Producing Your Own Puppies

Golden pups eating ring

Mating & Gestation

Breeding dogs for guide work is a major undertaking, and it is often helpful to have the assistance of an experienced dog breeder. This section will discuss the basics of breeding and whelping puppies, and the care that must be provided to all animals involved.  

 

Decision to Breed

The decision on whether or not a particular dog should be bred must be based on the school’s production plan (See Section 5.2, How Many Dogs Does Your School Need), and the health of the animal. Before breeding, every animal should undergo a pre-breeding physical exam (PBP) by a veterinarian.  A typical PBP will check ears, eyes, teeth, skin, breasts, heart, joints, feet, and an external palpation of the uterus. See the section below on Pre-breeding Tests for more information about additional health testing that should be performed.  For broods, previous heats and breedings should be reviewed to look for any problems with poor conception or misses, and to check the brood's heat interval.  It is also wise to review the brood's whelp history.  If she has previously had a c-section, it is advisable to discuss with a veterinarian whether she is suitable to be bred again.  

 

Stud dogs should also pass a pre-breeding physical and all other pre-breeding tests. Joint and spinal pain should also be ruled out in the stud, as those conditions could inhibit natural mating behaviors. Semen should be collected from the dog and evaluated (see Section 5.5.2, Semen Analysis) before every breeding, or, if the stud is used frequently, every month.  

 

Stud Readiness

Using an inexperienced stud for natural matings often requires “Sex Education” using a calm, experienced bitch in prime estrus, ideally the bitch he is to mate. The education sessions should be quick, lasting no more than 5 minutes, and supervised 3-5 times daily to encourage mating behaviors such as mounting, thrusting, and (if possible) allowing mating.  While supervising, provide positive reinforcement only.  Generally, one successful mating is all the training a stud needs to become proficient at the task.  It may also be helpful to train a stud to associate a certain location with breeding.  Breeding behaviors should be encouraged in this location only, so the stud will begin to anticipate breeding in this location.  

Semen quality should also be evaluated before the stud is bred.  This can be done by collecting semen and performing an analysis (See Section 5.5.2, Semen Analysis, below).   

  

Pre-breeding Tests

It is important to assure the health of broods and studs prior to breeding.  Certain sexually transmitted infections and anatomical defects can result in the loss of a litter, inability to conceive, and health risks for mature breeding animals.  See Section 5.6.2, Selecting Best Breeders, and 5.9.3, Assessments and Annual Screenings, to learn more about health screening that should be done before breeding. The following screenings are also highly recommended: 

 

Brucellosis: Brucellosis is an infectious bacterium that can cause abortions, litter reabsorptions, sperm abnormalities, stillbirths, and other reproductive issues. Brucellosis is readily spread through sexual contact between dogs, and there is no cure. All breeding animals should be tested for brucellosis prior to breeding.  Testing can be done in-house using a rapid slide agglutination test (RSAT). Studs should be tested for brucellosis every six months, and females should be tested during any heat in which they are to be bred, as dogs can become infected at any time.  

 

Vaginal Strictures: Broods should be checked for vaginal strictures before their first breeding.  This can be accomplished by inserting a lubed finger into the brood’s vulva while she is in heat, and feeling up and over the pelvic rim. Positioning of the finger should be similar to that of the smear stick used for cytologies. You are feeling for any narrowing or bands that could impede breeding and/or whelping.  Bitches with strictures should undergo further evaluation by a veterinarian to determine suitability for breeding.  

 

Timing of Insemination

Small litter size is most commonly caused by inseminating a bitch at the wrong time.  One would think that breeding close to the right date would be fine; however, that is not the case. It is important to note that a bitch’s breeding behavior, such as standing, flagging, and willingness to accept a mate, as well as vaginal changes such as discharge color and cytology, are all influenced by estrogen.  Estrogen is a hormone that readies the uterus, vagina, and behavior of the bitch, but does NOT control when the eggs ovulate.  

 

Luteinizing hormone (LH) is the hormone that triggers ovulation. Once ovulation occurs, cells in the crater-like space (the corpus luteum) where the eggs were begin to secrete a very important hormone called progesterone. Progesterone is essential to maintain the pregnancy.  

