Caring for a brood bitch isn’t just about looking after her physical health; her emotional needs are a crucial factor in her, and the puppies’, well-being. This article , that appeared in Dogs Monthly (Jan 2016), is about caring for the emotional well-being of a brood bitch.
When we make a decision to mate our bitch, aside from the obvious health testing and breed pedigree compatibility, one thing that is often overlooked is the emotional well-being of our brood bitch and how this will affect her pregnancy and the birth of the puppies.
This is a completely natural process that is controlled by hormones throughout the body. At different times the hormones will drive her to behave in a certain way, and this is not always something that we can allow, so we have to adapt and substitute the natural behaviour for a successful and equally rewarding alternative. In order for us to assess the dog’s wellbeing at any given time, we use the Emra approach.
Emra stands for emotional mood-state reinforcement assessment, and involves an emotional assessment of the animal at the time the behaviour is observed; a mood-state assessment of how the animal feels generally; and a reinforcement assessment of what is making the behaviour worthwhile for the dog to repeat.
In this case we are looking at the reinforcement being the body’s natural instinct during mating, pregnancy and whelping of puppies. We are managing natural behaviours in an unnatural (for them) environment.
Alongside Emra, I also look at the hedonic budget of my brood bitch and compare it with what would be normal for her. The hedonic budget is made up of the behaviours the dog finds intrinsically rewarding and includes things like hunting, chasing, digging, chewing, and eating. In addition to these normal behaviours, a brood bitch will need to nest and seek safety.
During the time that your bitch is ready for mating, she will be actively receptive to a mate, and not necessarily to the one you choose for her! The seeking system will be in play here, so unless you want her to go and find her own mate, keep her busy and keep your eye on her. Reduced walks in public places will mean that she could become bored, so give her some stuffed pacifying toys to keep her amused. Play hide and seek with her feed in the garden at mealtimes. Teach her some indoor games, or tricks with plenty of treats.
During pregnancy it is vital to maintain a healthy exercise regime; this will promote excellent physical condition. A healthy hedonic budget is also essential to maintain a positive emotional state.
When not expecting puppies, my German Shepherd Dog loves to play chase and fetch games, but these become far too energetic for her at this time. In order to keep her and her growing puppies safe, I switch to an on-lead exercise regime during the latter stages. This lead is about 5m in length so she can forage and sniff, and keep up with her groundlevel messages, and I also bring out a favourite toy and ‘lose’ it on our walk. She loves to search for it and gives it a good chew when she proudly brings it back as a reward.
This exploration and foraging, accompanied by forward locomotion and sniffing, effectively gives a positive ‘brain reward’. This mentally stimulating activity will enable her to maintain a normal contented mood state during periods of restricted exercise.
SAFE PLACE TO WHELP
During her pregnancy the bitch will have an increased need for social contact; she will want to be near you and may actually become distressed if left alone for long periods of time. Time spent grooming, and allowing her to be close when she feels the need will help maintain her positive mood state. At this time your normally independent bitch can become restless if you are out of sight, and may even panic.
Later on in her pregnancy, her instinct to nest build for her coming litter increases. There is an intrinsic signal that promotes maternal behaviour; this hormonal peak heightens the desire to build a nest for her offspring. It’s about this time that I set up her safe place to have her puppies. This is somewhere quiet in the house, away from stressful interruptions, and with a whelping box filled with materials for her to dig into when she needs to. This will satisfy her need for safety, and prevent her from digging up roses or cramming herself behind the garden shed.
Your bitch needs to feel unthreatened in this environment, free from too much disruption from household comings and goings. At this time, additional hormones influence the production of milk. These hormones activate the natural bonding behaviour sequence, and stress could affect this. A radio in the background provides a little white noise, keeping out some of the sounds she may be concerned about when judging a suitable nest for her offspring. She is just as likely to pick up her first born and move if she is dissatisfied with the housing arrangements that you have provided.
Provide plenty of bedding to dig into in her whelping box, and be prepared to be in attendance.
Brain evolution has provided safeguards to ensure that the mother takes care of her offspring. She will care for these puppies and will not take kindly to an invasion of new people coming to see the new arrivals in the early days. She may even be defensive, fearing the intruders are going to harm her babies. This is a perfectly natural behaviour and it is important to allow her the time and peace to respond to her puppies’ cries, and build a bond with them.
Initially, she will be completely absorbed by the puppies, requiring little but good food and peace, but after a few weeks, she will remember that there is fun to be had outside.
She will still not be able to go out for walks, so we have to be inventive with providing additional stimulus – in the form of puzzle toys and scatter feeding – outside the whelping box.
It is important that she is able to get in and out of the box so that she can rest. She needs to be able to keep a watchful eye on the puppies but have a bit of respite from their suckling.
Diet is the final aspect of the bitch’s hedonic budget. A good quality food fed little and often during the latter stages of the pregnancy will keep her energy levels up and maintain healthy condition. When the puppies arrive, and the milk really starts to be produced, make available lots of small meals of a diet that contains good-quality protein. This will ensure that there are sufficient amounts of the key amino acids available, which are essential at this time. This will help the bitch to cope with the internal and external stressors, especially if fed in treat balls, scatter feeding and puzzle toys.
The whole process of mating to whelping will challenge the emotional and physical well-being of a brood bitch. In using the Emra method over the years, I have been able to help my dogs adapt to the situation more easily.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Kewley is a training and behaviour consultant, with 30 years’ practical dog handling, training, and breeding experience.
She has a German Shepherd Dog and a working-line Labrador. A CAPBT committee member, she successfully completed her Coape Diploma in
Companion Animal Behaviour and Training and went on to undertake further study with Coape. She is a member of the APDT and a TTouch
Sue is based in north Suffolk where she runs the Sue Kewley Practice, specialising in individual consultations for behaviour and training, and workshops in ‘reactive Rover’ rehabilitation, training problem solving, and puppy life skills.
Telephone: 07917 320961