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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Great Expectations

Owners of bitches fall into three categories; those who are horrified by the thought of their bitch having pups, those who aren't quite sure and those who know that this is the line that they want to pursue. Of those that like the idea of breeding from their bitch, I guess you can draw another segmentation, those who only have one litter, (Jolly's as they are called around here – Just One Litter) as they find the whole experience quite traumatic and never wish to repeat it, and those who are lucky enough to have a positive experience and want to pursue this course further.

For those of you who are horrified @ the thought of Henry(etta) having pups, I'd firstly say give it some more thought - breeding dogs can be the most rewarding and magical experience. There is nothing to beat seeing your bitch give birth to healthy, solid, beautiful pups - I have to say, I cry tears of joy every time!! But, I realise that this is not for everyone, so if it's not, don't worry, you've probably saved yourself a good deal of stress. But you've also missed out on a great deal of magic!

However, breeding should not be entered into lightly. Given the complete royal fuck up that the Kennel Club has made over the past 100 years of breed registration and breed standards, dog breeders find themselves placed in a particularly harsh spotlight @ the moment.

As a "responsible" breeder, I want the absolute best for my bitches and their pups. At an absolute minimum, this means responsible genetic selection, a seasons' rest after every litter (although there can be extenuating circumstances that mean I would breed a bitch consecutively, but only ever two litters on the trot ,followed by @ least a years' break), and the best possible environment for whelping and bringing up the litter.

However, breeding is not without risk. This is a fact that every dog breeder knows and fervently hopes that they never experience.

If you really want to piss me off, tell me that dog breeding is an easy way of making money. The number of times I hear this from people in the pub!

"Oh it must be a doddle that dog breeding, the bitch does all the work and you sell the pups for a big profit!"

Well, sometimes it is like that, and I truly hope that for all of you who are entering into breeding for the first time that this is your experience, but sometimes things go wrong. I don't breed for the money, I breed because I believe that if a bitch is good enough, it would be criminal not to let her have pups.

Let me be brutally honest with you - for a normal healthy litter of 6 pups (which is a pretty good average size for a Cocker) it costs approximately £800 to bring up a litter to the age of 7 weeks. That's the cost if nothing goes wrong, the bitch has a natural birth and the vet is only called upon to dock, check and chip the pups. If the bitch requires a caesarean section or you need the vet's intervention after the litter is born, you can kiss any profit goodbye and look @ forking out a significant sum, which can run into thousands of pounds.

As I said, breeding from your own bitch is the biggest high that you can possibly have! There is nothing to compare to seeing your pups thrive and grow, move on to new owners and hopefully come back for a bit of B&B on the odd occasion.

But it doesn't come without the lows.

Young pups die! Usually within the first couple of days. If you get through a week without any losses, chances are everything is fine.

God forbid that you ever experience "Fading Pup Syndrome" which has been attributed to a Heamophilous influenzae viral infection, passed on to the pups from the bitches' uterus, which results in apparently healthy pups at around 1 to 2 weeks old, suddenly failing to thrive, and you stand helpless and watch them die over a short, but seemingly endless time.

Pregnant bitches also die in whelp - mercifully this is very rare. I've only experienced it once and I never want to go through that experience again. Burying my amazing bitch Lola along with her pups still inside her, was one of the most crippling and destroying thing I have ever done. I howled for a week.

I'm not trying to put you off breeding, the positives far outweigh the negatives, but you have to be prepared for any eventuality, even losing your favourite bitch and the litter. If this is too much, don't breed, because as sure as eggs are eggs, Mother Nature will turn around and bite you on the arse when you are least expecting it!!

If you are willing to take the risk, and I really think that you should, the benefits are huge, particularly if you have kids. There is nothing like exposing youngish kids to the most natural process in the world – wonder all 'round. Mine adore it (but they've experience the downsides as well!)

So, how do you go about the process of breeding?

Well firstly, you need a sexually mature bitch. Bitches normally ovulate for the first time between 9 months and 16 months (however, I have a little black dog that is two and a half and STILL hasn't thrown a proper season yet). Come on Diva!!!

If you keep the bitch in the house, chances are that you will notice the start of the season quite early. The bitches "bits" i.e. the vulva, swell, become inflamed , redden and generally start to make themselves known, both to you and to any other male dog in the area. Very early signs to look out for are the bitch spending a "more than normal time" cleaning herself. After this the bitch starts to bleed, normally slight in the first couple of days (you may just see a bit of red on the hairs around the vulva), spotting over day 4 to approx 8 and then ceasing to bleed as she approaches ovulation.

