If you’ve ever wondered about what goes into raising a litter, follow this blog and I’ll post some details here! Watch this post for daily updates during Week 1. (Click HERE to see week 2 updates, or HERE for week 3).
January 23rd – Pepper is showing some behavior clues that whelping time is approaching (she was snuggling on the couch instead of her usual toy-play behavior). Checking her temperature revealed that it was already at 98F- anything below that usually means that labor will begin within about 24 hours. A recheck a few hours later showed a further temperature drop. Pepper and I decided to sleep in the puppy room- she spent the night with her head pressed up against me, and neither one of us got many zzz’s.
January 24th– Monitored Pepper all day. She skipped breakfast which is another clue that puppy time is near, and late in the morning, began panting and nesting vigorously in the whelping box. Stage 1 Labor!
Crack of Dawn! Within a about a half hour of her first visible contractions, the first puppy arrives – 1:46am, a nice healthy, vigorous female. As each puppy is born, I first assist with removing the amniotic sac and ensuring the puppy is breathing properly. I help Pepper with the cord, which she chews to sever- but I ensure that the puppy is supported and that she doesn’t go overboard with cord chewing or puppy cleaning. Then, the puppy is entirely inspected, looking to ensure all of the external body parts are present and normally formed. A glance in the mouth follows to check for a correct palate. Next the puppy is weighed; birth weight and time are recorded, and the puppy gets a ribbon collar for ID. The last puppy, number 6 made his appearance at 5:43 am. Pepper is proving to be a good mom. She is super careful about each foot placement as she moves around the whelping box (this is a great sign! Some new momma’s don’t realize that puppies can’t be stepped on and have to be trained not to move around too much). Pepper has a TON of milk and the puppies all look strong and feisty.
- evening weigh in- puppies have all gained around an ounce already.
My job at this point is now to ensure that the puppies don’t accidentally get squished (yes, Pepper is much more careful than many dog moms, but there are still six very wiggly active little guys that she needs to avoid any time she lays down). I also need to monitor that all of the puppies are nursing well, and that all of Pepper’s mammary glands seem to be functioning. She has a lot of milk so I’m also watching for signs of mastitis, which can happen more easily with a smaller litter since mom is producing much more milk that the puppies can consume. While I’m keeping an eye on puppies, I send out emails to each of the puppy families who have a reservation for this litter, and post some updates online. I’m also making updates to our Puppy Owner’s manual and puppy feeding guide and taking care of a few other ‘rainy day’ computer projects. The puppies right now are very noisy and complain if they get too far away from each other or their mom. If they can’t find a nipple, they will squeal. Since this tends to make Pepper want to move around to attend to the ‘squeaky wheel’, I try to help move puppies into a less aggravating position to keep the peace and to let Pepper know that she doesn’t need to worry if they cry a little. However, they are strong, and I don’t want to help them so much that they don’t have to work a little for their food- there’s a bit of a balance there.
Pepper, the puppies and I are enjoying their first day of life in the puppy room. This room is at the back of our house- it’s quiet here, and though there are 3 grandma’s outside the door, desperate to see what’s responsible for all of the squeaking, Pepper doesn’t have to worry about other dogs or cats interfering with her motherly duties. The other pets are not allowed in this room while Pepper is here, and it will be a few days before they are allowed to come in for a quick sniff/visit while she’s out. Any stress that a mother dog fees is passed along to the puppies via hormones in her milk- so we try to ensure that she’s as comfortable and peaceful as she can be.
In the whelping box itself is a heated nest. This is a commercially made, circular heater plate that is set at 99F and stays exactly that temperature at all times. These nests are incredibly useful as they allow the puppies to stay at their ideal body temperature, without having to crank the air temperature up in the room to what would be an unbearable level for Pepper. The puppies tend to learn within the first day that if they want to warm up, they crawl over to the nest and pile together. If they get too warm (which does tend to happen as they get bigger, fatter and more resilient) then crawl off the nest and spread out to nap.
