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Adventures of a Doodle Breeder

What's it like to 'whelp'and raise puppies?

This is a question I get asked all the time! 'Whelping' is the term used to describe the process of birthing puppies. It is an exciting time.  And although I have been blessed to rarely run into serious problems during a whelping, they are not uncommon and
I am always nervous as the time approaches! As with human babies, Labradoodle or Goldendoodle puppies are usually born in the middle of the night.

The day before whelping the mama-to-be is usually restless and panting, trying to settle into the area where she will be having the
pups.   It's important for a Labradoodle or Goldendoodle breeder to really keep an eye on her at this time.  A fellow breeder I know once had a pregnant dog escape and give birth to the first couple of puppies under a shed!  

Once active labor starts there's not much time to be nervous. The mom starts pushing and usually the first pup appears within a few minutes.   It is born in a sac, which an experienced mom will remove with her teeth. A first-time mom may need some help until she gets with the program!   Left to her own devices, the mom will also cut the umbilical cord with her teeth. Sometimes the pulling she does on the cord can cause an umbilical hernia, so I usually cut  and tie the cord myself.

But even before that I rub the puppy with a rough washcloth and make sure it's breathing.  Occasionally they won't breathe right away and I will do a maneuver called 'slinging', where I swing the pup's head gently away from my body so the centrifugal force pulls any fluid out of the pup's nose.  They usually breathe fine after that.

The next pup may arrive minutes after, or sometimes as long as 2 hours can pass. I don't worry much about a time lag unless the mom is panting and pushing, which means there is a pup in the birth canal that is not progressing further. This can be very serious. Pups can be born normally either head or tail first. But sometimes a pup can get wedged cross-wise, or sometimes it is just unusually large. Either can be dangerous to both mom and the pups still inside her.In Libby's litter of December, 2004, I had a real scare. She had whelped 3 pups in about 2.5 hours, and all was going well. But after the 3rd pup I just had an inkling that something wasn't right.   She hadn't been pushing for long, so it wasn't that. But something I saw on her face made me think there was a problem. I put a finger inside to see if a pup was going to make an appearance soon, and sure enough, a pup was there. But I couldn't identify what part I was touching.....not a head, and not a bottom.   I closed my eyes and tried to picture what I was feeling. Hard, flat, with a ridge down the middle.......A SCAPULA! The puppy was a shoulder presentation, and the pup's shoulder and chest were wedged in the birth canal. I gently pushed the puppy back and managed to hook my finger over it's head and pull the head towards the birth canal. Out popped my brindle boy puppy!  Libby looked very relieved. As was I!  

Whelping with a first-time mother can be an adventure too.  Of course, there has to be a first time, and dogs can't read up on what to expect, like people do!  When Cider gave birth to her very first pup, it slipped out with a single push, and was hanging by the umbilical cord, as the placenta hadn't delivered yet.  She took one look behind her at the pup dangling, and bolted from the room.  Now, this is a dog that is not afraid of ANYTHING, but clearly the thought that went through her head was  "WHAT THE HECK IS
THAT????" I raced after her, picking up the pup, who had slipped out onto the floor, placenta and all, as I ran.  I brought Cider back to the whelping area, cleaned up the pup and showed it to her.  She growled at it, still freaked out.  I tried to push away thoughts that I might end up hand-raising an entire litter if she rejected them. But by the time the next pup was born a few minutes later, all the hormones had kicked in and she took the sac off like a pro.  She turned into the best mother I have ever seen; conscientious, loving and protective. I had to pick her up and carry her away from the pups for 2 weeks just to get her to go outside to potty as she did not want to leave them.  But boy those first couple minutes were rocky. And in a funny twist of genetics, Cider's daughter. Emma, reacted almost exactly the same way to the birth of the first puppy in HER first litter!

