How (and why) we do what we do

We are often asked how we get the dogs we rescue and why breeders would surrender them to us.  Please bear with me, as this is no short story. 

Since day one, the National Mill Dog Rescue journey has been a life changing experience for me in so many ways.  It has been gut wrenching, eye opening, disgraceful and at times, surprising; a genuine roller coaster of emotions and experiences.  I have seen more horror than any dog-loving person would ever care to see and as a result, I have felt contempt towards my “fellow man” that has cost me many hours of sleep and had me thinking things that would never enter into the mind of an otherwise compassionate and reasonable human being.  However, I would be remiss in not making the distinction that, like all other things in life, it isn’t all the same.

Many of you know the story of how National Mill Dog Rescue began. 

For those who don’t, in the smallest of nutshells, in February 2007, I received an email plea for help for “50 Italian Greyhounds in need”, and subsequently wound up at a dog auction in Missouri.  Although I had been active in animal rescue most of my life, at that time, I had never even heard of a dog auction.  A longtime, very large-scale breeder, a puppy mill, was going out of business, auctioning off her entire kennel; 561 dogs, 49 were Italian Greyhounds.  At this auction, I met Lily, my true inspiration, and brought her and 12 other pathetic little souls back to my home and so, the NMDR journey began.

The early days were extremely tough as we cared for those 13 profoundly damaged dogs, worked to find them loving, forever homes and pondered how to create a mission around this growing passion.  All this at a time when 90% (or more) of the American public had never even heard the term “puppy mill”.  The burning desire to give the mill dogs a voice was ever present in me but I really had no idea how to go about it, no expendable money to speak of and other than my immediate family, no help in making it happen.  The story gets very long, interesting and crazy at this point but that’s a story for another time, perhaps a book one day.

Suffice it to say, we surely didn’t have the money to run out to Missouri auctions to buy dogs, which in the rescue community, is understandably a controversial subject unto itself.  In the end, the steps forward all came down to one person; a lady I had met at the auction – a breeder herself but also a rescuer and a downright interesting character, to put it mildly.  We had a brief conversation at the auction that day; I gave her my phone number, looked her in the eye and told her they had not seen the last of me.

To give credit where credit is due, this lady, to the best of my knowledge, was the pioneer in getting breeders to turn their dogs over rather than killing them when they were no longer productive.  She was a maverick in the truest sense of the word… and she was the perfect person to do it because, in reality, she was one of them but in some strange ways, she was also one of us.

A couple of months passed; we were busily rehabilitating the dogs along with a handful of wonderful people who had learned of our story and stepped up to help us.  I spent every spare minute studying, making phone calls and trying my hardest to learn how to move forward with the mission that was churning inside of me.

One day, the phone call came – the lady from the auction.  Her words were abrupt, no “Hi, how are ya?” She simply said, “I’ve got a situation and I need you out here this weekend.”  She then related a horrifying story of 34 mill dogs living in a virtual hell and how they were all going to be killed, execution style that weekend.  Long story short, this became my second rescue and the path to being able to rescue the mill dogs started to become clear.

For the next two years, about once a month, I ran around the countryside of Missouri and a few neighboring states gathering discarded mill dogs with this renegade woman. 

She got me in the door, showed me how to communicate with these people and they learned to trust me because they trusted her.  This opened the door to rescuing the dogs but believe me, there was nothing simple about building and maintaining these unusual relationships.  Some of the things I saw back then will haunt me all the way to my grave but I forged past my own outrage in order to save the dogs.  Those are the days that set the mission in motion and I never looked back.

Jumping forward to the present:  I have seen so much over these past 11 years over the course of being on more than 100 rescues.  If I had to guess, I would say I have been on the inside of more than 500 commercial breeding facilities.  I have been on properties that housed well over 1,000 dogs and I have been on properties that house 20 dogs and just about every number in between.  This is where the distinction needs to be drawn.

