We waited and waited and then, without fanfare, they marched into the shelter. The animal control officers were back from the raid and started to stack the mismatched crates outside the intake room. They could now remove their respirator masks, but the smell of ammonia had penetrated their clothes and boots. They needed a hot shower and would probably light some strongly scented candles when they got home just to dislodge the smells (and sights) of the warehouse from their memory. Within minutes, there were over 30 crates housing dozens and dozens of dogs in the hallway. When most folks were kicking off their shoes and settling into their easy chair, shelter staff and volunteers worked methodically through the night to welcome, identify, and examine all the dogs. Those dogs had been through a lot that day, but now they were safe.
They were seized from a local puppy mill. When you think about puppy mills, you imagine that they only exist in rural areas — hidden in the deserts or in the backwoods. However, this is not the case. There is a surprisingly abundant amount of puppy mills in the Bay Area, and you can find them and ill-reputed backyard breeders by simply searching the “Dogs for Sale ads” on community listings such as Craigslist. There you can also regrettably find “studs” to rent.
The seized dogs were a motley crew of rag-muffins. There were seniors with rotten teeth; overbred dogs with stretched out bodies; about-to-pop pregnant dogs; nursing moms with newborns; dogs suffering eye infections and skin infections; and adorable puppies. Some of them were friendly, but most were terrified. All were dirty, smelly, and covered with fleas.
I volunteer at the shelter, and I was assisting that night: weighing dogs, taping ID tags around their necks, removing crates. Afterward, another volunteer and I went to a nearby restaurant and over burritos and horchatas realized the hard part was about to begin. A small handful of volunteers, including myself, were going to be responsible for socializing the dogs and earning their trust after all they had been through.
This was not going to be quick or easy, because most of the dogs feared people and, when touched, they froze or snapped. So I spent many days sitting completely still or barely moving, my pockets stuffed with tasty treats, on concrete kennel floors surrounded by timid, traumatized dogs. The bravest would tentatively rest a paw on my leg and take treats from my hand. While they nibbled, I would stroke their chest. (I took a shine to one daring dog who pressed her front paws into my chest. More on her later.) My mantra was no speaking, no staring, no pressure, and no expectations. Lots of patience. Very Zen.
Though this was not necessarily a pleasurable experience it was a privilege to be able to work so closely with these dogs and have the shelter trust the volunteers with this responsibility. There were no shortcuts to this process. But, this is why I chose to volunteer at my local municipal shelter — to help the dogs most at need and to add more love (and, with love comes loss) to my life.
Of course, I ended up fostering one of the dogs: the charmer who pressed her paw into my chest. Her name is Dakota, and she is still looking for her forever home. She is a Chihuahua with a little Basenji thrown in, and she is as sly and swift as a fox. Like all the puppy mill dogs, she was transferred from the municipal shelter to a rescue partner. Several local, state, and national rescue groups were rallied, and I am happy to say that all the dogs were adopted or in foster homes.
To be honest, it has been a bit of a challenge to find Dakota’s forever home, because it takes time for her to warm up to new people. Like Greta Garbo, she wants to be left alone. With houseguests, I advise them to treat her like a cat — ignore her and let her do her thing. Eventually, she leans into them and, if she is feeling flirty, rolls over for a belly rub. If you are lucky, she may bust her signature move and press her front paws into your chest.
So, if you are looking for an affectionate goofball and devoted companion, Dakota is your girl. But not on the first day you meet her, or even the first week or two you spend together. Be patient, give her some space and time to adjust, and soon she will smother you with kisses and never leave your side. You will experience the full Dakota and understand why her nickname is “Nonstop Fun.”
By now you may be wondering, “What can I do to help former puppy mill dogs?” There are numerous ways to make a difference in the lives of neglected and abused dogs. Consider volunteering at or donating to your local municipal shelter. They are the first responders in the animal welfare world and they are highly underfunded. Put pressure on your city council members to take animal cruelty cases seriously. Connect with organizations that work toward ending puppy mills through education, advocacy, and legislation, such as Best Friends and Harley’s Dreams. And lastly, foster or adopt a puppy mill dog like Dakota. If you are interested in adopting Dakota or other dogs like her, please contact the rescue agencies Power of Chi (PowerOfChiRescue@gmail.com) or Nobody’s Perfekt (NobodysPerfektDogs@comcast.net).
Dakota and dogs like her don’t require dog whisperers; they just need what we all do — a loving and supportive family, a home where we feel safe and we can be silly.
Nancy Mizuno Elliott is an artist and art professor and volunteers at a local municipal shelter. She grew up with all types of dogs: large, small, pure breeds, and mixed breeds. But, her favorite dogs are mutts, seniors, and spunky Chihuahuas
Main article photo by: Nathan Fowle, Oakocalyptic Pet Photography