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As the dogs burst out the door on the morning of the first snowfall, I wonder if Colby has ever experienced snow. She prances around the yard, grabbing mouth-fulls of crunchy snow from the ground as she goes. Colby came to us from GRROW, Golden Retriever Rescue Of Wisconsin. Before being fostered with a volunteer at GRROW, Colby lived her life in a small kennel at a puppy mill where she was bred early and frequently to churn out puppies for profit. While we can’t know for sure about the conditions of the puppy mill, we do know that when she arrived at GRROW her poor nutrition had caused dull, patchy fur and a hookworm infestation. The mill couldn’t even tell the rescue if she was currently carrying puppies. When Colby went in for her spay, it was discovered that she was indeed carrying a litter. Lucky for her, it would be her last litter and she would get to deliver and care for her puppies in the comfort of a quiet, clean whelping box and have several vet visits to keep her healthy and comfortable. Likely for the first time also, she was able to take breaks from her pups. Just like human parents, momma dogs need some alone time to recuperate mentally and physically.

After the puppies were weaned and sent to their foster homes, the rescue organization matched our adoption application to Colby and we were invited to meet her. We were repeatedly warned that Colby came with a suite of issues and some of those oddities were immediately present. We looked past her fearful behaviors and I convinced my husband that this was the dog that I wanted. I knew we were in for a project but I was sure I wanted to be the one to show this timid girl how great life as part of our family could be.

Three months after bringing Colby home, her challenging past is still evident. Her fear-based quirks are still present and sometimes the simplest things make her shut down completely. But at the root of it, she is one of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever met. She deserves every ounce of patience that we’ve given her. When she has an accident in the house, chews up her bed, or refuses to come inside because “doorways are scary”, I simply remind myself that she is essentially a large puppy. Colby’s progress settling into being a house pet is slow but rewarding to witness. She is finally somewhat comfortable with me quietly clipping a leash onto her collar while she eats treats from my hand. When she came to us, she would run away and cower at the mere sight or sound of the leash, sometimes even urinating out of fear. She also learned to sit last week! It was a big milestone for her.

Lucky for Colby, she was rescued from her tiny kennel at the puppy mill when she was only two and a half years old. The sad reality is that many of the breeder dogs at puppy mills will spend their entire lives in a cramped kennel, never knowing the loving touch of a human or what it’s like to play with a toy. Overbreeding and inbreeding are common while veterinary care is rare. Currently, only six states have passed laws prohibiting sales of puppies in pet stores, leading many of the puppy mills in those states to shut down. If you are buying a new furry family member from a pet store, it may seem like you are “rescuing” that puppy but in truth, you are supporting a horrendous cycle of supply and demand. Your best bet is to visit your local humane society to adopt a dog. If you’re interested in a specific breed, an internet search can reveal non-profit rescue groups in your area that can match you with the perfect companion. The less ideal, but still respectable choice is to choose a reputable breeder. Know the signs of a puppy mill and keep an eye out for red flags. Ask to see health records and where the puppies and their mother are living. The ASPCA has great resources and their website provides a checklist to help in selecting a responsible breeder.

Although Colby has proved to be more challenging than the average pup, the journey has been incredibly rewarding. There was a point, around three weeks after bringing her home, when frustration reached its peak, and I contemplated returning her to the rescue group. Just as I was ready to give up on her, the rescue group stepped in with a flood of resources, inspiring success stories of other rescued breeder dogs, and heaps of encouragement to persevere. Grateful for their unwavering support, I found renewed determination. While the process of helping Colby overcome her deep-seated fears remains an ongoing endeavor, she has become a testament to the power of patience and understanding. And yes, did I mention the importance of patience?

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