At this time of year, while most people are enjoying working their dogs shooting, our thoughts are directed towards the year’s breeding programme. The choice of which bitches and sires to breed from needs careful consideration. For example, a hot, excitable cocker bitch would require a sire that has drive and speed, but also a more level-headed approach to life. Having said this, breeding simply boils down to a lot of educated guesswork because there is no guarantee how the puppies will turn out.

Before breeding from your bitch, several important factors need to be considered. Firstly, if you are unable to sell all the puppies, have you the facilities and time to run them on? Secondly, a common myth that needs dispelling is that a breeder can make lots of money. If done properly, there is very little financial gain to be had from breeding puppies – in fact, given the cost of veterinary care, you could end up seriously out of pocket if things go wrong.

Another consideration is the age of your bitch. If a bitch is not bred from before four years of age, it is more likely to experience whelping problems. In addition, if your bitch has had four litters of puppies already then, no matter how many are in each litter, the Kennel Club will not register any more litters from that bitch.  

Preparing for mating

One of the first obstacles is estimating the ideal day to mate your bitch. You can have pre-mate tests done by your vet to determine when a bitch is likely to be ovulating. However, while effective, this is an expensive route, especially if you have to have several tests done on a particular bitch. You could instead use ovulation test pads (pictured below), which appear to be just as accurate but cost a fraction of the price. Once you’ve bought the pads, start testing from day five of bleeding. The window of opportunity in which a bitch will take can vary by up to 20 days.

White bedding
We bed our bitches that are due to come into season on white bedding so that the first signs of bleeding are noticed. Dark-coloured bitches tend to be more difficult to assess than light-coloured bitches. You may well see signs of swelling several days before any bleeding begins. If this happens you should be extra vigilant and check the bitch daily. As soon as you see a discharge of blood, count this a day one. At this point you should also notify whoever owns the dog you intend to use, and book up for the bitch to be covered, which is usually on the 11th day.

Two matings
Where possible, we prefer to do two matings – on the 11th and 13th days – unless the pre-mate test indicates otherwise. This gives us four days of cover with the sperm and hopefully will coincide with one of the bitch’s fertile days. Some people believe this can result in bigger litters, or split litters in which two different sizes of puppies are produced. We have never found either of these two phenomena to be consistently true. I have also heard that if you mate a bitch earlier than the 11th day, you are more likely to get bitch puppies. We have tried this twice, involving two different bitches. The first had just two bitches (her last litter comprised two bitches and three dogs), while the second had four bitches and four dogs.

As soon as any signs of swelling or discharge are noticed, the bitch should not be allowed to swim or be in contact with any dirty water and her bedding area should be kept extra clean. This is to prevent her picking up an infection before mating. I personally would not work a bitch while it is in season.

Mating your bitch

The dog has what is commonly termed as a “knot” at the base of his penis. During mating this knot is pushed into the bitch’s vagina, which causes the bitch to spasm and grip it. The dog will then stop riding the bitch and turn himself around, lifting one of his back legs over the bitch so they are both facing in opposite directions, rump to rump. If you use a dog from an experienced breeder, they will usually help the dog to turn around so they can then stand comfortably.

Be very careful during this period that the bitch does not bite the dog or anyone else who is close by because even the most placid bitch can become very upset during mating. As soon as this process, which is known as “the tie”, begins, both dog and bitch should be held to prevent any damage being done to either party. It can last from five minutes to one hour and 10 minutes, and no attempt should be made to separate them during this period.

After mating, you should inspect your bitch on a daily basis to check for any signs of infection, which may present itself in the form of either white or greenish discharge. If this occurs, immediately seek veterinary advice.

Tail docking
If you have successfully mated a spaniel bitch, now would be the time to find a practice that has several vets willing to perform the tail docking (to ensure it will be done, holiday and illness allowing). Do not leave it any longer as this may lead to disappointment. You will also need to find out on which of the first three days after birth the docking needs to be done.

Some vets may be inclined to cut the tails too short, so be sure they understand that you require only one-third of the tail to be removed. Your vet will give you a docking of working dogs’ tail certificate for you to pass on to the new owners of the puppy. All puppies that are docked need to be microchipped.

Some vets will want to microchip the puppies at this early age but, since it is not legally necessary at this stage, we leave ours until eight weeks of age, when the puppies are much larger and stronger. We do not have the front dew claws removed, mainly because we have found them to be invaluable while dogs are climbing over fallen trees, for example, but we do have any back dew claws removed.

Gestation and birth

The official gestation period is 63 days from the date of mating and, in our experience, bitches can deliver five days either side of this. It should be noted that bitches can reabsorb their puppies during their pregnancy up until the 35th day, triggered by several different factors. One of these is running several bitches together and mating one of the softer bitches. Typically only the most dominant bitch in a pack will have puppies, and the subservient bitches will help to suckle them.

Balanced diet
Once mated, attention should be paid to a bitch’s diet. While it is not necessary to drastically increase her volume of food in the early stages of pregnancy, after around seven weeks, we split a bitch’s feeds equally to nights and mornings and we introduce a higher-quality food. You may find that a bitch refuses to eat a completely dry diet at this stage. Every attempt should be made to ensure that she carries on eating, and this can mean changing her diet to incorporate some form of meat to tempt her. However, care should be taken to ensure that you do not upset the balance of her diet, ie the ratio of calcium phosphorus and protein.  

We worm our bitches with Panacur from the 43rd day after mating, which helps prevent the bitch passing on Giardia to the puppies. Giardia and Campylobacter appear to be epidemic in a lot of adult dogs, although they show no obvious symptoms. In puppies, however, these bacteria can cause serious stomach upsets and suppress growth. Treatment is essential to produce good-quality puppies.

Campylobacter has been linked to the poultry industry and it’s possible that this bacteria is becoming more widespread as dogs are feed more raw chicken. It is less likely to survive in a warm, dry kennel, lit with direct sunlight, rather than a damp, cool environment. If there is any doubt over whether puppies are suffering from either of these two bacteria, we will treat them as we wean them off the bitch so they do not become re-infected.

Large litters
If a bitch appears to be having a large litter, an injection of calcium at the start of her labour can stimulate her to deliver the puppies more frequently, which in turn allows the natural release of oxytocin to work more efficiently. This can be supplemented with several injections of a small amount of oxytocin, rather than one large dose. This has the advantage of preventing the bitch becoming exhausted through a prolonged delivery and leading to a caesarean operation. It is always advisable to seek veterinary advice on this subject.