By Gayle M. Irwin
His round, almond-colored eyes reached beyond the screen into my heart. His face reminded me of an Ewok from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. I had wanted a small dog, easy to pick up, an adult yet young enough that I could grow old with him or her, but had no luck. Little dogs are in high demand where I live, and even looking regionally, I discovered they were quickly adopted. Stormy, available at Hearts United for Animals (HUA), seemed perfect for us.
Once our adoption application was approved, my husband Greg and I made plans to drive the 800-mile round trip to pick up the four-year-old Shih Tzu. Knowing we were giving the little guy a new life, we decided to rename him. “What about Jeremiah?” my husband said. I asked him to look up the meaning of the name, and when he read the description aloud, I said, “That’s it! God appointed Jeremiah the prophet, and He’s appointing this dog for us!” Two days later, we drove to Nebraska to pick up our newly-named black and white companion.
We had lost a cocker spaniel to old age (almost 18) the previous year, and we felt the time had come to bring another dog into our home as companion for us and our springer-cocker spaniel mix, Mary. However, we needed just the right one: Mary is 11 and we have two 12-year-old cats. HUA cat-tested Jeremiah, and he paid no attention to the felines, according to the adoption counselor.
Troubled past. We hoped Jeremiah would fit well into our family, but we knew that he might have some issues. One of the missions of the organization is to shut down Midwestern puppy mills. HUA rescued our “appointed one” and several other small dogs from such a facility. Jeremiah had lived his first three years in appalling conditions that are unfortunately all too typical: tiny wire cages stacked atop each other, allowing wastes to drop onto the dogs below. On the relatively rare occasions that the cages are cleaned, the dogs suffer in place through power-washing. There is no attention given to socialization and very little to medical care. Jeremiah was not neutered when he came into rescue; he served as one of the mill’s stud dogs when old enough. In this regard he was slightly more fortunate than the females, who are kept pregnant and killed when no longer productive. Mill operators often sell puppies online (such as via Craigslist), through newspaper ads, and to pet stores. In fact, most animal welfare organizations, including Best Friends Animal Society, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and the Humane Society of the United States warn against purchasing puppies and kittens from pet stores; most of the animals these businesses obtain come from unscrupulous puppy mills.
The challenges of adopting a dog with such a background can be overwhelming to the adopter. Rescues and shelters working with puppy mill survivors note that the dogs are not housetrained, many of them are timid and have significant health issues, and some may have an inability to form attachments to humans.
Second thoughts. The HUA volunteer we met took us to an outdoor fenced area, which provided opportunity for Mary (and us) to stretch our legs from the long drive. Two benches and two large trees offered shade and comfort from the early autumn sun. Another volunteer, who had spent a lot of time with Jeremiah in the 11 months he’d been at the sanctuary, brought the little dog to the meeting area.
As I approached him, cradled in the lady’s arms, Jeremiah turned his face away from me. I scratched his head a few moments before she set him on the ground. Although Mary came to greet him, Jeremiah ignored her. He walked around the grassy spot, sniffing and marking. Mary followed him, but he didn’t engage with her. Jeremiah also ignored me and Greg until I picked him up. I was somewhat concerned that he would bite, but his HUA caregiver assured me he never had done that.
When we had finished the adoption process and been given a harness and leash for our new family member, we learned more about Jeremiah’s medical condition. HUA’s veterinarian had neutered him and removed 28 of the dog’s teeth – the poor-quality food he had lived on lacked the nutrition necessary to keep his teeth healthy, and the absence of regular cleanings contributed to widespread decay. The staff also warned us not to expect Jeremiah to walk well on a leash or to be housebroken.
Briefly, I reconsidered the adoption. There might be huge vet expenses – and I wanted a lap dog and walking companion. But with one more look at the little dog’s face, I shook away the cobwebs of doubt.
We all settled into the car for the trip home. Surprisingly, Jeremiah rode well in the vehicle. He must have experienced car rides before, possibly transported to other breeding sites to help create even more money-making puppies.
