How I Raise My Puppies 1: Planning, Pregnancy, Whelping

How I Raise My Puppies
What I do with Puppies from Birth until They Leave Here 

Planning, Pregnancy & Whelping

So many people lately have been asking questions about what I do with puppies and when and why I do it, that I decided to create a page on the website that would answer all kinds of questions. I went through diaries from the last ten years or so to come up with the usual times pups begin doing all sorts of things, and the ages at which I do different challenging and socializing things with them. The various stages are illustrated with photos, mainly from the AA – NN litters, although some photos from the P, Q, R & X litters appear. Knowing how much people enjoy cute puppy photos, I put one or two photos in the main text to illustrate a new development and supplemented those by a link to more photos that you can view if you like. Enjoy!

I have been breeding for 42 years. Years ago, all the screening anyone did was OFA hips. Then OFA began offering elbow certifications. Many breeders didn’t bother, but I did. As I went on and encountered other problems (such as eye conditions and bad hearts) in dogs I bought as breeding prospects or was offered by breeders as breeding prospects, I began screening my dogs for them as soon as OFA began offering certifications. If a dog didn’t pass all the screenings, I spayed or neutered it and placed it in a pet or working home. I am now in the 6th generation of my female line: Glory (1st generation) – Jubilee (2nd generation) – Quinta (3rd generation) – Lively (4th generation) – Spirit, Soleil & GloryToo (5th generation) – and their puppies, Mercy and Lovely (6th generation).

I began with the old American lines, which still had a lot of German imports in their pedigrees. In the 1990’s I switched to European working lines. In the European lines, it’s customary to assign each litter an alphabet letter with which pups must be registered. My first European-line litter, born in 1997, was the “A” litter, and I’ve worked my way through the alphabet since then. I’m now going through the alphabet the second time and those litters are designated AA, BB and so on, mostly because I still have photos that I occasionally use from the earlier litters. For example, photos from the C litter [whelped 1999] are distinguished from those of the CC litter [whelped 2009] by the use of the one-letter or the two-letter label. The CC litter pups don’t need two “C” words in their registered names as people sometimes assume, but their registered names must be different from those of the C litter.

First, Selecting Parents
I do more health screening on a prospective breeding prospect than most breeders. My required certifications before I breed one of my dogs include two hip evaluations (OFA – Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and PennHip) I also do OFA elbows, OFA cardiac, OFA thyroid, OFA degenerative myelopathy and OFA Eyes. The dogs must also be certified free of von Willebrand’s and hemophilia (bleeding disorders) and EPI (Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency).  I do PennHip, OFA prelim hips & elbows, and OFA eye screenings at about 1 year.  When the pup turns two years, I do the final OFA hips & elbows, plus OFA thyroid, OFA cardiac and blood tests for bleeding disorders and EPI.  Thyroid ad eye certifications must be redone annually.

When I buy pups as breeding prospects, usually 1 out of 3 pass all my health screenings at age 2. I won’t try more than three times with a breeder or bloodline (one bought, two replacements) but if the third one doesn’t pass I figure it’s my bad luck and give up. When I keep pups from my line, usually 2 out of 3 pass all their health screenings, so I feel that all these generations of serious health screenings are concentrating the good genes so that my pups have a better chance to be healthy than most GSD’s. The problem is that most health problems are multi-gene recessive faults and can hide in the gene pool for generations. When a particular pup is conceived, it may get an excess of the bad genes and have a health problem. One cannot ever guarantee that any individual will get all good genes because that’s not how nature works – the genes sort randomly. I follow my pups all their lives and keep track of any problems they might have, hopefully minor, and use that knowledge as I choose future breeding partners.

The problem with traits that have up to 30 different recessive genes interacting – such as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, eye conditions such as pannus and EPI (Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency) – is that it’s too complicated a trait to ever develop a gene test. So we breeders work in the dark, guessing which combinations of breeding partners will give us what we want, grieving when individual pups get a concentration of some bad genes for a certain trait. I have a friend who had an absolutely gorgeous, super social, fantastic Rottweiler who had 10 generations behind him of every ancestor having OFA good hips. When he turned two she did his OFA hip x-rays and he was severely dysplastic. It happens. All we have to go by are the phenotypic traits that show up on x-rays, not the genes that the dog has.

