Preparing for Your First Litter
A beginner’s guide to whelping puppies.
Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz
Leslie Russell grew up wanting to breed Irish Setters. “My mother said we couldn’t have a female dog because they have puppies,” says Russell, the 2009 American Kennel Club Sporting Group Breeder of the Year. “Naturally, that’s all I wanted.”
By the time she became a teenager, Russell and her mentor whelped a litter. With support from many reputable breeders in several breeds who showed and bred their dogs, Russell eventually established Avon Farm Irish Setters and produced 85 champions, but not every delivery went smoothly. “A few were a complete nightmare that I’d never wish on a novice,” Russell says. “I once had six of eight pups die within a week.”
If the thought of oohing and aahing over little bundles of joy and inhaling puppy breath 24/7 seems too tempting to pass up, know that whelping puppies that are good examples of their breed comes with its share of challenges and responsibilities. For a conscientious, first-time breeder whose goal is to produce healthy, well-adjusted youngsters, the whelping experience can seem overwhelming. You might have to assist the dam by slipping on a latex glove and gently easing a puppy into the world or rush your bitch to the emergency clinic in the middle of the night. When breeding a litter, there’s no guarantee that everything will go smoothly.
Before you breed
Ask the breeder you bought your bitch from to mentor you through the whelping process or enlist the advice of another experienced breeder. “Try to learn all you can from people who have done it for a long time and are successful,” Russell says.
When you decide to breed a first litter, know that planning, patience and even a little luck go a long way.
Producing a successful litter begins long before delivery day. Chances are you’ve already studied pedigrees to learn what they’ve produced, and chosen a quality sire and dam that are good representatives of their breeds with championship titles or major points earned that have undergone and passed all health screening tests. You’ve also arranged to spend a few months providing excellent care for the new brood. You’ve screened potential buyers, compiled a waiting list of good homes where the puppies can be loved for a lifetime, and are prepared to take back any dog whose owner, for any reason, can no longer care for it.
After passing all their health clearances, the sire and dam should be physically and mentally mature, and at least 2 years of age. The bitch should have at least two full seasons before breeding.
To make sure that your bitch is healthy enough to conceive and whelp a litter, she should undergo a thorough veterinary examination, including testing for intestinal parasites.
Providing plenty of sunshine for the dog and bitch you’re planning to breed helps, too. “Canine fertility relies on bright sunshine or full-spectrum lighting from fluorescent lighting set on a timer to approximate nature,” says Myra Savant Harris, a registered nurse who leads seminars on canine reproduction and newborn puppy care. “This helps manufacture vitamin D in the body, which triggers ovulation and sperm counts, and is especially important for dogs that live in cloudy climates, enclosed outdoor dog runs or indoors with the air conditioning running most of the time.”
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