There is a Bernese Mountain Dog group in North Carolina that references puppy mill survivors on their webpage. I inquired to see if someone associated with the group had a dog like mine. I'd love to read someone else's blog about another dog going through this process. It might help me when I feel discouraged. No specific person replied, but the group sent the following note which I have found very helpful:
Bless you for taking on a puppy mill baby. This breed can be a challenge especially the ones who have spent their lives in a puppy mill. Our experience in this area tells us with enough patience and time, they do finally start to come around. They all seem to find themselves a safe spot in our foster homes. Once they do, that is their spot. When they are in their spot, no one is to bother them. We do a lot of hand feeding to build trust. Lots and lots of leash walking even if it is in the fosters yard. This too builds trust. Our fosters spend a lot of time just sitting on the floor near them. While sitting there they ignore the dog and over time the dog will move to them and begin to make contact. We celebrate like crazy all the baby steps forward. And then slowly over time, introduce them to new things. The breed is already very sensitive and aloof, so it does take lots of time and work to move them past some of that. The breed also thrives off of a routine, we tell all fosters try to establish a pretty firm routine for them. As they get to know the routine, they do start to come out of their shells a little each week. We use rescue remedy a lot on the puppy mill babies. Most never get past everything but in time usually years, they do get to be more "normal". When we adopt the puppy mill Berners, we look for quiet homes, usually no children, easy going laid back type of adult personalities, these dogs need calm and stability.
Galen is a former Bernese Mountain Dog breeder, as well as a member of the group that rescued Bella. She came with me when we met Bella; a quivering and fearful furry mass hovering against a couch. Galen loves Cesar Milan, and has had years of experience with this breed. She wants me to pile Bella in the car (carefully and with help) and bring her to the Bernese Mountain Dog fest! Hoping that exposure to her kind would bring Bella out of her shell, Galen urges me to challenge Bella. It's been too long she says, their lives are so short! Karolin was appalled by this one, saying that it would be like bringing a vet with PTSD to a carnival. I'm not going to try it at this time, but I don't know that the suggestion lacks merit.
An online search yielded various techniques. Some work on the principal of the alpha dog, and employ prong collars. Another protocol has been used successfully with feral dogs. It includes reading to them. This is done for an hour or more daily over the course of weeks, or even months until the dog finally seeks out the human. I've tried my own variation of this-sometimes reading and sometimes having telephone conversations in the room with Bella.
I feel like I can divide the techniques into roughly two groups. One is essentially the alpha dog method. With these techniques the human is top dog and presses the animal to change. The second technique is more like taming a wild animal. The human gradually persuades the dog that life is better with human companionship. (I know, I know... ) Both notions stem from people who care about dogs. Each proposal has its own logic and can point to successes.
I feel that the flaw of the alpha dog philosophy is that it may re-traumatize the dog. I feel that the flaw of the second is that it resembles letting a toddler decide when his nap and meal times are.
At this time I feel best moving slowly and gently. Bella is very damaged. Although her improvements seem very small, they are improvements. This blog is my tool for tracking them. Over the course of the next several months I imagine I will learn more.