 

Combining progesterone testing with vaginal cytologies is an ideal method for selecting the optimal breeding date. LH testing can also be used to help determine a brood's rise, especially if no distinct rise is seen in progesterone levels.   Progesterone tests, also called quantitative progesterone assays, require that plasma be sent to a laboratory for analysis.  Most veterinary colleges can perform progesterone and LH testing.  Although these tests can be costly and require shipping, they provide the most accurate indication of the ideal breeding dates for a bitch.  By inseminating a bitch on her ideal breeding dates, the risk of a small litter or non-pregnant bitch is reduced.  The following guidelines can be used to perform and evaluate the results of progesterone and LH tests: 

 

  • Collect blood and run a progesterone test within 48 hours of a bitch starting estrus (onset of vaginal bleeding). This value will be used as a baseline.  

 

  • Begin performing vaginal cytologies every other day.  Once the cytology shows that the bitch has 100% squamous cells, with more than half of the cells being cornified, begin running progesterone tests every other day.  

 

  • The LH rise and ovulation tend to occur when the progesterone value jumps from <1.5ng/ml to >2ng/ml. Keep in mind that the exact value may vary from dog to dog, and some interpretation may be required.  For countries using nmol/l instead of ng/ml, nmol/l can be easily converted to ng/ml by simply multiplying by 0.315.  The day of the rise should be considered LH0.  If an obvious rise is not apparent, it might be helpful to send out a LH test with that day's blood.  

 

  • If the LH test is positive, the day that blood was collected should be considered the LH surge, and recorded as LH0. If the test was negative, run an LH test from the previous day’s blood, or the following day’s blood, to try to isolate the LH surge.  

 

  • The prime breeding days for natural breedings are 3 and 5 days after LH0 (LH+3 and LH+5).  Transcervical inseminations should take place on LH+4 and LH+6. Surgical inseminations should occur on LH+5.  

 

  • To double-check that LH0 was calculated correctly, you should get progesterone values for each of the breeding days.   For natural breedings, the following results will indicate that LH0 was calculated correctly:  

 

  • 1st breeding: Progesterone value >6ng/ml 

  • 2nd breeding: Progesterone value >12ng/ml 

  • If the value is not that high, a third breeding another two days later should be considered. 

 

Unfortunately, not all schools will have access to laboratories that can perform progesterone and LH testing.  In that scenario, using the brood's receptivity is the only option. It is recommended that the brood be checked for receptivity every day upon starting her heat cycle.  Once she is receptive, the best protocol is to breed her once every other day, until she is unwilling to stand for the stud anymore.  However, this method is not nearly as reliable as the methods described above, and should only be used if absolutely necessary.  

 

 

Insemination Techniques

Natural

With all the advances in science and technology, natural mating still remains the best choice for positive conception rates.  The highest conception rates are achieved when the brood is bred during the fertile window, which is generally days LH+3 - LH+6.  Due to the fact that eggs ovulate at different times, breeding more than once during the fertile period will improve conception rates. See Timing of Insemination, above, for more information on determining the proper timing. It is important to keep in mind that new studs, or studs that have only been used for collection may have a more difficult time understanding the natural mating process.  See Stud Readiness for more information on how to help the stud become successful.  

 

A natural mating will require at least two people to assist.  One person will bring the stud into the designated breeding area. The other person will bring the brood into the area.  If the brood seems receptive and no aggression is displayed, both dogs can be allowed off leash. The dogs will typically begin a foreplay ritual.  This can vary by the dog, but typically includes the stud playing with the brood, licking her vulva, smelling and nuzzling her breasts, and biting her neck.  These events are a natural part of foreplay and should not be discouraged or interrupted. The stud will mount the brood, and begin thrusting trying to locate her vulva.  Do not be alarmed if the stud tries to mount her head or her side, he often will figure it out. Also, it is normal for some fluid to come out of the penis before penetration, and is not a cause for concern. Some studs may allow a handler to guide the penis towards the vulva, or tip the vulva outwards to aid in penetration.  Some studs may not tolerate any interference. Once the stud has entered the vulva, his thrusting speed will usually become much more rapid.  At that point, the dogs will begin a “tie”.  A tie is when the penis is fully in the vagina, and the bulbus glandi at the base of the penis becomes engorged. This, along with the brood's vaginal contractions, keeps the penis locked in the vagina.  Broods may yelp during this period, and a handler should be prepared to steady her by holding her collar and supporting her with the other hand, if necessary.  The stud will then lift his foreleg over the broods back, so that the stud and brood are standing rear to rear.  Some studs may need help to lift themselves over the brood. Typical ties last fifteen minutes, but can go much longer. Ties lasting less than 10 minutes may indicate that an additional breeding is needed. The brood should be crated after breeding for about thirty minutes.   

