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Kerrie's Story: Transitioning Puppy Mill Rescue Dogs to Home Life

My name is Kerrie Haynes-Lovell and this is the story of my rescue dogs Shirley, Bunny, Fargo and Lola.

Last year, I was humbled to receive recognition in the 2022 Pet Insurance Australia Companion Animal Rescue Awards. With so many caring and compassionate people assisting animals across Australia, it was a huge surprise for me to be named the winner of the Ivory Coat People's Rescue Story.

I would like to start by acknowledging the organisers and supporters of the Companion Animal Rescue Awards, in particular Founder Cathy Beer and Caroline Zambrano, Pet JournalistThe true winners are the animals that have benefited from all the participants in the awards.

My journey in the world of animals has been a lengthy and rewarding one, both personally and professionally. I have been taught by some amazing animals and wonderful mentors along the way. I continue to learn from these people and animals.

This story is about my Boston Terrier puppy mill rescue girls. I have always had a love of bull breeds, having owned and shown French Bulldogs and American Staffordshire Terriers and I also had a companion Australian Bulldog.

My first Boston Terrier rescue came from my local RSPCA shelter in Coffs Harbour. I was waiting to see one of my TAFE students who was working there. 

I saw this very small Boston Terrier sitting in a pen at the end of the row. When I enquired about her, they informed me she was from a puppy mill seizure and her pup had been weaned and once she was de-sexed she could home.

Shirley was this tiny bundle of trembling dog the day I picked her up from the shelter.

She was very unsure and concerned but as we lived on a quiet rural property with our calm rescue Greyhounds she settled quickly.

All our dogs always have access to inside and a secure outside yard. We don’t need to take the rescue dogs to the local cafĂ© or to the beach. 
"They just need to be comfortable and secure in a home with no pressure." 
Shirley is a force to be reckon with at home and is the live spark of the group. Outside the home, she still reverts to a trembling unsure dog.

As a teacher for the Delta Institute for many years, one of my tasks was to take the students to the Yagoona RSPCA shelter to work with the animals during their workshop. I was at the shelter discussing what animals we could work with the staff.

One staff member who knew my interest in bull breeds mention a very large seizure of Boston Terriers the shelter had made in previous days. I kept in touch with the staff regarding any of the dogs that may be difficult to rehome. One, a nervous brindle bitch I remembered from my first visit. She would eat from the staff’s hand, but they couldn’t touch her. After a discussion with the veterinarian, shelter manager and rehabilitation co-ordinator we decided I would give the dog a chance.

On that same day a male puppy from the same seizure was in to be de-sexed. My partner Michael was looking for a suitable puppy to be trained as his mindDog, Michael was a veteran who suffered from PTSD. The pup’s mum was pregnant at the time they were rescued so she went straight to a foster home. I called Michael and the decision was made to bring the pup home as well!

We named her Bunny because she was such a frightened little rabbit. She had been on medication for months to try and assist with her nervousness.

She is not on medication now. Bunny is not a genetically anxious dog; her behaviour was conditioned by her very poor early handling and environment.

We now call her the dancing queen, she is the most delightful, sweet dog in the world.

She still drops to the floor when you go to pick her up, she can’t deal with being off the property, but she trusts us enough to pick her up if we need to clip nails, bath her, or just give her a cuddle.

Lola our third girl came to us from RSPCA in Brisbane from another seizure from a puppy mill. 

My colleague, Dr Gaille Perry, who assessed the dogs on arrival at the shelter, suggested that perhaps Lola would be better with us as she was in a very bad emotional state. She is by far our most traumatised dog; she will feed from your hand but still after 3 years is still wary of us... 

She does sleep on my bed, and she does have her own lounge chair and she doesn’t run away when I call her. That’s fine by me if she can relax it is all good. Sometimes you just modify the environment and manage these dogs as best you can.

Working with emotionally traumatised dogs

At this point I’d like to make some personal comments regarding these very emotionally traumatised dogs.

People are often aware of the appalling conditions these dogs must contend with in these puppy mills. They see images of the physical condition these dogs are left in, having been housed less than adequate conditions.

What most people can’t see is the ongoing mental and emotional damage done to these dogs. Those experiences of months of emotional stress and abuse are something we can’t wipe away with medication and love. These can assist but there is no cure.

These dogs do not trust humans, and why would they? My approach with these dogs is to put as little pressure or expectation on them as possible

They are given some routine in their lives so they can predict when they will be fed, they have free run of the house and yard

Although I did have a 3 metre by 2 metre pen, with lounge chair and a comfy crate in my lounge room for the dogs to be able to first meet the other dogs and start to feel safe and comfortable.