At least we now have two options for evaluating hips – OFA and PennHip. For OFA evaluation the dog is sedated, stretched out on its back, and an x-ray taken. Three radiologists look at the x-ray and rate it (excellent, good and fair are passing grades; failing (dysplastic) hips are rated mild, moderate or severe. In PennHip, the dog is sedated more deeply. After the standard x-ray is taken (same view that OFA uses), a fulcrum is placed under each hip and pressure applied. The actual laxity is measured in the joint. PennHip rates each hip separately and gives each a distraction index and rates the possibility of its developing arthritis as the dog ages. Thus it’s much more objective and scientific than the subjective OFA report. OFA mainly judges the shape of the joint in the x-ray, how the femur fits into the hip and whether there’s much space (laxity) between the two, while PennHip deliberately stresses the joint and measures how far the two parts can be separated. PennHip is MUCH more expensive than OFA and only veterinarians who have completed PennHip training can do the x-rays so for me it not only involves a higher fee for the x-ray but also travel expenses and a day lost from other activities. The closest PennHip vet is 125 miles from me, but I feel it’s worth it to help me improve hip results in my pups.

The only health problem for which we have a gene test is spinal myelopathy (DM), where the spinal cord gradually becomes constricted and the dog loses control of its rear end. DM comes from a mutation in a famous German dog who was bred to extensively in Germany and whose progeny are all over the world. It has been determined to be a simple recessive trait and a simple cheek swab is used to determine a dog’s genetics. If the dog has neither mutated gene, it is called “DM Clear”. If it has one mutated gene and one normal gene, it is “DM Carrier.” If it has both mutated genes, it is “DM Affected.” If it is DM Affected it is at high risk to develop the condition as it ages, but not all do. DM Carriers will not get the condition as the dominant normal gene carries the day. If a DM Carrier is bred to a DM Clear, the puppies have a 50% chance to be DM Clear and 50% chance of being DM Carriers, but they will not get the condition. If a DM Affected dog is bred to a DM Clear dog, all pups will be carriers and none will get the condition. It’s important not to breed two DM Carrier dogs together, as 1/4 of the pups will probably get both mutated genes and thus be at risk.

My breeding dogs also must have some kind of training title. Mine usually have Nosework titles, often the Canine Good Citizen title, sometimes agility titles. Outside stud dogs to whom I consider breeding must have as many health screenings as possible and titles, either those listed above or others such as AKC obedience or tracking titles, or Schutzhund BH or further Schutzhund titles. I am serious about breeding dogs that are mentally and physically sound, with good working drives, and I want prospective breeding partners to have proved that in some way.

With each litter I create a “Background Information” page on my website, listing all the parents’ health screenings and titles, describing their personalities and work ethic and showing links to each parent’s page with photos and more details. I show a pedigree for the litter with the titles and health screenings listed for four generations. I also put a “Pregnancy Guide” page so people can follow the progression of the pregnancy.

Those pages are found in the “Current Litters” section of my website.

Background Info and pedigree pages for many previous litters can be found in the “Past Litters” section of my website.

Preparations for the Litter

When I do a live breeding I take a $500 deposit when I’ve completed the breeding. I will not take any deposits on a litter from artificial insemination until I’m sure the bitch is pregnant. Artificial Insemination, especially with frozen semen, is iffy, so I wait at least until we do an ultrasound at four weeks in whelp before asking for a deposit; sometimes I wait until the pups are born.

People on the waiting list are notified first and allowed to put down a deposit before I advertise the litter on my website. To get on the waiting list I need to have approved a person’s application (found in the “Current Litters” section of my website menu). I ask people to spend some time doing the application as it gives me a first idea if one of my working-line pups would work for them. My dogs are intense and highly intelligent, not good for people with couch potato lifestyles or who will not spend time training and socializing. Once I approve a person as a possible puppy owner, they are welcome to come meet all of us. Beginning when pups turn three weeks old, people are invited to come play with them.

Determining Pregnancy:  4 weeks in whelp
In some breeds, pregnancy can be verified by palpation during days 26-32, but I’ve never had any luck with my German Shepherds because their bodies are so deep and muscular. I have to do an ultrasound to determine if my girl is pregnant. Twenty-eight days after breeding an ultrasound will show fetuses, and more importantly, fetal heartbeats. The heartbeats let you know you have live, developing puppies.

The uterus has two horns, with puppies implanted and developing in each horn. On an ultrasound, which cannot go deep enough to see both horns simultaneously, it’s impossible to see all puppies at once. The ultrasound can only show part of the uterus at a time, so it’s easy to count one puppy several times, thinking you have moved to a different part of the uterus when you actually have just changed angles—and to miss other puppies altogether. German Shepherds are so thick that ultrasounds are of little value other than to confirm pregnancy; learning how many pups she has must wait until we can do a x-ray just before her due date. For example, on the MM litter, my vet thought she could see 3 pups in the ultrasound at 4 weeks in whelp; when we did the x-ray two days before she whelped, skeletons of 7 pups were visible, and that’s how many Spirit had.

