The work of a breeder – part 1

Recent conversations made me think it might be interesting to shed some light on the work that has gone into these puppies – all of our families are aware and appreciate it, but I’ll write for those who I’ve not had these conversations with. 

Many people think the work starts the day the puppies are born – and in some ways, that is true because this is the most visible and labour intensive stage. 

For the first two weeks, our core goal is to keep everyone alive and keep Mama Dog as happy as possible. The first two weeks are a crucial period where sometimes puppies “fail to thrive” for whatever reason – it’s important to keep the pups warm and fed (and not crushed by Mama). We slept in the living room near the whelping box, checking a few times during the night that everyone was OK, but mostly, this was Grace’s job.

After that, the transitional period we added things like noise desensitisation and novel items, started toilet training with pads and gradually increased the size of their world. Still, Grace was in charge of feeding and although we continued to sleep downstairs, it was still relatively light work. 

From week 5, the pups started becoming much more mobile and even did brief visits out – and from week 6 onwards, their activity level curve started to resemble a hockey stick… Bit by bit, they slept less predictably (because someone was awake longer or earlier than others) and they started spending a lot of time in the living room because the play pen just wasn’t big enough. 

We’ve also had visitors and vet visits to coordinate, among other things. From week 7 onwards, they’ve spent a lot of time outside and once again our work largely consists of keeping them alive. We are also teaching them the basics of emotional regulation and normal household stuff. From 8 weeks onwards, puppies typically go to their new home, but for us, all have stayed longer. 

But… the work did not start 10 weeks ago.

In the 9 weeks preceeding the whelping, our main job was to keep Mama Dog as happy and stress free as possible because stress experienced by the mother transfers to the puppies, which often means they have an underlying baseline anxiety. 

Achieving this meant that we parked all plans that might impact Grace’s happiness – including anything that would require someone else to look after her even for a day. For the last few weeks, we kept her super calm with relaxed walks and lots of nosework because she was very bored indeed.

We researched puppy foods because the mother is switched to puppy food some weeks beforehand, and we watched the full Puppy Culture course for breeders as well as reading other materials about the breeding process and caring for puppies. 

We also sourced and built the whelping box, and bought a ton of medical kit that we (luckily) ended up not needing. 

But… the work didn’t start at conception – it started much earlier.

Timing is crucial for a successful mating, and few people know that the fertile window of opportunity is just 2 days long in dogs. We expected Grace’s heat in mid-November, so we suspended all life plans from there onwards. Week by week, we grew impatient and also slightly worried, but then, 7 days before Christmas Eve, we saw the signs. What a timing – it wasn’t easy to organise a trip at such short notice, particularly over Christmas, when most places are booked up months in advance!

We needed to book our trip asap and leave for Poland with 5 days’ notice because we didn’t want to be on the road during the holidays in case something went wrong. So, we started our 2500km return trip on Thursday afternoon, arrived in Kielce Friday evening and spent much of Christmas weekend recovering from the drive. Because of the holidays, we couldn’t do a progesterone test to determine the best day for the mating and had to just trust the dogs. It was rather nervewracking because all of it might be for nothing, if we got the timing wrong!  This was our third trip to Poland in a year, because the process that resulted in these puppies didn’t start with this trek across Europe…

For me, the second most important decision in the process is choosing the right father for the puppies. Although there is a lot of nuance and variability in how heritable different physical and behavioural dimensions are, there’s no doubt this choice carries a lot of weight so my approach is stack the odds, hope for the best when rolling the genetic dice and minimise risk as much as possible. 

I wanted to see the potential dogs for myself, so in September, we went to our breed club show in Warsaw specifically because we would be able to see lots of potential candidates. It wasn’t easy to find a dog that had the look, structure, and temperament that I wanted because Grace’s father was judged as the 2nd best stud in our breed at the show, so many of of the dogs I like are half-siblings. Luckily, Hunter’s father is the dog who came first place – the best stud dog in the breed, judged by offspring.

APPEARANCE: Hunter is tall, which complements Grace because she’s relatively small and he is also slim, which is great because the low height to weight ratio is good for active dogs as it reduces the strain on the dog’s musculoskeletal system when running, jumping and turning – all activities that a dogf this breed does. When the ratio is above 2, the risk of injury starts to increase – Grace & Hunter are both 1.8, so my hope is puppies will be too.

TEMPERAMENT: I specifically wanted a male who has a gentle temperament. Having had a dog whose temperament was sharper, it’s now a risk I’d prefer to minimise. At the club show, one young male particularly caught my attention because he was the only one who remained calm in a lineup of male dogs waiting for their turn, occasionally turning to his human for reassurance. It was a stressful situation because of the space and density of dogs, especially for a young male, and his behaviour was exemplary. (It was difficult to film, so excuse the bad video!) He also got a full score and 1st place in a hunting test when he was only 12 months old – a mere teenager – which I find impressive. 

HEALTH: Ours is still a small population, and not everyone shows their dogs. In Poland, stud dogs must be certified, i.e., they either achieve a championship OR go through an independent evaluation for their structure, health, and temperament. Otherwise, it’s not allowed. Hunter has gone through the evaluation but also had 2 show results as well as having important health tests done – this year, he has continued to do well at shows, so he will also be a champion soon. Both of Grace and Hunter’s fathers are from outside the present-day PSM population, so both of them have pedigree-based COI of 0%, and subsequently, the puppies’ pedigree COI is 4% (we have a breed database where anyone can calculate this). Genetic diversity reduces the risk of recessive mutations, so minimising COI also means lowering the risk of any latent hereditary illnesses that can’t be tested 

Continue reading in part 2…

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