 

Vaginal Artificial Insemination (AI)

Artificial insemination is the process of manually depositing semen into the brood's vaginal tract. This allows broods to be bred with studs that are out of the geographic region, have less than ideal quality semen, cannot mate naturally anymore, among other reasons.  Vaginal AI's are best performed with fresh or chilled semen, and are not recommended for use with frozen semen.  

  

Vaginal inseminations have been used in dogs with great success for years.  If a school does not have access to TCI (transcervical insemination) equipment and training, vaginal inseminations with fresh semen are the next best option.  Vaginal inseminations require collecting 6cc or more of the sperm-rich and prostatic fraction of the semen, inserting an insemination pipette into the vagina of the brood, and depositing the semen. The brood's vulva should then be manually stimulated with a finger for five minutes to induce contractions, and her hind end should remain elevated for approximately 10 minutes.  The brood must then go directly into a crate for thirty minutes, without being allowed to urinate or play on the way.  

 

Transcervical Insemination (TCI)

The process of depositing semen directly into the uterus is called transcervical insemination (TCI) and requires the use of a camera-guided endoscope and specialized staff training. Transcervical inseminations can be used with fresh, chilled, or frozen semen, but are particularly advantageous when used with frozen.  

 

 Dr. Marion Wilson, BVMS, MVCS, MRCVS, developed this insemination procedure around 1992. A vaginoscope is inserted into the vagina with the aid of a fiber-optic telescope in the shaft of the vaginoscope. When the cervix is located in the anterior vagina, a catheter that is also in the shaft of the vaginoscope is used to manipulate the opening to the cervix (cervical os) and the catheter is passed into the uterus. The semen (which can be fresh, chilled or frozen) is gently injected through the catheter into the uterus. The semen used for this method should be highly concentrated as the uterus can only accommodate approximately 1.5-2 ml of semen. This procedure provides a very viable alternative to surgical insemination with no untoward side effects for the bitch. Its major benefit is that inseminations can be performed more than once during the same heat period. 

 

Surgical Insemination

Surgical insemination is another option for depositing frozen semen into the brood.  This procedure involves putting the bitch under anesthesia, opening the abdomen to expose the uterus, and using a needle and syringe to insert the semen directly into both horns of the uterus.  Surgical inseminations are riskier than TCI, because the brood must be put under anesthesia, the incision and stitches must be monitored, and the procedure can only be performed once.  Therefore, proper timing is critical when surgically inseminating a brood.  

 

 

Why no puppies or a small litter?

By far, the most common cause of a small litter or lack of conception is poor timing.  Estrus behaviors are not always indicative of actual ovulation and progesterone and LH testing is strongly recommended in order to pinpoint the brood's ovulation. Refer to Timing of Insemination, above.   

 

A small litter or lack of conception could also be caused by issues with the stud's semen.  Some studs produce semen that is very poor quality, and is unlikely to successfully fertilize an egg. Each stud should have their semen checked within a month of breeding (see Section 5.5.2, Semen Analysis).   Semen can also be damaged during the freezing, thawing, and insemination process.  Extreme care must be taken when handling semen, and quality-control procedures should always be followed. For more information on semen handling, see Section 5.5.1, Collecting and Handling Semen, and 5.5.4, Storing Frozen Semen

 

Resorption is another possible culprit in litter loss.  This phenomenon involves the brood absorbing her fetuses during the first half of pregnancy.  There are multiple causes of resorption, including brucellosis or other infectious diseases, endometrial issues, and low progesterone levels.  

 

If the timing of the breedings appears to be correct, but the brood appears to have no puppies when she is checked mid-pregnancy, progesterone levels could be to blame.  Progesterone is a hormone that is produced by a structure (corpus luteum) on the brood's ovaries after ovulation.  This hormone is essential for maintaining a pregnancy.  If the corpus luteum fails for some reason, progesterone levels will drop, leading to abortion of the litter.  This condition can be identified by taking a blood sample of broods that do not appear pregnant upon a mid-gestation ultrasound, and running a progesterone test.  It is very common for progesterone values during mid-pregnancy to be lower than a known breeding value, and that is not of concern.  However, if the progesterone values are less than 2ng/ml or 6.36nmol/L, low progesterone levels are probably to blame for the lack of puppies. 