Is there a specific number of dogs that makes a place a puppy mill?  Is it about the standard of care?  Is any person who breeds dogs for profit a puppy mill, or is it some combination of all of these questions and more?  I honestly can’t say I have the conclusive answer to that but what I can say is that through my experience, there is a wide variation on how individual breeders care for their dogs, or not…

We work with about 170 commercial breeders now.  About 10% of them stand far and above the rest in the care they provide for their dogs.  From there, the care varies widely, but it’s the 10% that I am speaking about when I say some large-scale breeders do take excellent care of their dogs.  Yes, that’s a very low number, but for years these folks have continued to turn dogs over to us in great condition both physically and mentally and for years they have been lumped into the heap of all the rest when clearly, that is an unfair perception.

These particular breeders have anywhere from 20-70 dogs.  These are properties I have been on many times.  These are dogs who are not caged 24/7, are let out on the ground in “turn out yards” to play and socialize, are retired by 5 or 6 years of age and are not bred on every heat cycle.  Some are leash trained, some are even housebroken as they alternate them through their homes each week.  These are dogs that are regularly groomed, receive proper veterinary care and are handled on a regular basis.  And believe me, the care they have received is entirely obvious once they are in our hands.  These breeders follow every dog they turn over to us until they are adopted and they truly appreciate our efforts in finding great homes for their dogs.  Looking at the numbers alone, these would be considered larger-scale operations.

The care from here falls on a spectrum, anywhere from average on down to the worst thing you can possibly imagine and everywhere in between.  I believe care of the dogs falls fairly evenly across this spectrum for the rest of the breeders we work with.  Cinder, a dog we rescued on our Operation: Hundred Hearts in February of 2015, is a really good example of the very worst.  According to our vet, she probably had less than a week to live…literally being eaten alive by a variety of parasites.  The effect a dog like Cinder has on those of us caring for her reminds us why we do what we do.  None of us have become immune to the sadness and anger; it just fuels our passion.

Bear in mind, my experience is with about 3% of all the breeders in this country.  I cannot really say what that means in the overall scheme of things.  Is my experience about average or above or below average?  I honestly don’t know.  I just know what we do, who we deal with and how it works in our small corner of animal welfare.

None of these words question whether we agree with any level of breeding or not.  I’m certain that within our own network of volunteers, supporters and fans, there are many different opinions.  However, this is a legal business in a free country, the dogs are out there and they need us.  We are not in charge of what people do for a living and we have no legal authority over anyone, so we walk the proverbial tightrope doing what we are able to do, for the dogs.  We rescue, we educate and we support change.

Some people ask, “When you take dogs from the breeders aren’t you just encouraging them to fill the empty spaces with more dogs?”  The fact is, in many cases, the dogs have a deadline date for pick up, meaning if we don’t get them by that day, they will be disposed of.  Believe me, if a breeder needs space for more dogs, they will make the space whether the dogs are turned over to us or they are destroyed.  As for those who would never destroy their dogs, they wait for us.  Whatever the case, at the end of the day, for us it is about giving a chance to every dog on our lists; from decent places or from hellholes, the old, the young, the sick – all of them, no exceptions.

On a personal note, of course, I wish that all dogs were family members lying on a couch or a soft dog bed, receiving the most wonderful, loving care every day of their lives.  I don’t want to see any dog caged or penned or chained or dumped, ever.  Sadly, that dream is a long way from realization so in the meantime, we will continue to save as many lives as we can and educate at every opportunity.

Unfortunately, society is to blame for many of the sufferings of animals; the lack of lifelong commitment, the demand for puppies from unknown sources, irresponsible ownership that feeds the gross overpopulation of domestic pets leading to senseless extermination.  There are many problems separate and apart from one another in animal welfare.  We are doing our part for one of them.

“Don’t breed or buy while homeless pets die.”  I wanted to comment on this statement as we see it quite often in response to some of our posts.  Ideologically, I stand behind this principle 110%.   But in reality, it’s a stretch to think that we can turn every person looking for a lap dog, a puppy for their children to grow up with or a purebred dog into someone who will go to their local shelter or rescue to find a companion.  Believe me, I have

worked all my life to push shelter and rescue adoption as the best choice and I will until the day I die.  While we all know with a little time and patience these kinds of companions can be found in shelters and rescues, the nature of many people is impulsive and impatient, and so it goes.

In closing, please know that my words are simply a reflection of the things I have seen and learned over the past 11 years.  The journey has been backbreaking, often distressing, yet the most deeply rewarding experience of a lifetime.  None of our successes has come easily, but we are on our feet with much work yet to be done. 

