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What Can Possibly Go Wrong?


© 2006, Caroline Coile, Ph.D

No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder. Reprinted with permission from , Caroline Coile, Ph.D.

Opal and Mori

Reprinted with permission from the author. First published in Dog World, May 2006.

Right: Linda McMahon's Opal and Mori

Caroline Coile, Ph.D., is a breeder, owner and handler of top-winning Salukis and the author of 29 books, including The Barron's Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds, and Congratulations! It's a Dog! Buy at

Know the predisposition of your breed and your line to be prepared for mating and whelping difficulties

Take three people, two dogs, and one budget motel room, and you have the makings of the stories dog breeders tell.

“The three of us were ‘trying to get the job done’ with a very green dog and a decidedly uncooperative bitch,” recalls Terri Lattanzio, of Courtland Dalmatians in Downey, CA. “Needless to say, our language was pretty colorful and very descriptive for the several hours that it took to successfully complete the breeding. The next morning, my friend and I walked out of the motel, sans dog, and noticed that the two men in the adjoining room were giving us decidedly strange looks. It wasn't until much later that we realized they had probably overheard the whole thing through the paper thin walls, only they never knew we had dogs in the room…”

Whether it’s the dating, the mating, or the waiting, breeding dogs is always an adventure. Some breeders choose to work with dogs with even greater than normal challenges, whether those are caused by extremes in size, shape, or simply intrinsic breed characteristics. 

"She´s Lovely Van Daelenbroek" had 2 litter of 10 Kerries; on March 14th 2001 and again on November 24th 2002. If the bitch goes into labor too early, the litter is lost.
Carefully monitoring progesterone levels can save the puppies.

Hit and (Mostly) Miss

Any dog breeder eventually wonders how accidental breedings ever occur when the on-purpose ones are so frustrating. Making sure part A fits into part B can make even the most experienced breeder search for the instruction booklet. Try it with a few hundred pounds of combined dog flesh, and you have the makings of a dark romance comedy.

Joan Ciuffreda, of Fairhope, AL, who has been breeding her Park Ave Dogue De Bordeaux for 18 yrs, is familiar with the physical challenge of mating giant dogs. “Depending on the size of both dogs, we have to use a breeding rack to support the weight of the large males on the females,” Ciuffreda explains. “A female simply cannot support such a heavy male for the time it takes to get a tie.”

Although a breeding rack sounds like some sort of bondage, it actually helps both breeding partners achieve their goal. Some creative breeders substitute a hanging sling swing. Either way, nosey neighbors are sure to have something to talk about unless you have privacy fencing.

Even with a rack, Ciuffreda points out that you need to help the couple complete the actual tie. She sees more breeders resorting to artificial insemination (AI) and surgical implants, probably because the “the average person seems to have problems tying the couple.”

It’s not only giant dogs that cause mating fiascos. Front heavy dogs, such as many of the brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, can have problems no matter how small they are. Balancing a wide front on a narrow rear isn’t easy, and that, combined with the relative weight discrepancy, means a lot of rolling off, falling over, or giving up.

Luis Sosa, of Madisonville, LA, has been breeding the well-known Bandog French Bulldogs with his wife Patti for over 20 years. He explains that studs can be easily frustrated and exhausted if they continue to be thwarted in their mission. Especially in hot weather, the panting can exacerbate breathing difficulties. Says Sosa, “I think 98% of Frenchie breedings are artificial inseminations; I can think of one natural breeding. You can also at times achieve hand held ties. AI's are much easier on the stud dog and bitch and also can prevent some disease transfer.”

Breeds with long hair also present problems when trying to help guide them. Tying the stud and bitch’s hair out of the way helps clear the picture. Regardless of the problem, progesterone testing is the first step to make sure the bitch is ready to breed. If she is, and the coupling can’t be consummated, artificial insemination is the answer.

2 days old kerry puppies from kennel Gaeltacht. Keep milk replacement on hand in case of emergencies.

 The Waiting Game

The bitch is bred, the stud owner wipes her brow with relief and waves good-bye, and now it’s the bitch owner’s turn to sweat. Is she pregnant? Chances are, yes, if she was bred at the right time. That’s where those progesterone tests pay off once again.

Once she’s confirmed pregnant, either by palpation, ultrasound, hormone tests, or those obvious signs experienced breeders detect (pink nipples, morning sickness, mucous discharge, or for the really cautious breeders, moving puppies), there’s still the worry of carrying to term.

Progesterone testing can be just as important after breeding as before it. Inadequate levels of progesterone can cause early termination of puppies in any breed. When progesterone levels drop, that sends the bitch into labor; when this happens too early, the litter is lost. This happened with one of Sosa’s French Bulldogs. By carefully monitoring her progesterone levels on her next pregnancy, and supplementing when needed, they were rewarded by a full term litter.

Carolyn Hensley, of Norco, CA, has been breeding her Rievaulx Yorkshire Terriers for 12 years, producing 38 champions. Even with her experience, things don’t always go as planned. She’s had bitches fail to carry a litter to term because of pyometritis (an infection of the uterus), because of an infected molar that caused a systemic infection, and even because of exposure to a person with strep throat. True, these are problems that could occur in any size dog, but almost any problem in a tiny dog is big.

