Once Nancy, our Cocker Spaniel, had turned two we decided that the time was right to think about breeding. This is the optimum age that any principled breeder will start; anything earlier than that can be risky as the bitch hasn't reached full maturity.
Breeding isn't something you just do on a whim. It's a massive responsibility, and you should start by asking yourself why you want to do it? If it's to make money, I hate to give you bad news, but after you've paid out for everything, including all the required health checks, stud fees, associated travel to your stud, equipment for whelping, registering your puppies, vaccinations, health checks, worming and de-fleaing for up to 12 puppies, food for all those hungry mouths, and given up three months of your life, you'll be lucky if you scrape any kind of profit.
Money is the last reason you should be breeding.
Ask yourself, how would you respond to a litter of stillborn puppies? Or worse than that, the death of your beloved pet who suffered complications during labour? These are both highly likely scenarios.
You should only decide to go ahead once you are armed with every single piece of information, and have been through a thorough checklist of the whys and wherefores. This is an example of questions from The Kennel Club -
- Have I the time to devote to a litter until the puppies are old enough to go to their new homes, which is usually around eight weeks?
- Am I knowledgeable enough to advise new owners about the various aspects of caring for their puppies, including rearing, diet, training and health problems?
- Can I afford to pay for the recommended health tests for the bitch prior to mating her and, where necessary, her litter?
- Do I know enough to help the bitch during the whelping, if necessary?
- Can I afford to pay for a caesarean should the dam have difficulty whelping the litter?
- Could I cope with a very large litter e.g 10 or 12 puppies?
- Do I have sufficient knowledge to rear the litter correctly, including on worming, vaccinations and socialisation?
- Would I be able to find good homes for the puppies?
- Am I in a position to take back or re-home any puppies if it becomes necessary?
We answered 'yes' to all of the above so felt pretty certain that if anyone was going to do it, it could be us.
And so we started looking for a boyfriend for our precious girl, giving us plenty of time to find the best dog we could.
I'd seen a stud dog's ad on the vet's notice board whilst I was there having Nancy checked over to make sure she was in peak condition for her upcoming pregnancy. He was a very majestic-looking sable cocker spaniel who, at the time, I thought looked gorgeous and prime romantic-interest material. It was only after speaking to a friend and cocker spaniel breeder who shows her dogs that I learnt that sable cockers aren't recognised by The Kennel Club as it's not actually a colour but a pattern and is a dominant gene that could override all the other solid colours - red, black and black and tan - in a few generations.
As with anything new, it's not until you start looking into it that you discover a whole world of information you knew nothing about previously. Although we were prepared to a certain extent, we soon realised that we needed to take everything onboard and be as serious and sensible as we could so that we would do the best for the breed, and also for Nancy.
If you are thinking of dog breeding I can't stress strongly enough how important it is for you to carry out all the relevant genetic health screening tests appropriate to the breed before you go any further as it's completely irresponsible and reckless to breed if you are aware that your bitch is a carrier, or worse, aren't sure but decide to go ahead anyway and face the consequences. A litter of puppies born with genetic defects doesn't bear thinking about.
Even though Nancy's registration certificates showed that she and her parents had been health screened we took the added precaution to double check and so had her genetically tested for Glaucoma, PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy) and FN (Familial Nephropathy) to ensure that she definitely wasn't a carrier of any nasty diseases that could be passed on to her progeny. We'd also had her hips scored (6:5), so knew that it was highly unlikely she would produce puppies with hip dysplasia.
My cocker spaniel friend put us in touch with Louise Wilding at the world-famous Lochranza Kennels in Derbyshire. Once I'd spoken to Louise all about her multi award-winning Show Champion stud dog Lochranza For Your Eyes Only (Piers) I knew that we'd found the perfect boyfriend for Nancy and a trip was planned for when she next came into season.
Sh Ch Lochranza For Your Eyes Only
How handsome. Lucky Nancy!
During this time we had to come up with and apply for a kennel name through The Kennel Club so that we could be accepted as Exclusive Breeders, be able to register the mating, as well as registering the puppies born as a result of a successful mating, healthy pregnancy and birth.
Once Nancy had come into season we had to monitor the days and check her behaviour to try and work out when she would be in 'oestrus' and therefore ready to meet with hunky Piers up in Derbyshire. This would be around 9 - 14 days after the season began.
Louise said it was handy that we had a male dog in the house as we would be able to gauge Nancy's cycle by their behaviour together. Even better that Nelson was neutered and therefore posed no problem should he work out what to do and actually mate Nancy.
It was really interesting observing them together playing out the whole thing. Nancy behaved in a textbook way and would wiggle her rear end and back into him. Nelson would suddenly become very interested and start trying to mount her (a Bullmastiff and a Cocker Spaniel aren't an obvious coupling!) She would then turn around and severely tell him off for being so interested. Poor chap didn't know if he was coming or going!
Around about Day 12 her behaviour changed and she started properly cocking her tail to one side, ready to receive the male dog. We decided the time was now and hopped in the car and travelled the 120 miles up the M1.
Louise had said that Piers would guide the whole thing and let us know immediately if Nancy was ready. As her prize stud dog and a seasoned professional, he'd been known to walk off when a bitch who wasn't yet in oestrus was presented to him.
We had hardly got Nancy into the mating room before Piers leapt on her back and started doing the deed. Shocking behaviour...not even a formal introduction first!
The 'tie' lasted about 20 minutes. This is where the dog's penis is literally held inside the bitch to give the best chance of conception. They can't physically move apart until the bitch's vulva contracts and lets go of the dog's penis (sorry about the use of all these rude words!)
We then went off for a walk in the glorious Peak District National Park, taking care not to let Nancy bounce around too much!
48 hours later, after a wonderful stay in a dog-friendly hotel nearby (The Maynard in Grindleford, for those looking for a boutique hotel in the most beautiful countryside), we returned to Louise and Piers so Nancy could be covered a second time. This is standard practice to ensure the best possible chance of the bitch becoming pregnant. This second tie was quicker than the first, but Louise said she had a great feeling that Nancy would be pregnant.
The double cover with Piers cost £500. Not cheap, but if Nancy wasn't pregnant you could go and do the whole thing as many times as it took to end in a pregnancy with live pups born. A lot of stud owners charge between £200 - £1000, depending on the breed and bloodline, and often only provide one mating and if it doesn't work you have to pay again. Others require the pick of the litter instead of physical payment, and if you are thinking of selling your pups for £800+ that's quite a big chunk of your profits.
We'd decided not to have Nancy scanned to find out the outcome of the mating, as some people do, but wanted to leave it down to fate and the daily enjoyment of looking for the signs of pregnancy.
The gestation period is 63 days, and about three weeks after mating we were pretty sure that Nancy was in the family way as she definitely looked a bit chubby and her teats were looking quite swollen.
A few weeks later we had no doubt!
Once she was about seven weeks gone we could actually feel the puppies moving inside her if you put your hand on her tummy. We obviously couldn't be sure how many there were wriggling around inside, but you could definitely make out quite a few different movements. By this point we were fit to bursting ourselves in anticipation!
With only days to go, by this point Nancy was waddling!
We'd been very creative and made our own whelping box which was big enough for Nancy to give birth in. I'd also bought a whelping medical pack which contained everything from lubricating jelly and plastic aprons to an ear and ulcer syringe (still in its wrapper to this day) and even a stethoscope. I'd watched every dog birthing video on YouTube so was practically a vet at this point.
We were as ready (and completely terrified) as we could be. Now we just needed to wait for labour to begin...