To ensure the puppies have good traction while they are moving about, we use a piece of VetBed absorbent dog bedding over top of the floor surface of the whelping box and nest. I like the style with the ‘non slip’ backing as it tends to stay in place well even when mom shuffles around a bit. This bedding not only keeps the puppies clean and dry, since the soft, thick fleece material wicks any little baby puppy pees away from the surface, but it also provides the grip that little baby puppies absolutely need to give them the best chance of growing healthy joints. Recent studies have shown that puppies who are raised on slippery surfaces have a much higher chance of developing hip dysplasia, and we don’t want that. Newspapers, which were often used as bedding for litters in years past because they are free and easy to change out, simply do not provide enough grip for baby puppies who are learning to walk. The washable bedding we use is changed out at least twice a day at this age (more for larger litters or moms who aren’t as diligent about cleanup). As a side note, I also like to use this vet bed material as temporary area rugs in our living room which has laminate flooring, and it makes good crate pads too. I bought a giant roll of the red with white dots on sale a few years ago and it’s still holding up well despite regular use (and hundreds of washes) for many litters.
This morning I napped for two hours! This is worth reporting because that is the first real nap since Pepper went into pre-labor. Having puppies is exhausting! The puppies are continuing to grow well and have all gained around two ounces in their first 24 hours of life.
Today, their little umbilical cord stumps are all dried up and starting to fall off. Their toenails are still pretty soft but should be hardened and ready for their first trim tomorrow.
This afternoon, I put in the 5th load of puppy laundry- in just one day worth of puppyness! The expense of extra laundry use is not something one normally thinks to consider when breeding dogs, and some litters go through even more than this, but with all the bedding changes, it sure adds up!
More growth! Today is the puppy’s first milestone: nail trim day. It takes about 8 minutes to trim the nails of 6 wiggly puppies. Note that our puppies do NOT get their dewclaws removed (if that were going to be done, it’s something that a breeder and their vet would do in the first couple of days after birth.) Here’s a link that briefly describes WHY we prefer to have dewclaws on our dogs. In brief, these are functional digits and removing them puts a dog at increased risk of forelimb injury and arthritis. https://www.caninesports.com/uploads/1/5/3/1/15319800/dewclaw_explanation__csp_revised_.pdf
Be sure to check out our facebook page, where we are hosting a quick contest in order to help us choose a litter theme for these puppies!
January 28th– The puppies are thriving and now all at least one pound each. Once they are 3 days old, I start to worry a little less about chilling or being squished, though of course they are still very fragile- but we have made it past the critical window.
From our facebook page contest, we have chosen a puppy litter theme of “Robbie Burns Day”, because of their birthday. Thanks to Sandra Morrison for the great suggestion! The boys have been temporarily dubbed Rabbie and Haggis, and the girls are Rose, Bonnie, Phillis and Mouse. We’ll refer to the puppies by these names going forward, until around week 7 when they’ll be matched with their proper family and given their permament call names. I find that using actual names for the puppies instead of “pink collar girl” or “puppy number 3” is a lot more personal and helps me better track who is who during the evaluation process.
The third day offers some more big milestones. Today, we start three ‘procedures’ that are designed to help develop little puppy neurological systems. These are over and on top of normal puppy handling, massage and affectionate snuggles, of course. The culmination of all of the things our puppies experience from birth to 8 weeks is called our “Super Socialization” program (yeah, really unique name, I know!) It is an integration of ideas we’ve learned from other breeders, and those we’ve developed to suit our own goals over the last two decades of breeding Labs. There are very few things we do, or don’t do, without a reason, and sometimes these things change over the years as we learn more and the science of puppy raising grows.
The first of these daily procedures is very simple and something that we came up with on our own- we place the puppies on a novel surface, void of any recent familiar (mom, littermate, or Erin) smells. On photography days, I can usually combine this with their photo shoot and I think it serves a purpose for the puppy, as well as one for me- when the puppy begins investigating, this new, unusual-to-them surface, they tend to start sniffing a bit and it keeps them from moving around too fast, allowing me to get a photo! For the puppy’s development, it provide a very gradual way to introduce the puppy to the idea of being okay with unfamiliar environments. As a parrallel to this, our puppies are removed from their whelping box area as a group at least twice per day (this started from birth) while their box is cleaned and re-bedded, but on those occasions, they are placed on a blanket that smells like mom and have each other nearby. I believe that these two tricks together help create very precocious puppies and I think it helps explain why our puppies are often walking and escaping the whelping box (along with genetics of course) much earlier than is common for this breed.
