February 29, 2016

Farm working Dogs in New Zealand. 3. Mating, Birth and Weaning

By Dr Clive Dalton
Dogs reach puberty at about 6-9 months of age and learn the behaviour needed to mate (eg mounting) through play.  Dogs are great individuals so bringing a bitch to a dog is probably the best way to do things.  Then it saves the time the dog will waste establishing himself in a new territory by cocking his leg on everything in sight.

The female "presents" by showing a receptive posture while the male smells and licks her genital area.  She may run a short distance and present again to excite the dog.  When in standing oestrus, the dog will mount and gain entry by trial and error.  He will then thrust vigorously stepping from one leg to the other.  During this time ejaculation occurs.

The dog's penis engorges for about 15-30 seconds in the vagina locking the pair together.  The bitch may twist and turn and the pair may end up pointing in different directions for about 10-30 minutes.  Throwing water over them will do no good at all!  During this locked position a second ejaculation occurs when most of the prostate fluid is expelled. 

Great damage can occur by pulling mating dogs apart.  So if it's an unplanned mating - be patient. Spend the time placating the bitch’s owner!  The deed has been done so contact your veterinarian about an early abortion.

A bitch will reach puberty and come into heat first from 6-18 months of age.  If not pregnant. she will return to heat every 6-9 months.  Bitches spend a long time in "pro-oestrus" or coming into heat.  This is annoying as all the dogs in the area think they should stay around, and wait for the great moment when she will stand. 

While coming on heat, her vulva will become red and swollen and she passes a sticky mucous.  As heat continues she will stand to be mounted before racing away to tease the male.

“Standing heat” occurs about 10 days after the start of coming into season, and lasts anything from 5-12 days.  At this most receptive stage the vulval discharge changes to a pale straw colour which will bring dogs for miles away.  She also urinates regularly to spread the news and mark her territory.  A good sign that she is "right on" is when she urinates in the presence of a male, usually when he smells her genitals.  If he doesn't get the message then, he never will! 

There are problems with inexperienced males who in all the excitement get things wrong.  To avoid this, mate a young dog first to an old bitch, and vice versa.  Some of the finer points of sexual behaviour have to be learned. Pregnancy in a bitch lasts from 58-63 days.

Pseudo pregnancy (false pregnancy)
This is an annoying condition as a bitch may appear to be pregnant for 30-90 days.  She will show all the signs of a normal pregnancy, make a nest in preparation for birth and even produce milk for up to 60 days.   This can be very handy to rear orphan pups but a nuisance if you want to mate her as she may not come in heat again for 3-4 months.

A working bitch will still want to work right up the time before birth, so watch her carefully to make sure she's not injured as she slows up with her extra load!  About 12-24 hours before birth she will make a bed of anything around.  Make sure she has some straw or rags to chew up, and don't be surprised if she doesn't want to whelp in her kennel.  She may sneak off to a hole in the ground somewhere.  You'll have to lock her up if you want to dictate the maternity quarters.

She'll become restless and have a reduced appetite prior to birth.  Frequent urination and defaecation as well as heavy panting are also good signs of action to come.  Labour can last from 2-3 hours up to 12 hours depending on the litter size and any complications.  Seek veterinary help at the first sign of problems. 

As each pup is born the bitch will chew the birth sac, biting through the umbilical cord in the process.  The arrival of the afterbirth is a sign that all the pups have arrived and the bitch will probably eat it too.

The bitch then spends a lot of time licking the pups, especially their lower abdomen and area around the genitals ingesting their faeces and urine.  This keeps the nest clean and dry - two important aspects.

Don't disturb the bitch during whelping and keep strangers away.  If you need the vet, then make sure you are there to reassure the bitch and stay near her head comforting her.

Pups after birth
Pups are born blind and deaf, and the world of sight and sound only opens up to them at about three weeks of age.  So they are very "touch" conscious animals at birth, and this "contact comfort" stays with them for the rest of their lives.  This is why the greatest reward you can give a working dog is a reassuring pat!

Pups are quite active soon after birth, but stay near each other and seek out warm surfaces because near these, teats and milk can usually be found.  The side-to-side movements of very young pups as they move short distances, show how they are looking for those teats.  The bitch often encourages them towards her teats by licking.

If you have an inexperienced bitch, it may be useful to fit a rail around the whelping area as used for sows. to prevent her lying on pups.  Strong pups usually get out of the way or make such a noise that she will investigate their cries.  Smaller weaker pups may be ignored and squashed.

Just before 4 weeks old, a pup begins to react to its litter mates and its mother.  At this stage the pup can see and hear.  Play, tail-wagging, barking and other traits of the adult dog are seen now.

For bitches with large litters, make sure they can get away from the pups for short periods, especially as they get older.  A shelf to lie on above the pups is ideal.  But watch a lactating bitch for roaming in search of food.   At this stage she’ll have an enormous appetite when she's milking heavily.

Once the bitch has discouraged the pups from sucking, the focus is shifted from her teats to her muzzle.  This is because the primitive dog fed her pups by regurgitating food she brought back to the den.  The pup licks the muzzle with a crouching posture of a low-ranking pack member.  So when a dog licks your face, remember it’s asking you to regurgitate your last meal for it!


From 5 weeks of age pups will avoid strangers and this peaks at about 8 weeks.  It's an “anxiety” period that nature has designed to protect them from predators.  So anything that a pup has not experienced before about 12 weeks will be avoided later with some fear.

So 4 - 12 weeks of age is the most important time in a pup's life.   This is the "socialisation" stage when it learns to interact with other dogs, people and anything else it will meet later on.  Let the pup experience noises, strangers, children, cats, cars and so on, if you want a happy well-adjusted dog.  There is no truth in the belief of some trainers that children can spoil pups - let them play with the kids as much as they want without getting hurt or abused.

Building the bond

Establishing yourself as a pup's pack leader is vital, and it needs to be done before 12 weeks of age.   A method used by some dog handlers is simply to lay the pup flat on the ground and hold it down with both hands.  If it struggles, shake it (which is what a bitch does) and growl or raise your voice.  Then when it settles speak quietly to it and calm it by rubbing your hands all over it, including putting your fingers in its mouth.

Actions used by successful handlers:

·      Feed the pup yourself, so you and food become associated.

·      Occasionally interrupt the pup's feeding for a few seconds, praise it then let it feed again.  If it resists, use the shake-praise technique.

·      Never call the dog to you just before disciplining it.

·      Don't leave the pup alone for long periods. Take it with you wherever you go.

·      Introduce it carefully to frightening experiences where it can get hurt - eg. trampling by sheep.

·      Be consistent and don't change the rules.  Give plenty of praise.  Make sure everyone else near the pup understands the rules and is not breaking them and confusing the pup.

·      If a pup shows signs of dominance or develops bad habits, use the “shake-praise” routine.

·      Eye contact is very dominating.  Hold the pup up to your eye level for periods of 30-90 seconds and stare it out.  If it struggles shake-praise it.  Praise it softly until it settles.  Repeat the exercise often in different places.

Gentle dominance of a pup by handler

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