Rescuing a Dog From a Puppy Mill Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

Rebecca Brown

In 2012 my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I rescued a 4-year-old Golden Retriever from a puppy mill in Taiwan. After submitting home videos to a rescue group in Northern California and becoming pre-approved adopters, the founder and "puppy matchmaker" at the organisation sent us an email. We read the email together, shoulder-by-shoulder, like exited children on Christmas morning. The email said that our dog had just been rescued from an awful place, was currently getting care, and would soon be up to date on shots and strong enough to travel along with a volunteer to the United States. Jackpot!

"You're rescuing a dog from Taiwan?" people would gasp, emphasizing the wan in Taiwan as if doing so would make us realise how far away the dog was. "They have rescue dogs here," they'd finish.

But it was a common enough practice. The organisation we used had a sister rescue organisation in Taiwan. Once enough dogs were rescued, a volunteer would fly over dozens of dogs for eager families in the United States. We'd read up on common things to expect when rescuing a dog in general, but nothing could have prepared us for the journey.

Here are the eight most significant experiences I've had since rescuing.

I got to see what Day 1 was like for her.

I got to see what Day 1 was like for her.

When we met Vichy (the rescue organisation gave her that name temporarily), she was the most terrified, anxious, doe-eyed little bundle that I could have pictured. We met at SFO International on January 11, 2013, and the volunteer told us that she was the only dog in a group of about 15 who didn't go to the bathroom in her crate. To me I interpreted that not was an achievement, but an indication of her sheer terror.

After hearing that she hadn't gone to the bathroom in a million hours, we sprinted through the airport together in search of a door.

We saved a life. We've never been able to say that.

We saved a life. We've never been able to say that.

After the rescued her she went to the groomer for her first real bath.

A few weeks before we were set to pick up Vichy from SFO Airport we got an email from the rescue agency telling us that our little pup had heartworm but was being treated for it. We had no idea that that was only the tip of the iceberg. Within the first year, Fleetwood (we named her after our favourite drummer) had two surgeries to remove a cancerous tumor we found on her mammary gland, three root canals, and nine tooth extractions.

Thank God we had the wherewithal to get pet insurance.

I got to see her behavioural growth with my own eyes.

I got to see her behavioural growth with my own eyes.

Getting care in Taiwan.

The first morning I took Fleetwood for a walk she damn near dropped to the ground and army-crawled back to our apartment building. What triggered her? A bike rider. It occurred to me that after having spent her entire life likely caged up at a puppy mill, she probably never saw a bicycle in her life. And since I lived in a town that felt very futuristic — robots frequently deliver our groceries — I knew that the number of pedestrians on zany transportation devices was only going to continue to spook her.

It wasn't just bikes and robots. Cars scared her. Garbage trucks sent her into an immediate panic. But I helped her work through it, doing what she needed and rewarding her every time she pushed through the nervousness. I'd usually give her treats while the scary noises passed us and eventually she became a pro. Now she doesn't even blink on trash day.

It brought my husband and I closer.

It brought my husband and I closer.

Over the years Fleetwood has connected us in ways we never imagined. Whether it's taking her to the wash-your-own-pet station and getting SOAKED while trying to bathe her, enduring a scary exam (or surgery), or throwing her in the ocean for her first swim, they're all new experiences for my husband and I. We frequently laugh and say, "What did we even do before Fleetwood?"

It gave me an opportunity to try being maternal.

It gave me an opportunity to try being maternal.

I never wanted to be a parent. It's something I've often written about with embarrassment, because admitting to it makes me sound shallow and self-absorbed.

But having to do things like get up at 3:00 a.m. three days in a row to drive Fleetwood 100 miles for a series of dental surgeries put life into perspective. Did I want to get up then? No. Did I want to have to worry about a dog with a number of health concerns, ranging from cancer to dental disease? Absolutely not. But I put on my adult pants and showed up for her.

I learned what was important.

I learned what was important.

I laugh when I think about how many times I told my husband that we would not be the type of couple who lets their dog sleep on — and dirty up — the bed. Now we damn near pick her up and coerce her onto the bed with treats. I'm constantly chasing after her hair balls with a vacuum, and have just given into the fact that in order to have this much joy, I have to live with the hair shedding.

My own anxiety started to matter less.

My own anxiety started to matter less.

While Fleet and I have very different upbringings — she was uncared for, caged and kept alive for the purposes of breeding, and shown little to any love until we met her — we both have anxieties. But many of hers were visible. When a huge truck would drive by and she'd sprint back home, or when the vet put her in cage temporarily and she'd focus all of her attention on her arms and bite them furiously, I jumped in. I knew enough about how I treated my own anxiety that I used that to help Fleet work through hers. I sat with her and rewarded her while the triggers drove by on the street, and I offered to sit with her in exam rooms before vet appointments to avoid her ever having to back into another cage again.

Joy means something else now.

Joy means something else now.

Even though Fleet's just a dog, she's a happy dog, and I can say that because of the care my husband and I have given her.