The next thing that the puppies experience is known as Early Neurological Stimulation. In short, ENS is a series of 5 exercises done during the timeframe of peak neural development in the little puppy brain (day 3-16). Providing this series of safe microstressors to the puppies during this specific stage of development is expected to help them develop the internal wiring to have a better stress response as adults (both physiological and psychological stress). An excellent, more detailed explanation by Dr. Carmen Battaglia is HERE. A video demo of one of Pepper’s puppies is below. I feel like this is an appropriate time to mention that I do not video or photograph every thing I do with the puppies all day long- you can assume that if I show one puppy doing something that is a part of our program, that the entire litter undergoes the same thing even if there is no video ‘evidence’. Here, I am showing just one puppy receiving ENS- but of course, it is applied to the whole litter. Today is day one for this litter and they were very all wiggly and displeased with the whole thing as Phillis here demonstrates.
The third thing that occurs during this same time frame is Early Scent Introduction. This particular element of our program was developed by Dr. Gayle Watkins of Avidog fame. You can find a description HERE. Personally, I think the value in this exercise is in exposing the brain to novel odors and stimulating the construction of neural connections related to scent. We do not record ‘results’ or use any part of this exercise as part of the puppy evaluation process. Some breeders replace this exercise with an imprinting exercise, exposing the puppies to a singular, specific target odor in a similar manner each day. For us, since our puppies go on to so many different potential careers, it makes more sense to provide variety as we have no way of knowing what target odor any particular puppy would require in the future career. I have thoughts on a different way to use scent imprinting at a slightly later age, once a puppy is able to participate a little more voluntarily in the process- and will discuss that more later. For now, here is Pepper’s puppies doing their first daily ESI exercise. Today’s odor is Anise essential oil.
The strategy with ESI is to provide a scent near the puppy’s nose- they can move away from it if they choose, or towards it. If the puppy is trying to get away from the scent, we end the exercise after 5 seconds. If they move towards the scent or appear to not notice it, we allow access for up to 30 seconds. Watch all of the different reactions. I’m not sure if you’ll actually be able to hear the little sniffs, but you may see the twitchy noses.
It is very important to note that these are developmental exercise. NOT tests. Often, people are hoping to see a ‘sign’ that a puppy is <insert trait of choice- more calm, more energetic, more quiet, whatever> and these are not meant to test puppy characteristics at all. It’s also important to note that more is not better… doing ENS or ESI is a once-a-day deal. Results are not improved with continued exposure and it is logical to assume that it is possible to overdo these sorts of things, create too much stress, and have an effect opposite of what is intended. All we are doing here is providing each puppy with the optimal stimulation required to give them the best chance at having a happy, healthy productive life.
Nothing too exciting happened today, except during ESI. The ‘odeur du jour’ was Mozzarella cheese. Each puppy sniffed it and slowly smacked their lips! I’ve never seen that kind of reaction in such little puppies.
Today’s scent was birch essential oil. The puppies varied between mildly interested and too wiggly to care.
Pepper is doing a good job as a mom. The puppy’s have a wide variety of vocalizations that they make depending on what their ‘problem’ is. When their bellies are full, and their bladders are empty, they are quiet or make gentle grunts and groans. When they need to pee or poop, they generally start walking around and complaining. They can’t really empty without a little help and stimulation from mom, but in a few days, just walking around will be enough stimulation to get things going. For now, it’s up to Pepper to listen for the right tone and volume and then get in there to help. The puppies will also vocalize if they are trying to get to the milk bar and aren’t making progress. There is one tone for ‘where are you momma?’ and another one for ‘I know I’m close but something is my way!” which they may use if there are other puppies or Pepper parts blocking them. Another time the puppies will vocalize is if they are cool and looking for someone to snuggle with. Right now, they can’t really control their internal body temperature, and of course, they can’t see where they are going, so when they are moving and seeking something (milk, heat) they tend to move their heads from side to side or travel in wide circles until they sense warmth or smell something familiar. They need to be pretty close to their mom or siblings to be able to identify them.
I find that, for the most part, serious dog breeders are nerds. Particularly for those of use who have spent a lot of effort to build a consistent line of dogs, we are always looking for ways to help identify specific traits in baby puppies that may be predictors of adult traits. Seeking scientific ways that we can measure traits or make predictions is always of interest.