Hensley was able to breed each of the bitches subsequently. In the case of the pyometritis, she treated her aggressively and bred her once more, spaying her just after the puppies were weaned. Pyometritis has a tendency to recur after each estrus, so unless a bitch is especially vital to a breeding program, spaying is the treatment of choice.  

Trio of 6.5 weeks Kerry Blue Terrier pups Julia & Yuri Geller

To Section or Not to Section

Although dogs have been having litters unassisted for thousands of years, few were the extremes we have today, and many of them died during whelping, just as many humans used to die in childbirth. Just as with humans, a Caesarean section (C-section) can be a life-saving option. In fact, in some breeds it’s not an option; it’s the norm.

The large head and narrow pelvis of many brachycephalic breeds makes delivery difficult, if not impossible. “Most Frenchie bitches have too narrow a pelvis to whelp naturally so we do not allow them to try,” explains Sosa. “If a puppy is going to get stuck it's usually the one with the largest head, and those are the puppies you want from a conformation viewpoint.”

Too many first time breeders play a game of wait and see, finally rushing in for an emergency C-section once the dam is exhausted or a puppy is stuck. Experienced breeders of brachycephalic dogs schedule a C-section ahead of time. Sosa never allows bitches to free-whelp; instead, he schedules a C-section once the bitch’s temperature begins to drop and she becomes dilated. Progesterone levels correspond to temperature levels and can be used as an indication of impending whelping. Progesterone tests at the time of mating can also determine the optimal day for delivery. Instead of letting a bitch struggle for hours, a planned C-section can have her in and out of the veterinary clinic within an hour.

New toy dog breeders often breed tiny bitches in the hope of producing tiny puppies. Hensley warns against breeding bitches four pounds and under, and points out that in the days before safe anesthesia it was recommended that bitches under six pounds not be bred. It’s more than a matter of simple size, she adds. Even eight pounders may have a pelvis that is too narrow to allow for natural whelping.

Hensley warns that it is critical to know the first three generations on both sides of the pedigree. “If you have large behind a small bitch and she is then bred to a large dog with large behind him you can get larger puppies than her pelvis is capable of passing naturally and will need to have a C-section.”

Large dogs tend to have large litters, but they don’t necessarily have extra stamina to deliver them. In fact, some giant dog breeders have characterized them as lazy whelpers, tending to deliver puppies at long intervals before finally succumbing to uterine inertia, in which they are unable to push forcibly enough to deliver a puppy. When that happens they need a C-section. Because it’s much safer to perform a C-section on a bitch that isn’t already exhausted from trying to whelp for hours, many giant dog breeders elect instead to have planned Caesareans. “This way your chances are greater of having live pups instead of stillborn ones due to taking too long to be born,” explains Ciuffreda. It’s not just the huge litters, she adds. “Sometimes it’s best to have a C-section with small litters, as the female will fail to go into full labor.”

With any dog, the presence of only one puppy can make delivery more difficult. The singleton often grows larger than normal. In addition, some breeders speculate that the single puppy does not produce enough hormones that signal the dam to produce lower levels of progesterone, so she never goes into whelp. “Always be prepared to section a bitch if there is only one puppy or if the delivery is difficult,” say Hensley. “The objective should be to have a live mother and live puppy, not to prove the bitch can deliver a puppy on her own.”  

Irish Hippy Gabbi's puppies, borm May 17, 2001 Lyudmila (Lucy) Shapiro

Puppy Problems

Dog breeders get used to sleeping on the floor or to not sleeping at all, especially in the days after bringing home a litter delivered by C-section. The dam will often be groggy for days, and won’t realize if she’s lying on a puppy. That means the puppies may need to be kept in a separate heated box or the breeder must learn to stay wake to make sure nobody gets crushed.

Even without the effects of anesthesia, puppies can be lost to crushing. Giant dogs have a lot of body to keep track of, and their puppies are comparatively tiny. “You need to keep a good eye on mother and pups to make sure she doesn't lie on them until they are at least a week or so old,” says Ciuffreda. “A good whelping box with shelves on all sides will help when she lies down, as the pups will be pushed under the shelf instead getting crushed.” 

When preparing for emergencies, it's always best to have more than one option. Here Barb Thompson's Kerry CH Bangor's Glorious Wynn, "Winnie" is fostering a litter of German Short Haired Pointers whose mother had developed mastitis. All pups survived and where given proper Irish names!

It’s not just the puppies that must be monitored. Tiny dams, especially those with large litters that need a lot of milk, are predisposed to eclampsia. This potentially fatal condition occurs when the amount of calcium lost in the milk is greater than the amount the body can absorb or produce. Supplementing the bitch during pregnancy with calcium decreases the body’s efficiency in absorbing calcium from the diet and mobilizing calcium from the bones, actually making eclampsia more likely. Supplementation during lactation may be helpful, however.

The next time you see a tiny puppy with a big price tag, think not only of the stud fees, health testing, veterinary bills, but the lost sleep, hard work, and embarrassing moments involved, and realize you’re getting the deal of a lifetime.

While calcium supplements can be detrimental during pregnancy, once the litter is nursing supplementation may be helpful.

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