided a new lease on life,” Fahrenholtz observes. “In the end, whatever’s best for the dog is what matters most.”
The old, the forgotten, the unloved, the broken — to the dedicated sentinels of JATR, every one of these creatures is both worthy and capable of enormous love.
“All of these sweet, extraordinary souls deserve respect, compassion, and a chance to truly shine,” says Fahrenholtz. “Sometimes, two or three chances.”
Visit justatouchrescue.com to learn more about donating, volunteering, fostering, and adopting.
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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.