We have currently rescued more than 13,000 dogs, and I must say that in a million years, never could I have imagined where National Mill Dog Rescue would be today.  Rest assured, with your continued encouragement and support, we will be here loving and caring for this population of dogs until the very last day that we are needed.  If only that day comes in my lifetime….

Theresa and Rose, the 10,000th dog rescued by NMDR, on May 31, 2015.


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26 Responses to “How (and why) we do what we do”

  1. Dorothy Matheson

    I admire greatly the work that you all do and I thank you for it. My husband died suddenly a year ago and without my dog I would be lost. It’s beyond my comprehension how some people can ill treat their animals and the stories I read on Facebook really tear me up.

  2. Patricia Harrington

    Dear Theresa,
    From a former kennel/pet industry inspector from Kansas, I salute your efforts and heartfelt words.
    I was extremely inexperienced in the world of breeders when I started back in 1993 and almost quit my first week of training.
    What you say is so true, the scale is so broad as to care of these dogs. I stuck it out for 14 yrs until forced medical retirement.
    Our team saw the worst and some of the best in this crazy world. But we knew we had to continue, for the dogs.
    Thank you for all you and your team do. It is so vital to the dog kingdom.

    Pat Harrington

  3. Jodi Stevens

    What you do goes way beyond compassion for the underdogs! You have a gift from God Teresa! I know you get alot of stories but I’d like to share mine with you. It’s kinda long so bare with me please. When I went through breast cancer 6 yrs ago I went to my local shelter here in Peoria, Illinois and said I’d like to see some of your small dogs. The second one that came in I just knew that he was coming home with me, a Chiweenie I named Journey. He changed my life! It probably wasn’t the best time because I was pretty sick going through treatment, but my dad and mom who has passed watched him for me when I had to be hospitalized a couple of times. Journey was my life! 5 years later he turned ill and found out he had cancer. Kind of ironic huh? He got me through cancer so I had to be there for him. I don’t have alot of money but I gave him the care I could. He eventually couldn’t breathe very well and I had to make the decision to put him to rest. The hardest decision I’ve had to make!!! I knew that day that i couldn’t see him suffer. He crossed the rainbow bridge that day Dec 15, 2016. I was beside myself and so lost. My home was not a home to me without a dog so a week later I rescued a poochie from Foster Pet Outreach. His name is Spencer part shitzu and bijon frise. He’s 3 and oh boy a challenge!! He came from a high kill shelter in Chicago from an evicted home situation. It was like starting from scratch with him. After 2 weeks I thought I was going to have to return him because he was such a handful but I didn’t. I had to keep reminding myself that he needs lots of patience, time, and love. Well 3 months later he has improved so much! We still have some work to do but I know now that I can help a dog from a very bad situation. I love him so much! Dogs are my passion now. I wish I could quit doing hair and be with dogs trying to make a difference in their lives. My dream job now would be to just hold the throwaway dogs and love on them and let them know that it’s going to be alright and that they matter! Unfortunately being single I have to have income and that job wouldn’t pay the bills so I’m going to see about volunteering at a local shelter. Thank you for letting me share this with you and I will always support your mission and give when I can. Many blessings to you!!

  4. Judy

    Bless you for what you do. I just have a question for you. Many of your dogs are mixed breeds. Are these being intentionally bred? I am not talking about labradoodle, etc. Cant anything be done to get dog breeding out of the Dept. Of Agriculture. It just isn’t right.

  5. Roseann Littleton

    Such a beautiful and informative letter. Theresa, her small staff, and the volunteers do an AMAZING job! I donate a small amount – it’s all I can afford – recurring monthly donation to NMDR, and have for some time. I also do the same to Harley’s mission. I will continue to do this, until they all go by name.

    THANK YOU so much to all of you!