 

Failure to ovulate is another reason for broods not conceiving puppies.  The hormones controlling the bleeding and mating behaviors are produced normally, but eggs are not released from the ovaries.  In these situations, the progesterone does not rise.  Sometimes, broods start the signs of a heat as noted by bleeding, but the heat stops and restarts within two to four weeks.  This is called a “split heat.”  Broods with split heats seem to have a normal heat cycle and normal fertility once the heat restarts.

 

Gestation Care

An ultrasound can be performed halfway through a brood's gestation to confirm pregnancy and get an approximate idea of litter size.  At this point, the brood's feed ration can be increased, usually by about 50%.  It is common for broods to consume between 4 and 6 cups of food daily during the first trimester.  The brood should not be allowed to get too thin, or the following problems may occur: 

 

  • Overall health and condition of the brood is compromised 
  • Quality of milk can be affected 
  • Immune system of pups is compromised 
  • Lowered fertility and a greater risk of reabsorption 

 

During the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, it is important to continue low- impact exercise so that the brood remains physically fit. Shorter, more frequent walks may be necessary as the brood's weight increases.  Any type of physically strenuous exercise should be refrained from, including jumping and intense running.  During this period, it is normal for the brood to have a slight clear or white discharge from her vulva, develop breasts, and urinate more frequently.  Additionally, the brood's eyes may be runnier than normal, and her abdomen will enlarge. Normal behavior during the last week of gestation includes a drop in energy level, poor appetite, nesting, and light panting.  Starting one week before the brood's due date, her temperature should be taken daily.  This should be taken at approximately the same time every day, and will help to establish a baseline temperature for the brood.  A dramatic drop in temperature will signal an impending whelp.  

 

 

5.4.2 Whelping   

It is important to have an accurate estimation of the whelp date in order to prepare for the whelp properly and identify any issues.  The whelp date can be calculated as 65 days after the LH surge, give or take approximately 24 hours. If the LH surge was not identified, the whelp date should be 57 days after the brood comes out of heat, with a range of 48 hours.  

 

Certain physiological and behavioral changes will take place immediately before the brood begins to whelp.  Normally, the brood's temperature will drop by 2 degrees Fahrenheit approximately 12 hours before whelping. The brood's progesterone will also fall below 2 ng/ml 24 hours before parturition. Many broods will refuse to eat their meals on the day they will whelp, and nesting behavior will usually intensify.  

 

As labor begins, the brood will usually begin to pant heavily, or may become very quiet. She will usually lick her vulva, and contractions will begin. A large gush of fluid will come out of the vulva, signaling that labor has begun. Strong contractions and tail arching will follow, and a puppy will usually be born within 10 to 20 minutes.  The process will continue, with the brood taking rests between contractions and pups being born.  Rests may become longer as the end of whelping nears. The puppy will normally be born in the sac, nose and front legs first with the puppy's spine parallel to the brood’s spine, or back feet first with the spine parallel to the brood’s spine. Puppies are normally born within two hours of each other.  Broods vary in their attentiveness to their puppies.  Some broods will clean puppies while they are whelping, while others will wait until whelping is over to clean their puppies.  

 

If the brood seems to be having difficulty during her whelp, the following can be tried to assist in the whelping process: 

 

  • Take brood for a walk 
  • Vaginally feather the brood to see if she contracts against you 
  • Roll the brood on her back and wiggle her back and forth 
  • Give a small meal with a calcium supplement 

 

Dystocia refers to problems with the whelping process. Dystocia can be recognized if the bitch appears to be excessively panting or quivering, is acting distressed, stops labor, or is having strong contractions with no puppy produced in thirty minutes.  If a brood has any of these conditions, or if a puppy appears stuck or the brood is past her whelp date, it can be helpful to check fetal heart rates. These can be monitored with the use of an ultrasound machine.  Rates of 170 beats/minute or above are normal and healthy.  Rates of 160-130 beats/min indicate a problem, and may necessitate a c-section. Rates below 130 beats/min show that the fetus is severely compromised, and immediate removal is necessary.   

 

Immediately after birth, the puppy must be removed from the sack, and its nasal passage must be cleared.  The umbilical cord should be cut and clamped, and the puppy should be dried.  Keep the puppy very close to the bitch throughout this process, and encourage her to help. The brood should vigorously lick and clean the puppy.  Within 15 minutes of being born, the puppy should be assisted to the teat, and begin nursing.  Each puppy's weight and time of birth should be recorded.  

