By George Hickox
Your dog is that one-in-a-million performer, and your family loves it for all its marvelous traits. So there is discussion about whether breeding the dog and keeping a puppy or two is viable. This is a big decision and not one to be made purely from an emotional standpoint. There is a lot to consider and to know before making the choice to become a doggie midwife.
The first thing to do is ascertain why you want to breed your dog. If it is because you would like your kids to experience the magic of birth, then you can do this a lot easier—and cheaper—by breeding hamsters. One thing to consider is that if you feel that you could buy a better puppy than the ones that would be whelped, then you should rethink that specific breeding. Another thing to ponder is if all of the pups were like the dam or the sire, would you be happy with them? (This is keeping in mind that you will not necessarily get a 50/50 mix in the traits the pups are born with.) Similarly, I feel that choosing a dam and sire for breeding should not be based primarily on a desired color of pups produced but rather on their ability to be trained and to perform. For example, the decision to breed a chocolate Lab should not be made solely because an owner likes brown Labs but should include an honest assessment of the hunting abilities of the prospective sire and dam. Needless to say, both the dam and sire in any gundog breeding should be of field and hunting stock, as a parent whose pedigree is strongly influenced by show stock most likely will not throw pups that will perform at a stellar level in the field.
If an individual owns a female, it is possible to select a sire that has strong credentials, pay a stud fee and end up with puppies that at least boast a blue-ribbon pedigree on the top side. If an individual owns a male and wants to breed him in order to get a stud fee or a pup with his male’s lineage, things become more difficult. A person who owns a great female is most likely interested in breeding her to a sire that has at least a few champions in his pedigree. It is even better if the prospective sire is a champion himself. Therefore, although it is possible to pay a stud fee and breed a female to the Dog of the Year, owners are unlikely to be able to breed a male dog with no credentials to a great female. The rule of thumb for an owner of a female is to breed her to the best proven sire with the best pedigree that the owner can afford. There really are very few bargains in the upper-end dog world.
I frequently pay stud fees even though I have bloodlines boasting dogs of the year and national champions. For example, I currently have a young pointer that won the Ozark Shooting Dog Championship and was runner-up at the prestigious Masters Shooting Dog Championships. He is a dog that I believe will have a stellar career. But I just paid a stud fee to breed my female pointer sired by the Purina Dog of the Year, the winner of the National Shooting Dog Invitational and the winner of the National Shooting Dog Championship to a male that has performed well in derby stakes, has a blue-ribbon pedigree and has traits that line up well with my female’s, because I believe this breeding will produce outstanding puppies. I simply felt that my female lined up better with this other male than with my young dog. I did breed my own male to another of my females, and I think that will be a great breeding as well.
As mentioned, I feel that the best chance of producing great pups will come from breeding a great female out of a great line to a great male out of a great line. A pedigree that has national champions, dog-of-the-year winners and field champions is much more likely to produce outstanding hunting dogs than a pedigree void of field-trial champions. Of course, it certainly is possible that an outstanding hunting companion can come from a pedigree lacking parents with field-trial credentials. However, a pedigree that includes field-trial winners is a great place to start when choosing a pup or a mate for your dog.
Beyond pedigrees, a number of factors should be considered in honestly appraising prospective parents. Do both dogs have good conformation? Have both dogs been X-rayed, and do they have sound hips and elbows? Are they free of hereditary defects? In the case of retrieving and flushing breeds, both prospective parents should have their eyes certified by a canine ophthalmologist. The selected male, if he is not being bred regularly, should have his semen count checked, to ensure he can impregnate the female. Both dogs should be checked to ensure that they don’t have heart murmurs or other heart problems. A negative brucellosis test should be part of the pre-breeding requirements. (Brucellosis is a venereal disease that can cause a female to abort and can additionally affect humans.)
Once the decision has been made and the dogs have been successfully bred, the next step is for the owner of the female to acquire a whelping box. The box should be big enough to allow the female to not smother the pups and for the pups to crawl around. I like a whelping box with a recessed, heated dish. The thermostatically controlled whelping dish will help keep the pups warm. A heat lamp does not keep the pups’ undersides warm, and a chilled pup is stressed and more vulnerable to contracting a virus. The pups should be whelped in temperatures of at least 90°F. The pups should be able to get to the heated dish for at least two weeks. Whelping-box plans and whelping nests can be purchased from various vendors.
