The day they rescued her from Patricia Yates' puppy mill in suburban North Carolina, Humane Society workers had two concerns about the tiny white Maltese numbered B-16. The first was that she was in wretched health: her jaws were rotting away from far-gone infections, her coat was so thin she was almost bald, and her legs were barely strong enough to walk. The second was that she was end-stage pregnant: she wound up giving birth to two tiny puppies on the truck to the staging shelter. "That sweet dog waited till the last possible second so she could birth them in clean conditions," says Jess Lauginiger, the Puppy Mill Response Manager for HSUS who'd help coordinate the raid. "And as weak as she was, she nursed them herself until she got too sick to be with them."
When her pups were four weeks old, she spiked a dangerous fever and was rushed to surgery. Doctors found what appeared to be a mummified puppy in her womb; left untreated, she likely would have died of septic shock. "We kept her in the hospital for a week," says Heather Seifel, the administrator of the Cabarrus Animal Medical Center. "But I had to have her with me. We were too tightly bonded to be apart."
Seifel, an old hand at healing rescued dogs and getting them fit enough to be adopted, had talked many families through the training process once they got the dogs back home. She'd never adopted a puppy-mill rescue herself, though; now, she'd get a taste of her own medicine. "The first couple of weeks, we barely got to sleep – it was like bringing a newborn home," she says of the overwhelmed dog that she and her young kids named Ellie Mae. "Any noise or sudden movement would set her barking, and she couldn't take take being alone in the dark."
Exhausted as she was, Seifel went to work renewing her dog's strength and spirit. "It all starts with movement: get them walking or swimming – you're basically bringing them out of a coma," says Cesar Millan, the dog behaviorist and best-selling author who's rehabbed many abused and neglected dogs. "But do it in small steps so it breeds confidence, not panic. Then, bit by bit, show them the world."
With no muscle tone to speak of, Ellie Mae had to be carried downstairs to exercise in the backyard. It was a good place to start: the yard is fenced, with a minimum of street noise from traffic. "She learned to go potty there, but also built her strength back: I put her midway up the porch and made her walk the rest of the steps," says Seifel. "It also helped that I had two other dogs. As her legs came back, she chased them around the lawn."
For those without a yard, the work can be done indoors. "Keep to one room at first, don't give her the run of the house: that much freedom's too intense," says Millan. "And if you have kids or dogs, let her come to them on her terms. When you're calm and confident and celebrate her achievements, the rehab can be done in 60 days."
Dog treats weren't an option for rewarding Ellie's progress (her teeth had been pulled, and her mouth was still sore), but hugs and kisses substituted nicely. Eating at all proved a problem till Seifel became her chef, making a sweet, salty mash of chicken, green beans and sweet potatoes. In six weeks, most of Ellie's weight returned, and coconut oil spoons restored her pretty coat. In time, she let herself be petted by Seifel's kids, but held back when they played with the other dogs. Then one day, Seifel was sitting with her daughter Tatum when Ellie ran over and gummed her finger. "It was her way of saying, 'C'mon, let's play! I'm ready to have some fun around here!'"
It's been 12 weeks since her rescue, and Ellie's made remarkable progress for a dog who'd spent her life behind bars. Seifel brings her to work at the animal clinic, where she hobnobs with the dogs who're brought in. "Other dogs are great for facilitating socialization," says Kristen Collins, the senior director of the ASPCA's Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Madison, New Jersey, where dogs recovering from the very worst abuse are sent for therapy. "Every treatment session is done in pairs or groups, so more fearful dogs can benefit from the company of other dogs who are further along. When they’re adopted, some of our 'graduates' continue to need a 'helper dog' at home to enjoy a good quality of life."
One of the dogs Ellie sees at the office is Albie, her three-month-old puppy; he was adopted by a long-time client of the clinic. (Seifel's mom adopted her other pup and named her Minnie Driver, born as she was on a truck.) Ellie sees the pups often and bosses them around, sniffing and licking them to teach good hygiene, though her son will have none of it. "He's almost as big as her already and doesn't like being fussed with, but he's gonna have to learn to suck it up," says Seifel. "She's been a mother her whole life, so that's all she knows. That instinct – to love her babies till they came and took 'em from her – that's what kept her going in that hellhole."