Once she’s confirmed pregnant, I begin changing the mom’s kibble from adult to puppy formula (Holistic Select Large Breed Puppy) and increase the amount of raw meat diet she gets daily so she has plenty of nutrients to build strong pups. Otherwise, life as usual continues until just before her due date. We keep on training as long as she enjoys it and she exercises as usual, including her daily ball sessions.

The Last Week in Whelp
As close to her due date as we dare, we take an x-ray to see how many pups she has so I know for sure that we get all of them safely into the world. The puppies’ skeletons do not calcify (turn to bone) until the last week of gestation; then and only then will they show up on an x-ray.

A week before her due date, I begin taking her temperature twice daily. Their temperature begins to drop as they get close to delivery, so I take it each morning as soon as we awake, before she stirs around any, and in the evening just before bedtime, when she’s been resting quietly. Usually, the week before they whelp, they’ll range back and forth between just over 100 degrees to tantalizingly close to 99. When the temperature drops below 99 and stays there, they’ll generally whelp within 12 – 24 hours.

She’ll be eating less and less kibble since she feels very full with the puppies, so I increase the amount of the raw meat diet. I also begin adding some raw beef liver or heart to her lunch. I always save hearts and liver anyone gives me just for the near-to-whelping moms because organ meat helps induce milk production. Even if they begin refusing the raw beef cubes, they will gladly eat the heart or liver.

The puppies have begun to drop from high in the rib cage to the abdomen area – her lower sides are larger while there almost seems to be a space up higher. The puppies are just too large to remain up under the ribs any longer. Mom has lots of mammary development, getting ready to lactate, and when she moves she clicks as her udder sways back and forth. Those are signs that we’re moving towards delivery.

Quinta shortly before whelping.

photos of GloryToo, Joyful, Quinta and Soleil shortly before whelping

She still wants to go out for her ball session each morning, but she has slowed way down. She’ll slowly lope out for the ball and then amble back, sometimes stopping halfway to rest. She is so big that she looks like a snake as she walks towards me, the puppies swaying to the left during one stride and to the right on the next stride. I don’t shorten her play sessions because she needs to stay in good shape and also to move enough to eliminate properly since she spends the rest of the day reclining. I let her determine how much exercise she needs and just throw the ball when she returns it to me.

I begin to really watch her as her behavior starts to change. She will be restless and want to stay close to me as I wander around the house, often begging me to rub her tummy, placing herself so that she can lean her head back and look into my eyes with her own and make sure I know how miserable she was.

I get out my paper cutter and begin to cut strips of newspaper, about 1″ wide, filling a lawn leaf bag. The strips absorb fluids as each pup is born and are easy to grab in handfuls to remove before placing more fresh strips in the box. I have tried shredded newspapers at times but generally prefer the strips to be wider.

Whenever I have to be gone, I leave her in the whelping room where I have the whelping box under an old table to create a “den” for the new puppies. The whelping bed is full of the newspaper strips so she can “nest” (scratch in the pile of strips and rearrange them) to her heart’s content.

“Pig rails” line the sides. For the first couple of weeks they give the fragile, blind pups a place to squeeze into in case mom lies upon them without realizing it. A thermometer helps me make sure the whelping bed is warm enough. I have a doggie door going to a small private yard where she can potty if she needs to. All is ready.

The whelping room and whelping bed, all ready for whelping, showing the low board on one side for Quinta to enter/exit the bed before and after whelping and the bed pulled out into the room for whelping.

Photos of Quinta in the bed pulled out and ready for whelping, the bed slid under the table to form a “den” for nesting before whelping and after the pups are born, the side down to form a ramp. 

Her crate is right by my bed so I can hear if she becomes restless during the night. I won’t get much sleep from now until the pups arrive because any little noise brings me fully awake.

Most bitches seem to go into labor in the middle of the night but occasionally they’ll start mid-day, so one never assumes anything at this stage. If at bedtime the thermometer says anything close to 99.0, I get out my sleeping bag and mattress and prepare to sleep on the whelping room floor in case she goes into labor. She’d be uncomfortable in her crate and this way she can stretch out and be as comfortable as possible either in the whelping bed or on the dog bed I have there for her.

She’s usually happy to be in the room and very happy that I am, too. Often she will be restless at first, going in the whelping box and “nesting,” then coming out to sit by me, then over to lie on the dog bed, then back into the whelping box. About the time I drift off to sleep she’ll come to check on me and wake me up. I usually don’t get any rest but at least I’m there if labor begins.

For whelping, I pull the whelping bed out into the middle of the room so that I can access all of it and have plenty of light. I put up a heat lamp to help a small heater warm the area so the pups don’t chill when they’re wet from just being born. I try to take photos as soon as mom has them cleaned up, but I usually wait to weigh the pup and put on its collar until mom is busy with a new arrival and not too worried about me handling the previous one.