    Roseann Littleton

  6. Kathy Govreau

    I love all animals but my favorites are dogs; all dogs but specifically, seniors and special needs dogs. I have been following your stories for quite some time now. I donate when I am able but I have a houseful; 9 dogs (all rescues), 4 birds (2 conures, 2 macaws, rescues), 2 bunnies (rescues) and 6 cats (rescues; 2 of which are ferals that live in my den and like to use my computer when I am not there LOL!). I recently saw you on Dr. Jeff and was happy to see that you are getting some TV time on Animal Planet! Maybe a show would be in the works for you…….??? Thank your for all that you do. You are an angel for these furkids!

    • Dolly knapp

      I saw u on Dr Jeff I it was awesome to great animal lovers helping each other Hope u always get the funds the help and God willing good honest people to help up with all the pups God Bless you your a special person I wish I could meet

  7. Kristi Hartman

    Thank you so much for doing everything that you do to help animals, one at a time. Several years ago, our American Eskimo breed club received a call that an Eskie mill in Kennewick, WA had over 400 dogs, all suffering terribly in wretched conditions. Having grown up with Eskies my whole life, I was heartbroken that a person could willingly cause such abuse and suffering to these joyful, beautiful dogs. Our club members in the Seattle/Tacoma area took in 30 dogs, and fostered them in an attempt to help socialize and get them ready for homes. Some of these dogs were kept in makeshift cages, all in inclement weather outdoors. One dog we call Dizzy was raised in a shopping cart (the wire kind) and had never set foot on ground before. He turned circles because he was so desperate to be able to move. Our family took in two dogs, Shep and Telly. These precious boys needed so much. Telly was nearly bald when we got him from urine burns and he was so frightened of people he would defecate if you picked him up. Shep was also terrified of people, but the 8 or 9 months they spent in our home was life-changing for them. They socialized with our young female Eskie and became like Pepe le Pew dogs bounding around the yard in utter love with her. They came in July, and were too frightened to come in the house, so we had to give them outdoor accommodations until they grew to trust us. At night they howled in fear and solidarity with one another. I really worried our neighbors had had enough but was surprised to learn how much they supported what we were doing. By Christmas they slept indoors on a big dog bed under the tree and twinkling lights. They had their share of adventures with our family, and came to you in February to be adopted to their forever homes. I still pray for them and think of them all of the time. Thank you for giving them an opportunity at a happy life. We wish our family had been in a position to give them forever homes, but feel good knowing that they passed through our lives and have now known love, peace and comfort at the hands of humans. We are so grateful for everything you did for Shep, Telly, and all of the Kennewick dogs that came to you. Your organization is doing the work of angels. Thank you!

  8. Jennifer Baron

    Dear Theresa and “helpers”,

    I stumbled upon National Mill Dog Rescue when I adopted my Cavalier Lucy from a rescue organization on Long Island. I always knew I wanted to adopt and I didn’t want a puppy but I wanted a Cavalier. It took me a year and a half to find her and when I picked her up they mentioned “puppy mill” I said “what’s that”? Well, from their reaction I knew it wasn’t good. When I started doing the research I almost couldn’t take it. I still can’t “take it”. I’ve donated to your organization on a monthly basis for a while now but I need to do more. I’m currently trying to get information about buying dogs at auction as I am planning on starting a Cavalier Rescue on Long Island. ( I’m sure some other pups will be more than welcomed too) and the pro’s and cons of “buying” dogs. I don’t have any “insiders” so I’ve been reaching out to organizations like yours and others to find out exactly the “best” way to go about “saving” mill dogs without adding to the problem. Thank you for ALL you’ve done and are doing and any information you can give me to guide me in the best direction for THE DOGS, because to me that’s what it’s all about. XO

  9. Tina Jordan

    Our rescue organization supports NMDR 100%. The commitment and level of care these dog’s receive is far above what many rescue groups do for their animals. We will continue to be a placement partner and help with the dogs we can and will continue to spread the word to help each and every dog find their forever home. I think Theresa and her wonderful group of volunteers set’s a standard that every rescue group should aspire to. We love working with organizations who have the same philosphy and comittment as we do. We get each and every dog what ever they need, medically, emotionally and physically regardless of cost and NMDR does exactly that. I remember when I first started doing rescue 9 years ago and other groups told me don’t take in dogs from a puppy mill. Honestly they are the ones who need us most. I have a special place in my heart for your group and want you to know how much we admire, respect and support you. Thank you for educating the public and saving so many lives.
    Colorado Japanese Chin Rescue