Conventional thinking states that you should mate your bitch between day 11 & day 13 – as most bitches ovulate around this time. Bitches will not stand for a dog unless they are ready, if you are too early, the bitch will bite and worry the dog as he tries to mount her. If the bitch is "spot on" she should "flag" with her tail. Bitches that are too early to be mated generally guard themselves with their tail, that is to say they cover their bits with it, or they plant their bum firmly on the ground. A bitch that is ready to mate will move her tail to the side; generally flirt with the dog and in some cases (Lola, you tart!!) reverse onto the dog. Whilst most bitches ovulate between 11 & 13 days, some are late ovulators, can be up to day 16 and some are just not up for it at all.

In general, maiden bitches need a bit more encouragement and it helps if the stud dog is experienced. I guess like everybody, you get a bit miffed if you are gagging for it and all the boy wants to do is make conversation. Alternatively, some dogs are just rapists! Very experienced stud dogs, predominantly FT CH, who may have 2 or 3 studs a week (day??) aren't the biggest gentlemen in the world. "Brace yourself Sheila" is normally the order of the day! Whilst that can be an advantage if you have a reticent bitch, it's not a great deal of good in teaching you when the bitch is really "spot on".

So how do you choose your stud dog? Way too big a question for this blog, but in general I would say, go for a dog that you like; both in terms of conformation and working ability. Obviously incest may be best for Monty Python, but it's not good in dog breeding, so you want some distinction and distance in the pedigree (with the exception of some line breeding) and a smattering of FT CH doesn't go amiss.

However, as far as I'm concerned the focus on having a FT CH as a Sire which seems to be the norm these days, is no more than a load of all balls! People pay huge sums of money for studs from FT CH and particular Cocker Champions (You know who you are Si). Why?? Why would you want a stud from the Cocker Champion, when you could have one from his dad, or even is grandfather? Surely you want the genes of the dog that bred the FT CH, not the FT CH himself, particularly if he is a young, relatively unproven dog @ stud. Yet, people shed out silly money on dogs that have just been made up, when they could have a better, cheaper stud further down the generations.

Trust your eyes – if you like the dog and the owner is personable, why not take a punt?

You should be aware of the etiquette of taking a stud; a responsible stud owner should be within reason, flexible to the time that your bitch is in season, should offer two matings, ideally two days apart, and offer you a free stud next time if the bitch doesn't catch on. Equally, you should be on-time for your stud, ensure to the best of your ability that the bitch is "spot on" and generally make it as easy as possible for the stud owner to like you.

The normal terms of a stud are cash up front (on the first mating please!) or pick of the litter. With very few exceptions, I always pay for a stud. Letting someone have pick of the litter doesn't make financial sense. I sell my pups for £750, the stud is £300, - work it out for yourself! If you do decide to go with pick of the litter, make sure that you broker a deal something along the lines of 3 studs, 2 picks and the last one for free, at least that way you're not getting shafted!

What about the mechanics of the mating itself. It really is a fascinating process – it's like watching an evolutionary echo – the same thing as the way that your dog circles a couple of times before it lies down. Bitches tend to be flirty – reverting to a puppy state – chase me chase me. The dog will normally start with some oral action and if the bitch is receptive, will attempt to mount her. It's at this stage that she will see him off if she is not spot on. Assuming that she is, the stud will hump away until he achieves penetration, at which point you will see him climb high on the bitches back, using his front dew claws for better purchase. If the mating is successful the dogs will tie, the dog reversing away from the bitch, so they are joined bum to bum. Here they can stay for anything up to 30 minutes – it's the bitch that controls the length of the tie. Quite what the tie is for, nobody really knows; there was a popular theory that this prevented other dogs mating with the bitch in the immediate time after the successful mating, however, we now know that a bitch can store different semen from successive matings, to be used at a later date. Tip; don't put a recently mated bitch in with another intact dog, unless you aren't too fussy who the pups dad is!

