The Party’s Over: What to Do for Your Dam When You Send Your Puppies Home
Over the years, many novice breeders have asked me how dams feel when their puppies go to their new homes. As humans, we imagine emotional and possibly physical pain for her when her babies are gone. She cannot understand that we have found good homes for them and that we will stay in touch to be sure they are safe and well over the years. She has put her body and soul into creating, carrying and raising them when suddenly, poof, they are gone!
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’.
8 Things To Do When Sending Puppies Home
To make this key transition easiest on our dams, we take the following 8 steps as 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.
- 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 with gradual exercise, heartworm and flea/tick treatments.
- 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.
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Send pups home when they are ready, not before.
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 while allowing them to do more if they want. We still use mom as a reward for pups on walks, during swim sessions and other challenging experiences but accept that it is normal for her to spend far less time with the pups now.
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. We stop giving grains and go back to her normal raw food diet. If she had a really large litter–13 or more for golden retrievers–and she lost weight with the litter, we hold off on cutting her food back for another week or so.
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.
Spend more time with her.
Typically during the time a litter is with you, most 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 afterwards, 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.
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.
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, they may get very soft with limited exercise and the heavy demands that puppies and milk production put on them. In addition, we do not give our dams heartworm or treat them with flea or tick pesticides from the time they are bred until the pups are 8 weeks old. This is safe to do in NY but if we lived elsewhere, we might make different decisions. However, our goal is always to vastly limit the chemicals going into our baby puppies either through their dam’s body or milk.
Now that the pups are gone, we begin the process of rebuilding her body. We treat her with ivermectin for heartworms and K9 Advantix II for ticks and fleas. We use the extra time we are spending with her to go for walks, swims and runs as we gradually increase her (and our!) activity. Some dams come through a litter without losing much condition but those with really large litters often need a gradual conditioning program to help them regain their former strength and stamina.
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 we keep a pup from a litter, we take a few more steps to help our girls rebound from the litter.
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.
Mom gets access when 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.
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.
We have found these steps make the departure of a bitch’s litter easy and calm for her. I still shed some tears but the girls are usually glad to get back to their normal life.
What have you done to help your dog’s transition after their pups go home?
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