The Party’s Over: What to Do for Your Dam When You Send Your Puppies Home
Despite our imaginings, my dams have never missed a beat when their pups leave. Mind you, we send our golden retriever pups home at 8 to 8 1⁄2 weeks, a time arrived at after numerous experiments. (If we raised toy dogs, we would send them home even later, possibly as late as 11 or 12 weeks.) By this time, mom has dramatically reduced the time she is spending with her puppies and weaning is well under way. Typically during the last few days, mom hops in, feeds the litter in a minute or two, plays with them a little and then hops back out to safety. If we are in with the pups, she might spend a bit more time in the pen but it is usually to get our attention, not the pups’.
9 Things To Do When Sending Puppies Home
To make this key transition easiest on our dams, we take the following 9 actions when we are sending puppies home. In this way, our dog moms easily recover physically and emotionally from their litters and are happily back to work quickly.
- Send pups home when they are ready, not before.
- Allow the dam free access to her pups but require only 2-3 short nursing sessions per day.
- Once there are 2-3 pups left, cut her food back to normal.
- Never restrict her access to drinking water.
- Manage her emotions as pups depart.
- Give her more time with you to reward her for her efforts raising the litter for you.
- Use (at least) twice-daily belly rubs to monitor her breasts for mastitis.
- Get her body back into condition but don’t worry too much about her coat.
- Return to her favorite kind of training, if she is a competition, working or just a dog that loves to train.
If we keep a puppy, we take several additional steps for our dog mom.
- Avoid using her as a babysitter for the puppy.
- Give her access to her puppy when she wants but separate them otherwise.
- Allow nursing until mom and puppy decide to end it or 16 weeks at the latest.
1. Send pups home when they are ready, not before.
From 6 to 7 weeks, although the pup’s nutritional needs are being transitioned to solid food, the dam’s role becomes one of teacher. This is the age when moms begin to teach their puppies about bite inhibition, reading dog body language, adult play, and canine manners. Removing mom during this time will cause your pups to pay a price in their bite inhibition and social skills. Their mom is a much better teacher than we are!
Many dams that don’t want to engage their pups much at 5 weeks, really enjoy playing with them at 7 weeks. Monitor your dam closely but know that mom-pup play can be fast and intense, with moms pinning pups frequently.
2. Give the dam the access she wants to her pups.
During their last days together, allow your girl free access to her pups. We only require our dams to nurse two to three times each day from 7 1⁄2 to 8 1⁄2 weeks but we allow them to engage more if they want.
Some bitches begin refusing to go into the puppy pen as pups grow so look for other opportunities for her to nurse, say in various rooms in the house as we introduce pups to new spaces. We also use mom as a reward for pups on walks, during swim sessions, and other challenging experiences. Accept that it is normal for her to spend far less time with the pups now and be aware that older pups can empty her of milk in minutes. Long nursing sessions are no longer necessary.
3. Reduce her food back to pre-breeding levels.
Once our dams are down to four or fewer pups at 8 weeks, we reduce her food back to her normal, pre-pregnancy ration to dry up her milk unless her body condition is poor. Bitches should come out of any litter down no more than 10% of her original body weight. If your girl has lost more than that, then continue to feed her more than maintenance.
4. Always have water available.
At no point in the weaning process do we ever limit her access to fresh water. Just like all our dogs, she has access to water 24/7. Even if we are trying to dry her up, her body needs water to function optimally.
5. Manage her emotions as pups depart.
Some bitches are glad to wave goodbye to their pups as they head off with their new owners. However, some bitches are devastated by their departures. For these latter girls, try these things to help them through the transition process:
- Send puppies home one at a time, rather than all at once.
- Let your bitch meet each new puppy family, sniffing them over and checking them out. Then have her see them with the pup.
- Let your girl escort the family to their car and see the pup leave. This avoids your bitch searching desperately for her pups afterward.
- Put away puppy gear immediately. Take down the pen, launder and put away bedding, disinfect the area. You need to do it anyway so the sooner the better.
- If your bitch is particularly sensitive, put an Adaptil collar on her and consider using calming products containing the amino acid, l-theanine. These natural products can do a long way to reduce anxiety in dogs.
6. Spend more time with her.
Typically during the time a litter is with you, people focus primarily on the pups. Mom gets some attention but as the pups become more demanding, their mom takes a back seat to their needs (and cuteness). As we prepare to send pups home and right afterward, we spend more time with the dam to reward her for all the hard work she did raising the litter for us. As she spends less time with the pups, she rejoins our family activities during the day and evening. Even if we keep a puppy, we focus a lot on our girl in the weeks after the pups go home.