Average weight is 16 ounces, though occasionally one will weigh up to 20 ounces. I weigh pups daily during the first week to be sure they’re gaining weight.

Quinta whelping a sable pup (Miss Pink from the AA litter, who weighed a whopping 19 ounces – notice how hard she’s contracting) and a newborn pup.

More photos: Quinta whelping (AA litter); Joyful with a newborn black & tan pup (BB litter); Quinta taking a break between contractions with the EE litter and then with a newborn sable pup; a newborn black and tan pup from Lively’s GG litter and finally GloryToo with a sable and then a black & tan pup from the LL litter.

Each pup gets a different color collar so I can tell at a glance who’s doing what – at this age who’s maybe cold or pushed aside or not nursing; as they develop who’s beginning to show drives, who’s adventuresome, who’s quieter and so on. I used to sew pieces of Rickrack into collars, but recently have been able to find Velcro collars in a wide enough range of distinguishable colors to make them practical. The first-born male always gets a blue collar, the first-born female always gets a pink collar, and for subsequent pups I try to put darker collars on the sables and lighter collars on the black and tans, again for better quick identification especially in the low-light whelping room during the first few days.

Newborn pups with collars: Lively with a black and tan pup

More photos: Lively with the FF Litter; Lively with the KK litter; Spirit with the MM litter; GloryToo with the NN litter

It is perfectly normal for bitches to take up to two hours between pups. I sit by the whelping bed and read a book, frequently checking mom as she peacefully nurses her pups, then go on alert when she goes back into labor. If she goes longer than 2 hours, I will give her an oxytocin shot to stimulate more contractions. Usually right after the shot she’ll deliver a pup (and sometimes two, one from each horn of the uterus) in a short time. When she delivers a pup, I let her clean it – tumbling the pup around as she chews the umbilical cord and dries it, gets it breathing well and rids it of any fluid inhaled during whelping (puppy yelling is healthy!). All I normally do is tear open the placenta over the pup’s nose to be sure it can begin breathing. If it doesn’t start breathing and moving vigorously, I step in to be sure nasal passages are clear and massage it with a towel, but otherwise I try not to interfere as it can stress both mom and pup.

I have a heating pad in one front corner of the whelping bed so I can place pups on it to keep warm and out of her way when mom goes into labor again, since she’s up and down and circling and I don’t want the pups stepped on or her distracted by one crying when she knocks it aside.

Pup on the heating pad while another is being born, BB litter.

More photos:  BB litter and LL litter

When all are born, I give mom a last oxytocin shot to be sure she has expelled all the placentas. Oxytocin causes the uterus to contract, thus forcing out any leftover fluids (and sometimes a hidden puppy). After waiting about 30 minutes to be sure she’s finished whelping, I place the pups on towels or a blanket on the floor by the heater so I can clean the whelping bed. I remove all the shredded newspaper, scrub the whelping bed, let it dry and then put layers of flat newspapers under an absorbent fleece bedding that will wick moisture away from the pups plus give them good traction.

Quinta with part of the CC litter (my Lively is the pup with the multicolored collar).

More Photos: Soleil with the JJ litter.

I then lift the pups back into the whelping bed. Pigment on noses, foot pads and toenails doesn’t come in for several days, which is quite obvious on photos.

Joyful with the BB litter, all black and tans.

More photos:  FF and KK litters

After taking a few photos, I push the bed under the table to create a draft-free, private den for them and add a big bowl of cool water for mom. When she’s satisfied that I have set up her den properly, mom will happily join her family for a good rest. If it’s her first litter, I often will nap (or sleep the rest of the night away) by the whelping bed to be sure all is well. Newborn pups sometimes roll away from mom and not yet know how to sniff and find her. “When in doubt, yell” seems to be their motto. I turn on the flashlight and check to be sure mom hasn’t laid on anyone, and if the pup is a distance away from her I put it back against a nipple, and then wearily try to get back to sleep. Eventually they figure things out and the new mom relaxes – their yelling having upset her as she tried to be everywhere for everyone. Peace descends and all of us sleep.

See photos of mom and pups in the “den.” First is Joyful with the BB litter (I haven’t yet raised the ramp). Second is Lively with the FF litter in the completely closed “den” (4 sables and 3 back & tans).

to How I Raise My Puppies 2:  1 – 13 Days Old

to How I Raise My Puppies 3: 14 – 27 Days Old

to How I Raise My Puppies 4: 28 – 41 Days Old

to How I Raise My Puppies 5: 42 Days Till They Leave and Conclusion

How I Raise My Puppies: Neurological Stimulation Exercises