Should Sassy have puppies?

There's more involved than you might think. . . .


So you want to have a litter of puppies for Sassy’s sake or the kids’ education or the vacation or holiday fund? Don’t – unless you:

In other words, unless you are prepared to do the same things a responsible breeder would do, don’t bother.

Getting the litter on the ground is only half the battle. Although many litters are born without trouble and puppies trot off to new homes with nary a glance backward, responsible breeders do everything they can to make sure the pup not only gets a good start in life, but has a lifetime commitment to keep it healthy and safe. Although the best plans can go awry, they do not leave the fate of their pups to chance.

Backyard breeders have a different perspective. Whether they are producing pups for money or to give Sassy or the kids the experience of birth, they usually approach puppy production with a carefree attitude. If a pup dies, it’s too bad, but that’s life. If it has worms or fleas or mange, that’s life, too. And if that last pup or two doesn’t sell by three months, well, it’s off to the shelter.

Responsible breeders consider every aspect of puppy production to be important. After taking care to whelp healthy puppies to be sold as pets or show dogs, they treat each litter with care and concern for their physical and mental development, provide initial socialization and housetraining, and carefully screen prospective owners.


Responsible breeders are those who carefully select a mate for Puffin or Princess; make sure she’s hale and hardy before breeding; and get her checked for hip dysplasia, eye diseases, deafness, or any other breed-related genetic abnormality. And they make sure the male selected to father the litter is just as healthy.

Most experts recommend that a female dog reach at least two years of age before breeding. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals will certify hips as well-formed or dysplastic at two years, and that watershed age assures that most bitches will have developed the physical and behavioral characteristics that determine whether they should be allowed to contribute puppies to the breed’s gene pool. In addition, two-year old bitches are generally mature enough to carry and nourish a litter.

Some large or giant breeds are still growing at two years and breeders may prefer to wait even longer before producing a litter.

All breeds – mixes included – suffer from genetic abnormalities. Some of these abnormalities can be detected by x-rays or through blood tests or DNA screens. Skeletal malformations such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and loose kneecaps (luxating patellas) can be detected by x-ray. These joint deformities can cause painful arthritis in later years, can be passed on to offspring, and may lead to expensive surgeries and the emotion trauma of euthanizing a young dog that is afflicted beyond repair.

Since the idea of purebred dog breeding is to produce puppies that will grow up to look like a particular breed, dogs with a disqualifying breed fault should not be bred. At times, this may mean foregoing a litter with a bitch for faults that seem to be minor but can lead to diffusion of breed character. For example, a too-tall American Eskimo Dog might produce pups that look more like Samoyeds; an Akita bitch without the characteristic curled tail might produce pups with equally unacceptable tails; a white Boxer is likely to be deaf or to produce deaf puppies; etc.

Dogs with minor faults should only be bred to mates that can correct those faults. For example, if Sassy’s teeth alignment is off, she should only be paired with a male with perfect teeth. Or if she’s a bit small or large for the breed standard, she should be bred to a dog that is the correct size.


Since temperament is also inherited , even if Puffin is a perfect physical example of the breed, she must have the typical breed temperament in order to be a good candidate for breeding. A Cocker Spaniel should be happy-go-lucky, sweet, good with children, and relatively responsive to training. A German Shepherd is allowed to be aloof with strangers and protective of the family and territory, but should be responsive to training, good with children, and never exhibit viciousness. An Alaskan Malamute can be aggressive to other animals and domineering to other dogs, but she can never be aggressive to people and should be responsive to training.

Dogs that are very shy or fearful, dogs that are domineering, and dogs that have an atypical energy level for the breed can pass these characteristics along to their pups. Thus familiarity with and attention to the breed standard is critical in deciding if Princess should be bred.

Finding a stud dog

Easiest place to find a stud dog is in the neighborhood, but easiest is rarely best, especially since you want the stud dog to be as healthy as your bitch, to have a good temperament, and to be a good example of the breed.

Best place to find a stud dog is through the local dog fancy. Your veterinarian can likely provide a telephone number of a breeder or a kennel club contact, and you can begin the search. If there is no suitable male locally, you can contact the breed’s regional or national club for help.

Be prepared to travel a bit if your breed is not well-represented in your region.

Heat cycle

Most bitches cycle every six-nine months, depending on breed, health, and other factors. The search for a mate should begin months before the cycle is expected so you’re not scrambling at the last minute.