7. Belly rubs beat mastitis.
Some of the more fun times we have with our dams during the pups’ last week with us are the twice-daily belly rubs to check her breasts for any signs of hardness, heat, redness, or puckering that might indicate mastitis is starting. Since we allow our dams to gradually wean their pups themselves, mastitis is rarely an issue but there is no harm in checking her and we all enjoy the time together.
8. Get her body back into condition.
Breeding and raising a litter is hard on a dam’s body. Depending upon the size of the litter.
Now that the pups are gone, we begin the process of rebuilding her body. Some dams come through a litter without losing much condition but most need a gradual conditioning program to help them regain their former strength and stamina. Restart her on heartworm, ticks, and fleas treatments, if you stopped during the breeding. Use the extra time you are spending with her to go for walks, swims, and runs to gradually increase her (and our!) activity.
A note on post-whelping coat!
Many breeders are stunned by how much hair their bitch loses after whelping, usually after the pups are 7 weeks old. They feel badly that they didn’t feed their bitch adequately and they try all kinds of supplements. Although poor nutrition can increase post-whelping hair loss, even the best-fed bitches can blow their coats completely. And supplements will not bring it back faster although they can protect what is there.
Post-whelping hair loss is like postpartum hair loss in women, which is the result of “delayed-anagen release telogen effluvium.” What does that mean?
Telogen effluvium is a temporary hair loss due to significant shedding of hair. It often results from a shock to the body, such as extreme stress or drugs.
In the case of delayed-anagen release, this shedding happens because the anagen phase of hair life is delayed. In this case, it’s delayed by pregnancy. Shedding often slows significantly or stops completely during pregnancy.
A few basics:
- Anagen is the growth phase of hair. In humans, that lasts 2-7 years.
- Then there is a brief catagen phase of a few weeks during which the follicle transitions from growth to rest.
- catagen is followed by telogen during which the follicle rests and might even release the hair shaft.
Normal hair loss or telogen is an active biological process not a passive effect of gravity where hair just gets old and floats off of the dog. In some breeds, hair loss happens throughout the year. In others, it happens seasonally. In a few, like poodles and terriers, it only happens over years and years.
During pregnancy, telogen is delayed so hair does not fall out naturally. Biologists think that pregnancy demands all energy and physiological systems to support the pregnancy so trivial ones, like telogen in hair loss, slow or halt. What we often miss during our bitch’s pregnancy is that her coat is likely the thickest and best she’s had previously.
Then 3 to 8 weeks after whelping, those hairs whose natural release was delayed now kick into telogen. There is a back up of hairs that should have been releasing over the last few months so *boom,* our bitches lose so much hair it’s stunning. Not all bitches, not all breeds. It’s definitely more obvious in bitches from breeds that have year-round hair loss and longer coats.
While those hairs are lost, there is a new hair already growing in the follicle (anagen) but coat only grows so much a month. In people, that’s about 1/2” per month but varies between individuals.
So if your dog is a short-coated breed, coat recovery happens in short order. If you have a long-coated breed, recovery will take much longer and the speed of recovery will not be helped by supplements because the hairs aren’t weak, broken, or sick. They are simply new hairs that need to grow so a great diet, lots of fat including fish oils, and regular bathing will help.
9. Back to training!
Finally, we start our girls back into training, be it obedience, agility, field, tracking or other events. They are typically eager to get started again since puppy rearing is not the most mentally stimulating work. We are sure to start slowly and accept setbacks if any arise. Amazingly, most of our girls pick up exactly where they left off before the litter was born but we still give them a little time to prepare before demanding exceptional performances.
When you keep a pup from a litter, take a few more steps to help your girly rebound from the litter.
1. Mom’s not a babysitter.
It is easy to use mom as a babysitter for new puppies but doing so has many drawbacks. First, it will take longer for her to recover from the litter. Second, this further strengthens the bond between mom and puppy, leaving you out of the relationship. Finally, it does not teach your puppy critical life skills, like tolerating separation and learning to play by himself.
2. Mom gets access if she wants it.
We give our dams access to the puppy when she wants it but if the puppy is pestering her unmercifully or she is looking worn out, the puppy gets confined to an exercise pen or crate. It is important for you to bond with your new puppy so limit the pup’s time with mom. You will be busy spending time with each of them but all of you will be better off if those are individual sessions. Our moms usually enjoy morning and evening playtimes with the pup but much of the rest of the day they are apart. Separate walks and training sessions are particularly important.
3. We allow mom to handle weaning.
We do not get involved in our pup’s weaning process. That typically means that our pups nurse until 12 weeks. It quickly becomes obvious that mom does not have much milk and the nursing sessions are more for emotional support than physical. The pup’s attempts to nurse are often met with mom initiating a play session but if the pup insists, mom decides whether to correct or tolerate a sip or two. After 12 weeks, pup and mom tend to seamlessly transition to full weaning without much trauma and only the occasional correction.
What have you done to help your dog’s transition after their pups go home?