They are always rewarded for behaviours that show they are relaxing in situations that might normally worry them. I use food as much as a calm voice to reward them. 
I don’t need to train them to do anything really, just let them be what they can be.
Dr Sarah Heath, English behavioural veterinarian, will tell you that the three main things that reduce stress in dogs are: sleeping, eating, and chewing

You need to provide any dog with the environment that allows them opportunities to do all three.

I would really like to think that my dogs would “love” me but honestly the most important thing for me is trust. If they can trust me not to put them in situations, they can’t handle then that is my reward.

A few words about trust

When training any animal, the first thing to work on is trust. I can’t emphasise that enough. You need to be a good observer and see when your dog is showing signs of not being comfortable with a situation.

Michael’s assistance dog Fargo is not what I would call a brave dog. Michael is very good at reading Fargo’s body language and in the early days of his training he was very careful to take note of situations that worried Fargo. 

Fargo was not pushed into situations, but allowed to decide when things were okay to move, with Michael in support.

Michael was also good at letting people know when things were not okay. People with their dogs off lead who let them run at other dogs. Usually blithely saying “It’s okay my dog is friendly”. It may be friendly but running into the face of a unknown dog is bad manners, and frightening to some dogs.

Today, Fargo passes his annual public access tests with flying colours, because of his early conditioning and trust in Michael.

Over the years I have come to dislike some common language used in the world of dogs and training. One is "socialisation". I am not saying that I dislike the process of introducing your young dog, in a positive way to the situations they may encounter in their lives.

I feel that currently too many humans think of socialising their dog in the same way they socialise. Go to a venue and chat with your friends without regard for what else is going on around you.

They think taking their dog, particularly a young dog, to a “dog” park and letting it “play” with other dogs is how you socialise them.

They don’t see that rough play with dogs they don’t know can lead to problems down the track. Dogs are social by nature; however, they don’t like every dog they meet. Just as humans don’t like every person they meet. By letting your dog get “mugged” by unfamiliar dogs in the dog park you are saying to the dog they can’t trust you to look after or support them.

I often hear the reason dogs lunge on the end of their lead when approached by another dog, is because they are protecting the owner. Might it be that they are protecting themselves because the owner has not protected them from unfamiliar dogs in the past?

The other outdated myth about dogs is the “pack” theory. You can describe a group of canids as a pack, same way a group of owls are a parliament. However, do not use the word 'pack' to describe the social structure of dogs, or wolves for that matter.

One of the factors that contribute to the close association of dogs with humans is that their social structures are very similar.

Mum and dad and the offspring live together. The parents teach the offspring what they need to survive successfully and when they are old enough the offspring leave and start their own family group.

Dogs do not live in a linear hierarchy, with an “alpha” at the top and all others in a line below them.
This theory was based on a corrupted wolf study and the author of this study is still pulling his hair out telling both wolf and dog people to stop quoting it as fact.

Final brief word on training

Not everything can be “fixed” with training. Many things can be but not all things.
To quote an early expert in conditioning, Bob Bailey, “Training is easy, it’s just not simple”.
What it means is that you train using the principles of learning. Easy as these principles are based in science and can be applied to any species.

We use one of those principles when training positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood of a behaviour reoccurring.

The 'not so simple' part is the fact that we are working with individuals, regardless of breed or species. They are complex sentient individuals with their own personalities and experiences. Dr Gaille Perry will tell you there is more variation within a breed than there is between breeds.

We need to look at our companions as individuals and treat them with respect and support them, so they trust us to make the right decisions on their behalf.
Kerrie Haynes-Lovell at Elephant House, Taman Safari Indonesia (Bogor Zoo)

I would like to acknowledge all the animals both domestic and exotic who have taught me over the years, and the fantastic professional humans that have also educated me along the way. 
The important thing to remember is to keep learning and look at things from the animals' perspective.
written by Kerrie Haynes-Lovell, January 2023 for Australian Dog Lover

About our writer

Kerrie Haynes-Lovell holds a Certificate IV in Captive Animals, Certificate III in Companion Animal Services and Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.

​Kerrie is a renowned animal trainer and has held executive positions in professional associations related to animal care and training. She has also worked as a Veterinary Nurse for over 10 years.

She also regularly consults for local, national and international zoological facilities and dog training groups.

She has taught the Certificate III in Captive Animals (zoo keeping) for 10 years in both Queensland and New South Wales. She's also a Trainer and Assessor for the Delta Institute. 


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