The heat or estrus cycle begins with a swelling of the external opening to the reproductive tract and lasts about 21 days. There is a bloody discharge for the first week or so, although you may not notice if Puffin cleans herself well. When the discharge becomes clear, the fertile period is imminent – usually from day 10-day 14. After the fertile period, the heat winds down until the discharge and swelling have disappeared.

A bitch may be cranky as her heat cycle approaches. She will not accept a male until the days when she is fertile; until then she may fight him if he tries to breed.

Some breeders take advantage of advanced reproductive technology to pinpoint the exact days when conception is likely to occur and have their bitches tested for hormone levels and reproductive system cell structure.

Pregnancy – or not

Once the breeding is done, there’s nothing to do but wait. Pregnancy lasts 61-64 days; puppies can be detected by x-ray or ultrasound about halfway through. There are some telltale signs – increased appetite, weight gain, nipple enlargement – but they could apply to a false pregnancy as well as the real thing.

Although the number of accidental breedings and the proliferation of strays in some cities suggests that canine reproduction is a snap, producing a litter can actually be a hit or miss proposition. If it’s too hot, if the stud dog is under stress, if either dog has low thyroid or a systemic infection or is poorly nourished, the attempt may fail.

Some bitches will undergo a false pregnancy after an unsuccessful breeding and will go to great lengths to make it seem as if they are proceeding through a pregnancy. Some false pregnancies resolve without medical attention; others need veterinary assistance.

Both pregnant and non-pregnant bitches can also contract pyometra, an infection of the uterus. A telltale sign of pyometra is a foul discharge from the vulva four to eight weeks after the fertile period of the heat cycle. However, if the bitch’s cervix (the connection between the uterus and the vagina) is closed, no discharge escapes and the bitch can be deathly ill before the disease is suspected and diagnosed.

Treatment often involves surgery to remove the uterus, but in some cases, the disease can be cured without this drastic step. Early intervention is best; if a bitch becomes lethargic and loses her appetite in the weeks after her heat cycle, a veterinary exam is in order.

Costs before whelping

It obviously isn’t cheap to produce a litter of healthy puppies!

So far, costs include

Beyond the financial costs are the emotional and ethical issues involved. Puppies are not craft projects or widgets, they are living creatures. Therefore, the decision to breed is a serious one involving not only proper care of the bitch but also puppy care and socialization; responsibility for placing each puppy in a good home; and help for puppy buyers who run into problems with health or training of their new family member. Breeders must also be prepared to take back any puppy that doesn’t work out, and to keep it or find it another home.


Birth is a natural process, so many dogs are left on their own to bring puppies into the world under the bed, in the closet, or in a cardboard box. There’s no heat lamp to warm the puppies and no watchful midwife to monitor the progression of labor, make sure Sassy will clean the pups, and determine that the pups are breathing and nursing.

Responsible breeders mark the due date on the calendar and prepare a whelping area or box several days ahead of time. The whelping area should be large enough that Sassy can stretch out to nurse puppies, and not so large that the blind and deaf puppies will be unable to get to the milk bar.

The bitch’s temperature drops below 100 degrees within 24 hours of whelping, so breeders check temperature frequently as the due date nears. They also watch for dripping nipples, a sign that milk is filling the breasts.

Each puppy has its own placenta, which the bitch removes by licking that also stimulates the pup to breathe. Inexperienced bitches may need help to cut the umbilical cord, clean the pups, get them breathing, and make sure they begin to nurse, so breeders stand by with towels for cleaning and rubbing puppies and place them at a nipple to get started.

Puppies are usually born head first, but can be turned around in the birth canal. Breech puppies are harder to push out and bitches may tire while trying. Some breeders keep a uterine stimulant on hand to help with labor; others make a trip to the veterinary clinic for assistance. A normal whelping can go quickly with puppies arriving at half-hour intervals or can take several hours with as long as three or four hours between puppies.

Some time after all the puppies are born, the bitch will pass the afterbirth. If she does not get expel this tissue, she can become infected, leaving her litter to be tube fed until she is healthy.

The first weeks

Puppies cannot hear, see, regulate their own body temperature, or defecate on their own when they are born. They need to be kept warm and clean and to be handled daily to get accustomed to human scent and attention. Heat lamps are often necessary for adequate warmth. Mom will stimulate them to defecate and urinate by licking their bellies, and, in the manner of wolves, she will clean up the mess. As a result, she may have diarrhea for several days following whelping.

