Sunday 17 May 2020

More Confessions Of a First-Time Pyrenean Mountain Dog Breeder

This is the second article which I wrote in 2009 about the joys and perils of a first-time Pyrenean Mountain Dog breeder. In the previous article, my dog, Bethan, had just given birth to nine pups. But the birth was neither the start nor the end of the matter. Now read on...

Perhaps it would have been easier if I’d had a colour chart like the ones they give you to match the colours of paint. In theory, you see, you can tell when the bitch is ready to mate by the colour of the vaginal discharge. This is variously described as ‘straw’ or ‘olive’ coloured. At the risk of offending against her sense of modesty, I checked Bethan’s discharge every day but as to whether it was straw, olive or sky-blue-pink with yellow polka-dots I really couldn’t tell you. In fact, if we’d waited for me to decide when was the right time to do the mating we’d still be waiting...

My beautiful dog, Bethan, just before she had a short but meaningful relationship which resulted in nine pups!

The bitch is ‘in season’ for about a month but she is only fertile and only likely to be receptive to the male for a few days somewhere in the middle of that period. We needed to make a journey from North Devon to Cumbria to do the mating (that’s about seven hours each way), Devon was suffering its worst blizzards in many years at the time (cars were stranded in snowdrifts on Dartmoor) and we really, really, really didn’t want to get the timing wrong.

I was told that blood tests are the most accurate way to determine the perfect moment in the cycle but our vet warned us that the blood samples would have to be sent away for analysis and, as we were coming up to the weekend, that would mean anywhere between a 24 and 72 hour wait before getting the results back. If we waited that long we might end up ‘overshooting’ the right time! Swabs are the next best technique – the vet takes a small sample of the discharge and examines the cells under a microscope. We took Bethan for swabs daily for three days. On the morning of the third day the vet phoned to say that the results looked positive so without further ado we got Bethan into the car and started out on that long and frosty journey North.

When we arrived, Murphy (the male dog) wasted no time in making Bethan’s acquaintance. What their courtship lacked in romance it made up for in speed. Clearly we had arrived at just the right time ­– hurrah!

That was in the middle of February. The pups arrived right on time in the middle of April. In my last article I described the long and tiring fifteen hours or so of their birth. Once all nine pups were suckling away inside our carefully constructed whelping box we realised we had a problem – the whelping box was far too small!

Bethan and pups in the reconstructed whelping box (the red colour is from the Infra-red lamp)

Up until that moment the whelping box had looked enormous. We had originally planned to make it five foot square. But since we only had planks measuring either six foot or three foot in length we revised the design to make the box six foot by three foot. We tried it out before the pups were born and it seemed to us that Bethan had more than enough space to lie down in it. But when the nine pups were feeding away we realised that Bethan needed space to stretch out her legs. And when she stood up, she needed room to turn around without accidentally squashing  the pups.

Quick action was needed. We removed the front of the box, added a three-foot extension to both the sides and fitted the front panels onto the newly extended 6-foot sides. The whelping box was now a massive six feet square - the perfect size for the mother and pups though not the ideal size for the average kitchen. Thank goodness we have a bigger than average kitchen!

Let me explain a bit about the construction of the whelping box. The backs and sides were simple wooden planks nailed together at the corners. The inner edges of the box were fitted with ‘pig rails’ – horizontal wooden bars placed at a height of about six inches. These are to guard against the possibility of a pup getting trapped behind the mother dog and being squashed up against the side of the box. This is a real danger. For the first few weeks, Bethan’s pups were always getting trapped behind their mother. The pig rails made sure that when Bethan stretched out, her back squashed up against the rail rather than against the errant pups hiding beneath it. 

Bethan and pups - notice the 'pig rail' running around the inner edge of the box

We fitted a wooden base into the bottom of the box and over this we placed several layers of old curtains (blankets would do just as well). Under the curtains we had several layers of newspaper. This is because pups do quite a lot of peeing and pooing. For the first couple of weeks, Bethan did a pretty good job of cleaning up the mess before we saw it. But by the time the pups start to get around on their own four paws the pees and poos increase (dramatically!) in size and frequency. 

One useful tip which I found on an Internet site is to divide the whelping box into two areas when the pups start walking. Cover half the base with curtains or blankets. On the other half, put newspaper. The mother and pups will generally favour the cosy curtain-covered half for sleeping. And it won’t take long before the pups will do most of their peeing and pooing on the half with newspapers. I must admit that when I first came across this idea I didn’t think it would work. But I was wrong. The pups proved to be quick learners and, in spite of a few mistakes, very quickly saw the merits of sleeping on warm, dry curtains and going to the toilet on the newspaper.

Growing pups are messy things. Basically they sleep, eat and poo. Here they are lined up at a feeding trough (made from some plastic rain guttering).