The normal gestation period is 63 days. It is advisable to be in contact with your vet well before the due date. The vet should be aware of the date and be available in case the female needs help. If an emergency C-section needs to be performed, this is not the time to be making initial contact with the vet. It is advisable to do an ultrasound or radiograph in order to know how many pups the female is carrying. If pre-birth exams show six pups and only five enter the world, the vet may be needed.
The owner should begin taking the female’s temperature at least a week before the due date in order to get a baseline. Once the female’s temperature drops a couple of degrees below the baseline, she is likely to whelp within 24 hours. Once this happens, someone should be with the female at all times (which may necessitate putting a cot in the area).
When the pups are born, it is important to see that the new mom knows what to do. I like to clip the umbilical cords myself, to prevent the female from chewing them off and accidentally puncturing a puppy’s abdomen. I cut the cord about two inches from the naval. The cord will dry up and eventually drop off. I take the pup out of the sack myself and rub it to get it breathing. I then place the puppy in the heated dish, and the female should start cleaning the puppy. It is important to ensure that mucus has not clogged the newborn’s airways. A small suction bulb should be available for this. After the pups are whelped, I recommend that someone stay with the mom and puppies at all times for four days, to ensure that the female does not suffocate any pups.
The female should have been wormed at the time of the breeding and before the whelping. I recommend that owners check with their vets regarding which wormers are safe for pregnant and nursing females. The pups should be wormed at two, four and six weeks. Once again have the veterinarian recommend a safe wormer. Round worms are normally the most common. They may come from a cyst in the female that erupts during whelping. The female then passes the roundworms to the puppies through her milk.
The whelping area should be clean before and after the pups are born. Other dogs should not have contaminated the whelping area and nursery. Mastitis can be deadly, and unsanitary conditions greatly exacerbate the likelihood of the female getting this. Mastitis is an infection of the milk ducts and is painful and potentially dangerous to both the female and puppies. Symptoms may be fever, depression, anorexia and lethargy. The female’s breasts may feel hot and seem painful. The female may develop mastitis any time from the first two weeks through the weaning process. A female with mastitis will not want to nurse, and the pups also will be at risk. If mastitis is suspected, the vet should be contacted immediately.
Dewclaws should be removed when the pups are three to four days old. If the pups are a breed that will have their tails docked, this is also the time to do this. The female should be allowed access to dry food, and clean drinking water should always be available. I leave the mother with the pups 24 hours a day until I start the weaning process, when the pups are around six weeks old. The female is going to be taxed with all of the milk she needs to produce to nourish the growing puppies. I feed Purina Sport to nursing females. This is a 30%-protein and 20%-fat diet. A low-protein and low-fat food is not a sound choice for a nursing female.
The pups should be started on a mush of puppy food at around four weeks of age. Simply mix the food with water until it has a porridge-type consistency. Cleaning the whelping area will begin taking more time at this point, but it is important to do this. Your veterinarian will recommend an inoculation program that needs to be followed.
I believe that it is important to start handling the pups when they are two weeks of age. When the pups are four weeks of age, I begin taking them outside, weather permitting, and letting them walk and sniff. But the real socialization process starts taking place around six weeks of age. I begin initial clicker training around this time after the pups are eating puppy food.
Sometimes a breeding and the whelping go off without a hitch. Other times it seems like nothing is easy. It is a big decision to whelp a litter, and owners should talk to their vets about the process and become educated on the dos and don’ts. Often the best choice is to buy a puppy out of great parents. However, if an owner has to have a pup out of his dog, it is wise to understand the process and the time and effort (and expense) required. Having a litter can be a full-time job, but the rewards may well be worth it.
George Hickox is Shooting Sportsman’s Hunting Dogs Editor, a field-trial veteran and a guided-hunt host. For more training articles or information on the George Hickox School of Dog Training, visit www.georgehickox.com.