We all at some time or other have to take bitches to stud, further than we would like. Whilst this is worth it if the mating is good, the excessive travel can take its toll on the bitch. Mating is generally a stressful experience for the bitch, so hoiking her 600 miles from one end of the country to the other, isn't going to help matters. If you have to travel long distances for the mating of your dreams, consider staying overnight with the bitch after the mating. There is nothing more demoralising that the bitch expelling all the sperm just past Scotch Corner, all over the back seat (particularly if it's in your wife's car!!)! After all, if the bitch goes to term, whelps 7 pups and you sell them all, you stand to make about £4000, unless you are an idiot;

Give the bitch a night in a luxury hotel, she deserves it!

One word of warning, unless you trust the stud owner with your wife's life (!!) never leave a dog for mating – no matter how far the journey is. The pristine FT CH hunk of a dog, may turn out to be the three legged one-eyed half-balled mongrel that actually gets strapped across the bitch. You have invested time and money in this bitch – stay and watch the mating! You know who the father is then!

Once the bitch is mated and back with you at home, separate her from any other dominant dogs / bitches. Bitches are brilliant at knowing when they have caught – even to the extent that some will refuse a second day 13 mating, as they know they are already pregnant. However, if dropped back into a pressured environment, bitches can resorb the pups up to about 35 days. This is an echo of the time that domestic dogs were wild.

In the wild bitches would come into season in synch with their environment. In essence they would aim to have their pups in times when food was plentiful and the weather was clement, however, if between mating and whelping the conditions changed, say for example a drought, the bitch had the ability to terminate the litter and choose to mate again when conditions improved. In your kennel, this means that if your newly mated bitch is pressured by another alpha female or a randy dog, she may choose to abort the litter up to day 35. Better to separate her, keep her calm and make her think that she is living in the "land of milk and honey." My mate Ian swears by feeding puppy food to newly mated bitches, to emulate the good times and maximise the size of the litter. Not a bad idea at all!!

63 days is the gestation period of the dog. My god it goes quickly. I'll talk about preparations for whelping and the whelping itself next time, but a top tip; YOU AREN'T AS PREPARED AS YOU THINK YOU ARE!

Have spares of everything that you need and make sure the bitch is in the whelping room at least 5 days before she is due.

Bitches are pretty good at giving birth on time. I start to be vigilant with a new bitch at about day 60, but in reality the bitch will tell you she is ready, if you know what to look for.

As the bitch prepares for labour, she will go off her food. Chances are she will have the squits and she will probably exhibit heavy laboured breathing (stentorious breathing). All of which is quite normal, and as you have her in the whelping room, shouldn't be a problem.

Bitches are fabulous – it never ceases to amaze me how a maiden bitch just knows what to do. However, and I can't stress this too much, if the bitch goes more than 1 day over her due date, get her to the vet. Chances are there is nothing wrong, but better to be safe than very sorry.

I'll leave you with a story about my friend Martin.

Martin's not a proper dog man – he likes Springers for a start; Doesn't make him a bad man, just a bit confused; but he does have two of the most fantastic Springers I have ever seen. Natural hunters, keen retrievers, family pets – bloody hell what more could you want? Well stopping the buggers working @ 80 yards might be nice, but personally I think there's a bit of Gordon Setter in them!!

Martin is just about the most unflappable man I have ever met – Born in Persia, brought up in the Middle East, turn in the army...... took a motorbike across Asia (including Iraq) before Ewan Bloody Macgregor was even born!!!

Martin's dogs are called Charlie and Lizzie; forever known as DOG and BITCH; makes life simple I suppose. Anyway, BITCH is pregnant to a rather good Springer from down south and Martin over a couple of glasses of Guinness confides in me that he "knows bollocks all about dogs really, and could I come and have a look at BITCH when she is about to drop."

"No problem", I say and make a note to visit Martin the weekend before Lizze is due. Before I go, I do however stress the importance of preparation. "Get the room ready mate, get a whelping box and make sure you have some heat in there!"

Thursday before the weekend the Lizzie is due, I rock back up home after a few sherbets, only to answer the phone to Martin. "She's having the pups in front of the fire" he shouts. "Bloody hell Martin" says I "I know you're posh but the whelping room doesn't really need a fire in it" No" shouts Martin, now quite desperate, "she's having them in front of the living room fire, on the Persian rug, with all the bloody kids watching! I went to poke the fire and nearly trod on one!"

Lizzie had 7 fabulous pups, despite Martin's best efforts.

When it comes to dog breeding, preparation is everything!!

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