Pups are little more than squirmy, blind, deaf parasites for two weeks. They may squeak and whimper as they sleep or crawl about, but they cry only if they are cold, hungry, or in pain. They need daily handling if only to move them from one spot in the whelping box to another while clean papers are put down. Eyes open at about two weeks and ears at about three weeks. Pups can generally stand at 15-16 days but cannot do more than stumble about. Ability to control waste elimination develops at about three weeks and regulation of body temperature follows.

By four weeks, a miracle has occurred: pups may be eating gruel at this point and moving around with increasing coordination. They pay attention to toys, attempt to play, and have increasing periods of activity.

By five weeks, they may be weaned or almost so and be ready for rudimentary housetraining and socialization. In good weather, housetraining is made easy by putting the puppies in an exercise pen outside after meals and keeping the whelping area clean. Puppies should be handled purposefully every day, with attention to ears, toes, coat, and teeth. They can be brushed with a soft brush or rubbed with a soft cloth to stimulate skin and prepare for a lifetime of grooming and handling.

By six weeks, puppies are climbing out of the whelping box, playing vigorously with littermates, enjoying toys, and seeking human attention. This is the time to introduce new surfaces to walk on and new areas to explore, and to put tunnels, boxes, and lots of different toys in the exercise area.

Six weeks is also time for the first visit to the veterinarian for worming (roundworms can be passed from Mom to puppies) and initial vaccination.

Although puppies can leave Mom by six weeks, it is best that they stay together for another 10-14 days to learn how to get along with other dogs and to translate that awareness to a developing relationship with humans. Puppies removed from the litter too early often develop a range of behavior problems from extreme shyness to aggression, depending on the underlying genetic code.

By seven weeks, a breeder knows which puppies are most dominant and submissive, which are most attentive to people, which are most curious or adventurous, and which have the best potential as future breeding stock, etc. and can match them with a family. For example, the responsible breeder of a guardian breed would choose a mild-mannered puppy for the first-time owner of the breed, an attentive puppy for a future in the obedience ring, or a dominant puppy for an experienced owner who can handle a challenge.

Puppies enter a fear period at eight weeks of age, and most experts suggest that they go to new home between the seventh and eighth weeks or wait until 12 weeks when the fear period has passed.

Choosing new owners

Responsible breeders interview potential puppy buyers whether the pups are an accidental mixed breed litter being sold for next to nothing or purebred show dogs of champion stock. A minimal interview includes such questions as

These questions are not intended to pry or embarrass, they are meant to help place the best possible puppy in each home.

Responsible breeders ask for references, check with apartment managers, spend time with the whole family, observe the kids around the puppies, and require that pet-quality puppies be spayed or neutered. They have contracts that protect the dog, the buyer and themselves and offer to take the puppy back if the buyer can no longer keep it – no matter the age. Many responsible breeders also microchip or tattoo their puppies for permanent identification and withhold the registration papers until the pup has been spayed or neutered.


A breeder’s contract spells out the expectations on all sides. Because careful breeding can do no more than reduce the potential for genetic abnormalities, the contract generally offers some compensation for the pup that develops a debilitating genetic health problem. The reparation may be a free pup from a future litter or a refund of money upon proof of diagnosis. The contract may also require sterilization of the pup or place it on limited registration, an AKC category that allows the dog to compete in breed shows but does not allow registration of offspring. Other potential clauses include requirements for annual veterinary visits and appropriate care, attendance at obedience classes, return of the pup if the owner can no longer keep it, and confinement of the dog behind a fence.

Time, costs add up

Costs in time and money continue to add up. Initial cost of a whelping box (plans are available for building your own) and heat lamp are amortized over several litters – if you can stand the emotional and physical drain of breeding, whelping, and placing multiple litters).

Other costs are

Time also adds up, time to clean the whelping box several times a day, socialize the puppies, talk to potential buyers and contact their references, and visit the vet clinic for initial vaccinations or emergency trips with Mom or pups. And it doesn’t end when the pups go to new homes, for buyers frequently need help with housetraining, obedience training, and understanding and coping with normal puppy behavior.

Raising puppies is not as simple as one-two-three. Things can go wrong at any step of the way, so contingencies must be planned and money and time must be available to give the pups the best start at building a bond with a human family, a bond that can last a lifetime.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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