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Overseeing your first litter is a tiring exercise but worth every scratch and sleepless second, as Gary Turner discovers.
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I’ve been incredibly lucky. My life has been shared with the great company and the unconditional love of our dogs. From our first black labrador Dusty, then Holly, Artie, Jazz, Ebby, Bessie, Cissy, Lily, Ash, Buffy, Daisy, Beech, Brooke and not forgetting the rulers of the house, Jack Russells Gertie, Matilda and Mabel (by the way, none of these are my password!).
Yes, they used to live outside in kennels and the question: “Are these working dogs?” was always met with a positive, “Absolutely!” It’s only over the last decade or so of my own family life that I’ve come to realise that I actually have family pets that occasionally work. Beech, my current bitch and most loyal companion, is, in truth, far better in the field than I deserve. She’s also the perfect fishing dog. I invested time and effort into basic training and to the uninitiated she is highly trained, however to an expert, she would be average, and I don’t see any field trial wins in her future. Regardless, she’s a superstar and I don’t care if she runs in now and again, or lives on the sofa - she has her own! She’s a beauty, and at six years old and with a back-order list of puppy requests, this was my last chance to have a litter of pups. Our first.
After extensive research, and planning I headed off to meet the sire. I introduced them to each other on day 12 of Beech’s season, very worried about what was going to happen and how. Well, I needn’t have been, they immediately started flirting, running around the garden like they were at the school disco. Beech teasing a little, then running off together until they found a suitable place where they completed what I believe to be a textbook mating, tying for a good 20 minutes. It’s this part of the mating which worried me, as during that 20 mins, both Beech and the sire looked uncomfortable in a position any contortionist would be proud of, but as dogs have been doing rather successfully for years, everything was perfect, and I needn’t have worried. Then the waiting, watching, planning, preparing, worrying, discussing.
D-day (60) was fast approaching, and it was clear from Beech’s appetite and shape from about day 40 that we had success. Now I needed to think about whelping baskets, puppy pads, a run for when they left the whelping basket, and especially food. Beech had been on a premium dry food with a reduced quantity but increased frequency feeding plan and looked fabulous. In human terms, she was blooming.
On the wettest day of the year the delivery lorry turned up during the neighbouring school pick-up, which is always amusing for school run parking. The parents looked on with quizzical interest as my blue circular plastic paddling pool was delivered. I fixed dowels inside creating an internal square making the bottom corners inaccessible for Beech but leaving plenty of space in the square – total cost £13.95. Brilliant and as it turns out hugely successful. Lined with multiple layers of newspaper (my son is the local paperboy so I have a good supply - the broadsheets are much better for this) and a cycle of three duvets for warmth, one in the whelping basket, one ready to go in, and one in the wash.
I knocked up a simple run using timber and chicken wire. Now, I’m not all that gifted at things like this and I was very proud of my run; 2.5m long x 0.8m wide x 0.8m high, it was indeed a fine space. On the morning of day 60, we lifted it in and to cut a very long story short, I could not get it into the house. In through the patio doors? Yes. Into the lounge we went, out of the lounge we did not. Back into the garden for a trim as I had to lower the height to allow access inside. A rookie error and much to my family’s amusement.
That evening, Beech wandered into the lounge, panting heavily, she laid down by the patio door and was clearly in the early stages of labour. I found the panting odd, as according to everything I had read a sure sign of imminent delivery is a drop in temperature, and I/we usually associate panting with being hot. Thankfully it’s completely normal and I was happy that we needed to do nothing but monitor the situation as it’s likely the bitch will have the puppies overnight and usually entirely on their own without human intervention.
I had arranged for the local midwifery team (my parents) to be on hand and at 6pm Beech squatted down next to the whelping basket. Dad realised what was happening and as Beech strained and pushed, he reached down and like an expert short leg fielder, the first puppy was delivered literally into his cupped waiting hands. Very special. Not moving to start with, Dad broke the foetal sack and introduced her to Beech, who immediately started to lick and stimulate the puppy, like she had done it a hundred times. Into the whelping basket and Beech took total control biting the umbilical cord off, eating the placenta and doing a fine job of cleaning and caring for her firstborn. 7.30pm, 8.30pm, 8.53pm, 9.41pm and 10.24pm completed the perfect half dozen, four bitches and two dogs. Beech cared for each puppy exclusively and we did nothing apart from offer support and ensure all was well.
For the first week or two, the pups lived exclusively with their mum in the whelping basket in a lovely quiet spot, now known as ‘Time Wasters Corner’. Here they could suckle without interruption, and we could sit and watch. During this time, they have been entirely dependent on mum, who moves them around, cleans up exclusively after them and ensures some level of fairness as they compete for milk, and with six pups Beech has been able to provide more than satisfactorily for them all. I had placed a heater, beside the basket maintaining the room temperature of initially around 30 degrees for the first day or two, then maintained at 26 degrees for a couple of weeks.
Two weeks to the day we had the first eyes open, and in almost the same order they were born all pups followed suit and got their first sight of what the world looks like. Also at two weeks, then five, then eight, the puppies need to be wormed with a very carefully measured dose of wormer, as did mum as she had been clearing up after them since birth.
It’s vital to weigh the puppies accurately to establish individual weights and appropriate dosage and at this stage we also chose to give each one its own colour wool necklace to identify it and keep individual track of growth. They wouldn’t register on the bathroom scale, so we had no choice but to get out my rather underused fishing scales.
At three weeks the teeth appeared, sharp needle-like teeth, which have already accounted for a hole in my shoes. Until then Beech who had been nothing short of remarkable had had enough and it was time to introduce some high-quality puppy food and wean the puppies away from mum. The pups themselves changed their behaviour, becoming much more active and less reliant on mum, although her milk was still clearly the favourite. I’ve chosen to feed them in individual bowls, and in just a few days of moving them back to their own bowl, as the largest boy tries to steal everyone’s food, they have now started to stick to their own.
Between four and eight weeks old time flew as they became proper little dogs. Playing, weeing, pooing, eating and sleeping. The workload has now moved to us - clearing up, feeding, cuddling and playing. We have introduced some toys and I’m covered in scratches from their super sharp little claws. The bigger they get the more they explore and a mouthful of flip flop wearing big toe is fair game.
I’ve massively enjoyed every minute of my first litter. Yes, it’s a worry and yes, it’s hard work, but the joy they have brought in their short early life has far outweighed all of those concerns. Research, plan and prepare and I’m delighted that my first litter has been a magical and remarkable experience. They are going to be hard to let go of but they are all in great shape, and without doubt will bring their new owners years of joy, happiness and unconditional love.
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