Saturday 16 May 2020

Confessions Of a Pyrenean Mountain Dog Breeder

Part One: The Pups Pop Out!
Yesterday, the 15th of May 2020, was an incredibly sad day for me. I said a final goodbye to my beautiful Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Beryl. I remember helping her into life when she was born, over 11 years ago. That memory was a much happier one. It reminded me of a couple of articles that I wrote for he Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club of Great Britain In the hope that those happy memories may give you a smile (if you aren't breeding dogs) and may give you some useful information (if you are), here is the first of those two articles...

I kept these two dogs from Bethan's litter. Beryl (left) and Seven (right).

An experienced Pyrenean Mountain Dog breeder, Joyce Stannard, had warned me - “It’s two months out of your life, you know!”

Five months later I realised she’d been underestimating.

The excitement began in the early morning of April the 16th. Fortunately, I generally go to bed quite late and so at half past midnight I was sitting down having a quiet read and a relaxing glass of wine when I suddenly realised that Bethan, my dog, was making funny deep-breathing noises –  the kind which, in horror films, generally indicate the presence of a serial killer hiding behind the woodshed but which, in this case, indicated that my dog was about to give birth.

I never did finish that glass of wine.

The first wet little nose popped out a few minutes later. I have never assisted at a birth before - well, not unless you count the stick insects which I kept when I was a boy and whose birth takes the form of eggs shot out like bullets from a tiny machine-gun. Pyrenean Mountain Dog pups are not, I discovered, born in a similar manner. Unlike stick insects, pups are not shot out in the blink of an eye as the mother contentedly munches on a privet leaf. On the contrary, pups take time – in this case, a very long time.

It has to be said that the whole process is, well, a bit on the messy side. If you are upset by the sight of slime, blood and assorted bodily fluids, or if the film ’Alien’ gave you nightmares, then acting as the midwife at a Pyrenean puppy birth is not an activity which I would recommend. I can’t recall the exact sequence of events that followed pup number one. All I know is that one after another, the pups popped out and the mother cleaned them up; she did this by biting through the umbilical cord, often eating the placenta and removing all kinds ill-defined bits of grot and gunge along the way.

This is what a Pyrenean Mountain Pup looks like when it's just been born (after being cleaned up a bit by its mother)

Bethan  would , in all probability, have coped well enough even if I hadn’t been there. But I felt a sense of duty. After all, I’d read lots of web sites about puppy births and, based on their advice, I knew full well that I needed to clean the pups then cut the umbilical cord, dip it into iodine and tie off its end. Some of the web sites which I’d studied made it sound as though I really should have a fully equipped operating theatre in my home and, of course, I would certainly have to be ready to call out the vet at a moment’s notice.

Fortunately, I’d also taken the advice of some experienced Pyrenean breeders such as Mary Dunk, Colin Bowker, Joyce Stannard and others too numerous to mention ­– and the consensus of opinion was: don’t believe what you read; just leave it to the mother dog, she knows what she’s doing.

And, much to my surprise, they were right. Even though Bethan had never given birth before, she seemed to know all the tricks. At times it looked to me as though she was eating the pups (I fully expected to find that she’d accidentally bitten off a few legs or a tail) but, in fact, she was doing all the things that a mother dog has to do to get her pups cleaned up and ready to go. Just as well I didn’t buy all the scalpels, forceps, chemicals and equipment that some web sites recommend. The mother’s teeth and tongue did a much better job than I could have hoped to do.

Bethan (mum) is far better at dealing with her pups than any human being could be...

By half past four in the morning, there were no less than seven pups. We’d had the foresight to build a wooden whelping box occupying a substantial corner of our kitchen and Bethan was lying in it with the seven newcomers busily sucking away. By this stage I was pretty darn’ exhausted and so I lay on the settee and tried to grab a few much-needed winks. Then I noticed Bethan standing beside me, nuzzling her wet nose into my ear. As she turned round to walk away, I saw that she was turning bright green. Worse than that, she seemed to be deflating like a water-filled balloon that had been popped. Oh no! Something had gone horribly wrong!