Apart from the risk of being squashed, the other major hazard to the pups during their first few weeks is lack of heat. We turned up the heating in the room and put an infra-red heating lamp over the whelping box (these lamps can be obtained from farmers’ supply stores and are usually called ‘pig lights’). We kept a thermometer at hand and made sure that the temperature didn’t fall below about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (about 27 Centigrade) during the first week and about 75F (24C) during the second and third. By the fourth week the pups were bigger, furrier and more mobile so the ambient house temperature sufficed. By the fifth week they were so big and mobile (and messy!) that we decided to move the entire whelping box into an outside shed, keeping the pups warm with the infra-red lamp at night.

Bethan keeping a watchful eye on her brood.

I’ll just end with a few words about selling the pups. This was the most heartbreaking part of the whole business. I’d had no idea just how hard I would find it to part with them. By the time they were over two months old, I’d been with them every day of their lives, I’d seen them turn from small, helpless, frankly rat-like babies into big, beautiful, super-friendly puppies. The honest truth is that I didn’t want to part with a single one of them. There were times when I asked myself in all seriousness whether I might be able to cope with ten fully grown adult Pyreneans. My head said “No”; my heart said, “Well, maybe.” In the end the head won – well, up to a point, anyhow. I admit that I did keep two pups when it had been my original intention to keep just one.

Selling the pups proved to be easier than I’d expected. It was the Internet that did the trick. I have my own web site and I advertised the pups on a number of free or inexpensive dog sites as well as on the sites of the Kennel Club and the Pyrenean Mountain Dog Club. I can’t tell you which sites were the most effective as when I  asked people where they’d found out about the litter they generally said: “On the Internet somewhere – I can’t remember where.”

During the first couple of weeks we had very few enquiries and for a while I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to sell the pups. But then, when they were about 5 or 6 weeks old I added individual puppy pictures to my site along with each one’s name:  Zorro, Batman, Rose, Tik, Tok, White-ear, Seven Of Nine, Beryl and Bertie. Initially the names were just for our own benefit, so we could tell which pup we were talking about. But they also helped potential buyers identify exactly the pup that took their fancy. I think that was a big selling point, in fact. When people saw those photos, they didn’t see a batch of indistinguishable pups; they saw real, distinct, named individuals.

Seven Of Nine - not just a Star Trek character; she was the 7th born of 9 pups. I couldn't resist her, so I kept her!

Unfortunately, if naming the pups helped buyers see them as individuals, it had the same effect on us. When each of them finally went to its new home it wasn’t just ‘a pup’, it was Zorro or Bertie, Rose or White-ear – in short, it was a pup that we felt we had ‘come to know’. I can tell you that parting with them was very tough.

I was obsessively  worried that the pups might not go to good homes. Fortunately,  several of the prospective owners had owned Pyreneans before – and in a few cases they had recently lost a beloved dog (ah!, and don’t I know how that feels!), so I had no hesitation at all in selling to those people. We also has a few enquiries from people who seemed to have no idea about Pyreneans or what it would involve to look after them. I did my best to discourage them – telling them all the bad stuff (barking, hair-shedding, slobbering, mess, disobedience, the wholesale destruction of furniture etc.) and I obviously did a pretty good job of this since three prospective buyers changed their minds after I’d given them all the bad news. Well, I’d rather they had second thoughts before rather than after buying a pup!

Beryl. We kept her too. Originally, "Beryl" and "Seven" were supposed to be just 'pup names' and we planned to give them more poetic names later. But the pup names stuck!

There was only one would-be buyer that really gave me some grief. I won’t go over the whole, messy, complicated story. Suffice to say that, while he sounded completely genuine when we spoke on the phone, he made two appointments to visit and failed to keep both of them. He treated me to some colourful stories about the reasons for failing to visit the first time, then suggested making an exotic type of payment (a banker’s draft sent by courier) which I declined. Finally, he seemed to vanish from the face of the earth (my phone calls went unanswered and my emails bounced back ‘address unknown’). Not wishing to be too cynical, I suppose that it is entirely possible that he really was genuine and that circumstances beyond his control prevented his keeping the appointments. Even so, I was very pleased when his chosen pup went to someone else who was much more straightforward and uncomplicated.

Seven (seen here leading an escape attempt) was always the brains of the operation. Beryl (the white one in the middle down below) provided the brawn.

From the time when we made that long trek up north for the mating to the day when the last of the pups left home, five months (more or less) had passed. They were five exhausting months of hard work, mess and stress. Many were the days when I told myself I must have been mad even to think of breeding Pyreneans.

So would I ever do it again?

At the moment, I really couldn’t tell you. It has been very, very hard work with no possibility of ‘taking a day off’.  Even now, I feel exhausted by the experience. But it has also been rather wonderful. The honest truth is that I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.