  10. Rita Merrill

    Hello, I watch Dr.Jeff show and you.. I love that show. I have Boston terrier and one old English bull dog.. If you come across a Boston terriers I would love to help you out I live in lander wy. And Boston terries are hard to come by. Teresa keep up the good work we love y’all Rita merrill

  11. Lynn

    I donate monthly automatically, and thank you for all the dogs you save…if I live closer I would join your team. How can people treat dogs this way. It just heart wrenching.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

  12. Pam Schulz

    Theresa–You are a gift from God to all of the dogs that you have rescued and those that you will rescue in the future. I have two Morkies that I “rescued” from a pet store at the local mall. They were there so-oo–00 long in those littlw glass cages that it broke my heart to see them–yet I was compelled to go check on them frequently. And then it finally dawned on me that I needed to take these babies home. They are the delight of our household and I believe grateful to us that we brought them to our home. I hope to one day visit your facility and maybe bring another baby home. God bless you and the work you do. I believe there is a special place in Heaven for you…..

  13. Phyllis Perry

    I admire your commitment to this cause. Wish you had a location in my area so I could physically be of assistance. I am living on disability and unfortunately don’t have the funds or I would get a lot more. I too saw you on Dr Jeff and hope you will be able to be on the show regularly. I have 2 girls at home and of course would love more. Please continue to do this work and know my thoughts and prayers are with you!????‍♀️

  14. Jamie zeluff

    There is no way for me to say how grateful I am for what you are doing. Just from seeing the videos and knowing some of how those dogs live has caused me tremendous grief. Unfortunately I am an atheist because of seeing things like this. I can see a reason for human suffering I. e. Lessons learned, etc. but there is no purpose for a dog’s life living in pure hell. After my experience I can only imagine the heartbreak that you have had and continue to experience.
    I guess the only way I can help is to send money and I will continue to do that, however I would love to meet you in person. In the future I plan to come to your rescue place in Colorado to hopefully do just that, and to hand you a large check, give you a hug, and kiss each one of your rescued dogs if allowed. And hopefully bring one home with me.

  15. Kathy Kipper

    You and your group are true angels on earth. Every life that you save is a miracle. Bless you

  16. Diane T. Granata

    My heart goes out to these rescue dogs, Theresa Strader. If I was physically able, I would love to do the rescuing with you and your volunteers.Years ago I bought a Yorkie at a pet store. He was so cute but there was something sad in his eyes. I could tell the difference when we got one of his sons and one of his daughters. Of course I think I broke his heart bringing in the second male dog. His daughter was a love bug with many kisses. She ruled the roost. I think my first yorkie could of been a result of a puppy mill only he had AKA papers indicating his parents. How can you tell if a dog is from a puppy mill unless you find the mill? I think you are doing wonderful things for these rescue dogs and I want to help you to get them to forever homes through meager donations. My 3 yorkies have now passed on to the rainbow bridge and I still miss them immensely. They are part of me.

    I watch you on facebook and keep up with what you are doing. Best of luck. I’m with you in spirit. Diane

  17. Jason

    Fantastic, you are an inspiration to us all. Without people like you so many more dogs would die and endure tragedy. Keep up the good work x

  18. Janice Brown

    Hi! Thank you for the story as always!!! I like constant reminders from you … Never tire of hearing what you are doing.

  19. Debra Neville

    Thank you so much for all that have and are doing!!! A definite God send to these furkids.

  20. Donna

    Hi Theresa and NMDR. I enjoyed reading your article and I can better appreciate the process of rescue. I adopted a puppy mill rescue from NMDR back when the number of rescued dogs was about 3,000 – so it’s been a while. My little guy is doing great. I have kept up with NMDR online and love hearing the updates. Also, I love seeing the new number each time I log on. Well sort of : / I’m thankful you guys have a heart for rescue.

  21. Phyllis Perry

    Thank you for all your group’s work!!! Keep doing what you do to save these animals. Wish I was there to help with these rescues!! Thoughts and prayers are with all staff and rescues ❤️???

  22. Carrie

    God bless you, Theresa. Thank you for all you are doing for dogs and the community. I wish there were more like you.


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