One of the things we’ve looked at over the years is if puppy size at birth provides any measure of predicting adult size (when I’m taking about size here, I’m talking about weight). Spoiler alert: the answer is no. Puppy size at birth is influenced by several factors. First, the dam’s size has a large impact on puppy birth weight. A smaller lab female is almost always going to have puppies who are smaller at birth than a larger lab female, on average. Litter size also has an impact on puppy birth weight- smaller litters tend to result in puppies who are a little larger than puppies from larger litters. The age of the dam appears to have some influence. In most cases, the birth weight of a dam’s puppies will increase a bit as she ages, at least when litter size does not change. The last factor is the dam’s condition. A female who is over-fed during pregnancy will have puppies who tend to be fatter and heavier than one who is kept in better condition.
There actually is one more thing that influences puppy size, but it doesn’t come up very often. Puppies who are born premature are, just like human babies, likely to have a lower birth weigh than those that are ‘full term’. The important thing to note with all of these is that weight at birth does not directly correlate with a final adult size. That means that a puppy who is born at 13 oz from one litter may be significantly different as an adult than a lab who was 13 oz at birth from another litter. It also means that even within a litter, the variation in size at birth is not predictive of which puppy will be bigger or smaller as an adult. Some variation in the weight of puppy’s at birth is to be expected. Variation in size within a litter is somewhat ‘luck of the draw’ with regards to where the puppy was located in the uterus during the 9 weeks of gestation. Puppies who are at either end are likely to be bigger, because they only have a sibling on one side of them while they grow. Also, some placental attachment sites are more advantageous than others which mean some puppies get a little bigger share of the nutrient flow while they are developing in utero. This is especially the case when a female has had more than one litter- scarring on the uterine wall from previously raised puppies can create less desirable attachment points for subsequent litters, though the impact overall is normally minimal.
For our current Robbie Burns Day babies, we’ve nerded out to create this graph showing their growth of their first week. As we’ve discussed above, it really doesn’t mean anything with regards to how big each puppy will get in the end, but showing steady, proportionate gains means the puppies are doing well.
So, if you can’t predict a puppy’s adult size at birth, how CAN you predict their adult size?
The answer is that there is no foolproof way to do this. If you have very, very specific requirements for the size of an adult dog, you need to purchase an adult dog.
The best way we can predict adult size in our puppies, is to really know the pedigrees. Usually, female puppies will grow to be roughly around the average size of the female dogs in their pedigree (look at mom, aunts, grandmothers). Males will grow roughly to be around the size of the male dogs in their pedigree (sire, uncles, grandsires). Most people think that their puppy will be the average of both parents and that is wrong. Labs are a sexually dimorphic breed (ie the genders are meant to look and be sized slightly differently) – so looking at same-gender close relatives gives you a much better idea of what to expect.
So, we’ve learned that at birth, the size of puppies is not predictive. At what point does a puppy’s size actually start to become predictive? The answer is – around 16 weeks of age. For OUR line of labs, all but the biggest (slowest growing) male puppies will generally be half of their adult weight at 16 weeks of age. We use the formula 2x (weight at 16 weeks) = adult weight, and it is typically accurate to within 5 lbs. This, of course, assumes that the puppy is in ideal condition at 16 weeks and also kept in ideal condition throughout adulthood. You will not be able to get accurate weights or predictions if the puppy is super fat, or if the dog gets fat as an adult. We usually know which litters are likely to have slow-growing, large males (ie Chester sired boys) but the formula holds quite true for everyone else. A lab generally hits their adult weight somewhere between 14-30 months of age. Achieving adult weight often happens at least several months after all growth plates have closed, since musculature continues to develop long after bone growth is complete. The rate of growth can be influenced by their gender (girls finish growing faster than boys) and diet (raw-fed dogs tend to grow slower than kibble-fed dogs). Spaying or neutering your dog before they are done growing will cause their bones to grow longer than their genetic programming, and their musculature to develop less than their genetic programming- those sex hormones have a pretty big influence and really shouldn’t be tinkered with.
The moral of the story here is this: Once you’ve chosen a litter, there is no point in obsessing over puppy size. It is nothing other than a curiosity, and is not predictive. Don’t panic if puppies in the litter you are interested in are huge, tiny, or anywhere in between- as long as they are healthy, actual size is irrelevant at this age.