Doggie see, doggie do. I had prepared our house prior to Jeremiah’s arrival. I work outside the home three days a week, and my husband sometimes travels, so we purchased a doggie playpen with room for standing, walking, and sleeping. We spread out pee pads and placed a cozy bed and two furry toys inside the area. The first day we used the pen, a day we were both gone, I returned home at lunch to find the enclosure moved by several feet and Jeremiah whining and clawing at the wire, frantic to get out. Instead of finding comfort to the small space, he may have related it to the cages at the puppy mill – something I didn’t consider. I let both dogs outside to potty and pondered what to do. I didn’t want to stress Jeremiah since he had only been with us less than a week. I decided to use the baby gate that we’ve employed since we adopted Mary four years earlier and learned what a garbage hound she was.
As I stood on the deck observing the two dogs snuffling around the backyard, I noticed Jeremiah watching Mary. She peed, and then he peed, right where she did. He followed her along the fence line, and where she sniffed, he sniffed. That’s when I realized we had a major adjustment asset already in place: Mary. Trained as a therapy dog, her calm yet friendly demeanor gave her the patience and willingness to be Jeremiah’s guide and special friend.
Putting up the baby gate and closing doors to other rooms allowed Jeremiah to not be “caged” and to be near Mary, but still confined enough for us to spot and easily clean up accidents he had during the next few weeks. When Greg was out of town, I was diligent about coming home every couple of hours to let Jeremiah and Mary into the backyard; or our retired neighbor would come to the house when I couldn’t get away. At first, Jeremiah was afraid of her; however, once again, Mary’s guidance came through. Mary, who loves all people and (seemingly) all animals, taught Jeremiah to accept our neighbor, and to wait to relieve himself outside.
Learning to be a dog. Within the next two months, Jeremiah became completely housebroken. He also learned to play with toys. The first time I saw him grab a squeaky duck, shake it, and trot around with it, I nearly cried; I knew that he’d not had the chance to interact with toys much, if at all, during his young life.
He learned many other things about being a dog by watching and emulating Mary: commands like “sit,” “stay,” and “come.” At first leery about the leash, he learned from Mary that it meant a walk was in the offing, and he began to greet the sight with enthusiasm, sitting beside her to get “hooked up.” He now loves strolls around the neighborhood and through the local dog park – the perfect little walking partner I had dreamed of.
Four months have passed since Jeremiah came to live with us. He’s become a lovable, trusting, delightfully sweet companion. He’s never chased our cats, and his bond with Mary is strong and special. He curls up next to her on the sofa, on the dog bed, even on the floor.
Jeremiah delights my husband and me. A protruding canine tooth creates a unique smile, and when he runs through the yard, his wispy-black ears fling backward and, like wings, help him soar through the space. His dancing antics at dinner time bring smiles to our faces, and his snuggles while lying beside us stir our souls.
There are challenges when adopting a puppy mill survivor, and though we didn’t have as many as other adopters of such dogs, I would happily bring one home again. From a horrific early life, Jeremiah now displays joy every day at being with other furry friends and receiving our love and attention. And that makes us joyful too.
Writer of inspirational pet stories, Gayle M. Irwin is published in seven Chicken Soup for the Soul books, including the 2017 release The Dog Really Did That? She’s authored several books, including Walking in Trust: Lessons Learned with My Blind Dog, a devotional-style reflection connecting faith lessons with 10 years spent with a blind springer spaniel. She maintains a weekly pet blog and produces a monthly newsletter for pet owners. A former humane society worker, Gayle lives her passion for the human-pet bond: she adopts, she volunteers with various animal rescues, and she’s working on an e-book about dog adoption. Learn more at www.gaylemirwin.com.
Here is a link to a helpful e-book on what you might expect when adopting a puppy mill survivor, and how to cope with challenges. http://milldogrescue.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/NMDR-From-Puppy-Mill-to-Pet.pdf