 

5.4.3 Nursing Brood and Neonatal Puppy Care

The beginning of a puppy's life is a critical time, and must be treated as such in order for the litter to flourish. Puppies require a great deal of time and energy to care for properly, and the brood must also receive special care. This section will discuss the basics of neonatal and brood care, but it is advisable to do more in-depth research before whelping a litter.  

 

First Week

The first week of a puppy's life must be managed very carefully, and the first two days are especially critical. During this period, puppies are blind and deaf.  They rely primarily on their senses of smell and touch to locate their mother.   One of the most important elements of care at this point is heat, as puppies under ten days old cannot regulate their own body temperature. The normal body temperature of a puppy under 18 days old is 94.0 - 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Puppies should have access to a very warm area (such as an area warmed by a heat lamp), that should be kept between 85 - 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and away from any drafts.     

 

 It is essential that all puppies are adequately nursing and remain hydrated.  This can be monitored by checking that the puppy's skin is tight to their body, and does not tent when lifted. Their gums should also be moist and warm.  

 

Puppies should be weighed at 12 hours, and again at 24 hours, to assure that they are gaining weight. Puppies should be weighed daily after that point until they reach two pounds. A healthy puppy should be gaining at least 1 ounce every day, and will often double its birth weight during the first week. If the pup has not gained weight in the first 24 hours or is not thriving, feeding should be supplemented with the brood’s colostrum.  It is important for the puppy to receive the brood's colostrum during the first two days, if at all possible. If you must feed a puppy, assure that the puppy has a normal body temperature.  A chilled puppy must be warmed before it can be fed. The puppy must also be stimulated to relieve itself after every feeding, either by the brood or the person feeding.  Puppies cannot relieve themselves for approximately two weeks after birth.  

 

The brood should now be eating a lactation ration of food, which may be similar to, or greater than, her gestation ration. It is not uncommon for broods to be eating up to 12 cups of food per day while lactating. Assure that the brood has good milk production, and check the brood's teats daily for any heat or lumps, which could indicate the start of mastitis.  Any symptoms should be immediately reported to a veterinarian, and checks should continue for the remainder of the lactation period.  The brood should be regularly cleaning and nursing the puppies, and will often resist being removed from her litter.    

 

 

Weeks Two and Three

During the second and third weeks, puppies will often gain weight at a much faster rate, often two or three ounces per day.  The brood will be at the peak of her milk production.  Her teats should continue to be checked for any symptoms of mastitis.  The puppy's eyes will begin to open between 10 and 16 days, and ears will open around 14 days.  Puppies will become more mobile at this stage, and should be allowed a larger area to roam around.  At three weeks, puppies can begin to be introduced to "gruel" (soaked, mashed puppy food).  Most deworming protocols will also begin at three weeks, under the supervision of a veterinarian.  

 

Weeks Four through Six

 At this stage, puppies will begin to play with each other and interact with their environment.  Their appetites increase, they develop teeth, and "gruel" will become a more important part of their diet.  By five weeks, the puppies should be receiving at least 3 meals per day of gruel, and weaning should begin (see Weaning, below).  The puppies can be exposed to more extensive socialization at this point, and longer periods of time away from the brood. It is important to provide the puppies with a variety of mental and physical stimulation, as their brains are rapidly developing.  Personalities within puppies will also begin to emerge at this age, along with dominance hierarchies.  

 

Weaning

Weaning is the process of transitioning puppies off of the brood's milk and onto a solid diet.  The puppies can begin to eat small amounts of gruel between two and three weeks, to supplement their milk diet. By four weeks, the puppies should be eating regular small meals of gruel, and will begin to get teeth. At five weeks, the brood can begin to be separated from the puppies, and the puppies will transition to a diet that consists completely of puppy food.  

 

The drying-off process involves removing the brood from her litter, and is usually done at five weeks, though it can be done earlier. This process will slow down and eventually stop milk production. The brood's milk production must be very carefully monitored throughout this process, as mastitis (infection of the breast) can quickly develop during this time.  Any hardness, heat, lumps or discoloration on the breasts should be brought to the attention of a veterinarian, as they could indicate the start of mastitis.  When beginning the drying-off process, the brood should be completely removed from her litter.  Her breasts should be monitored frequently, and when they are full, she can be put with her litter so they can nurse.  After nursing, the brood should be removed from her litter again.  Simultaneously, the brood's food intake should be reduced by at least 50% (sometimes more), to help decrease milk production. Eventually, the brood will be able to go over 24 hours without having to nurse. At that point, she can usually leave her puppies completely.  The brood should continue to be monitored multiple times per day until milk production is totally finished.