Bethan’s back legs were totally saturated by the blue-green fluid that was pouring out of her. I’d been warned that a certain amount of what I might politely call ‘discolouration’ of Bethan’s legs was likely to occur and I had trimmed the leg fur in advance to minimise the mess. But I hadn’t been expecting a flow of liquid of quite this bizarre colour and certainly not in such volumes. However, Bethan seemed healthy and happy enough so I did my best not to panic. Even so, just to be on the safe side, I phoned the vet later that morning to check if this was normal. He told me it was. Reassured, I settled back onto the settee to try to catch up on a bit more sleep. I didn’t succeed. Seven pups suckling away at their mother in the corner of the room is, to say the least, somewhat distracting. I stayed awake and considered the possibility of pacing up and down while smoking cigarettes, as nervous new fathers do in films. However, since I don’t smoke, I didn’t have any cigarettes. So I paced up and down and drank coffee instead.

At half past twelve that afternoon I made myself a sandwich for lunch. That was when I noticed that Bethan was standing up, panting heavily again. Oh no! I thought of all that green fluid. There must have been something wrong after all. And then, plop! Something fell out of the back end of Bethan. My heart pounded. What on earth could have happened? When I looked down and saw it was a pup, I could hardly believe my eyes. This eighth pup had been born a full twelve hours after the first. Bethan licked it into life and settled down again with all eight pups sucking away.

Finally, I felt I could get a bit of sleep. I lay on the couch dozing fitfully. All was peace and calm. By mid-afternoon, the drama was finally over. The time had come for me to stop worrying. Mother and pups really didn’t need me fussing around them all the time.

I went upstairs to turn on my computer and see if I had any email. It must have taken me all of ten minutes. When I came down again, Bethan was still lying there feeding her pups. But I noticed there was a dark mass lying just under her tail. The old paranoia swept over me once again. So now, at last, something terrible really had happened. But when I had a closer look at the object under her tail I discovered that it was a ninth puppy. This, you must remember, was fifteen and a half hours after the first pup was born. I don’t know if that came as a surprise to Bethan but it certainly came as a surprise to me.

This time, however, Bethan was not bothering to lick the pup into life. She was, in fact, ignoring it. To be honest, she had other things on her mind (she also had other things on eight specific locations of her body). I assumed the worst. This ninth pup had, no doubt, been born dead. I picked up the unpromising, slimy mass and looked at it closely. The pup was covered by a transparent membrane and it was attached to the placenta ­– the large, dark coloured organ which had supplied it with nutrients and oxygen while in the womb – via the umbilical cord. 

I thought I could feel a slight movement. Using my fingers, I carefully tweaked away the enclosing membrane to allow the pup to breath. At first, I wasn’t sure whether it was alive or dead. Since my entire medical knowledge is based on TV hospital dramas, I did what television doctors always do to human babies - I held the pup upside down and tapped it on the back. I have no idea whether this had any real effect or not but it seemed to me that no sooner had I done this than the pup gave a little cough and a squirm and wriggled into life. 

In a TV hospital drama, the next scene would show the beautifully clean, pink baby, wrapped up in a nice white fluffy towel being presented to the adoring mother. That’s not quite how it works with Pyrenean Mountain Dogs. There was still the placenta and umbilical cord to deal with. I looked at Bethan. She looked back at me. It was clear that she was unimpressed with my amateurish efforts. I decided to leave this to the expert. I gave her the pup and she immediately nibbled through the umbilical cord. A few minutes later, this ninth pup had joined its eight little brothers and sisters in the eternal quest for a free nipple.

At last, I was able to get a few minutes sleep. But tired as I was then, I had no idea how tired I would be in the weeks to come. Birth is only the beginning....

Bethan and her pups five days later (but that's another story)