One of the most devastating and scary whelpings was in January of 2006.  Rouge was pregnant, and a mid-pregnancy ultrasound showed 3-4 puppies. Her previous litter was 4 puppies, so this was not entirely unexpected.  She went into labor on time, but the birth progressed slowly, although she was not in any discomfort.  After watching her for 12 hours I saw a small amount of dark discharge from her vulva.  This is never good, a dark discharge usually means the placenta has separated from the wall of the uterus.  From the moment that happens the puppy has no oxygen.  I rushed Rouge to the vet where they did an emergency c-section.  The only puppy was dead from lack of oxygen.  It had been high up in her uterus, and it took a long time for the discharge from the placenta to flow out where I could see it.  The puppy never had a chance.  Apparently the other puppies had been resorbed long before, and this puppy grew far too large for her to birth.  I then had the unenviable task of contacting the people waiting
for puppies from this litter to tell them there were none. Luckily Rouge was OK, and recovered from her surgery fine.

Sometimes, despite the best preparations and plans, things do not go as expected.  One morning in September of 2007 I got up at 4 AM to make the 5 hour round trip to the veterinarian that does the hip testing on my dogs.  One of my F1 Labradoodles was due with F2 puppies in 5 days, just within the range that it was possible she might deliver.  She had already whelped 4 litters, and this was her last one before retirement. Her other whelpings always followed the typical pattern: her body temperature drops a couple degrees, she stops eating, has loose stools, all 12-18 hours before she whelps.  This particular morning her temperature was normal, stools normal, she ate a great breakfast, so I left packed up the dogs to be tested and left.  After being gone all day for the hip testing, I headed home. I was nearly an hour away when I got a phone call that my partner arrived at the house after work to find the dog in labor, with one live puppy and one dead puppy.  I made it home in a half hour and got the mom and her surviving puppy to the whelping area when my partner came running in. "I hear another puppy but I can't find it!"  Yep, there was a puppy UNDER the dining room rug, luckily under the table, so no one stepped on it.  There was blood and meconium and placenta in nearly every
room, it looked like someone had been murdered in my house.

It's amazing. Even when you're up for 48 straight hours....yes, there are usually full days of life on either side of a whelping all-nighter....the magic of the event is all that colors the feelings.   It really is a wonder, and I feel honored and blessed to be able to be present, and sometimes even contribute, to the miracle.

Raising puppies is as much fun and as exciting as you imagine it to be.  What you may not imagine are the other emotions and experiences that are just as much a part of breeding.

The exhilaration of the whelping is often matched in intensity by the exhaustion and anxiety that follows.  While mom is really responsible for the pups for the first few weeks, many, many things can go wrong.  

A pup can be born smaller than the others, weak, or with a birth defect that is not immediately obvious.  It is not unusual to supplement a pup via bottle or tube-feeding, every 2 hours, for a week or more, only to have it die anyway.  Pups can also die if mom rolls over on them, so most breeders sleep in the room with the mom and pups for at least 2 weeks.

A mother dog is vulnerable after whelping as well.  Pyometra, a uterine infection, can appear and progress quickly.  If not caught early it can be fatal.  Eclampsia is also not uncommon, and can also be fatal.  So breeders are not only monitoring the newborn pups, they are monitoring  the mother dog too.  You cannot imagine the grief at losing a companion due to an event associated with breeding.  

Especially devastating are the losses that occur after the pups are older, and are starting to develop personalities.  Yes, breeders do get attached to puppies!  Losses at this point can be due to infectious agents, like parvo, in which whole litters can be lost.  Or they may be catastrophic.  I lost a pup once when an adult dog learned, unbeknown to me, how to open the door to the whelping area by turning a doorknob.  He went in and picked up a 3 pound, 6 week old pup, intending to play with it.  He brought it to me as it was dying, it's neck broken.  Covered with blood, I held that puppy and cried for a long time.  And I cried more when I called the family who had chosen that puppy to tell them it was dead.

Breeding is a roller coaster of gigantic proportions.  The highs are incredibly exciting and fulfilling, the lows are just as intense.  It is not for the faint of heart.  But breeders do it because we love what we do!

Author: Helene Roussi