Raising Puppies To Reach Their Full Potential

Nature or nurture? Raising puppies to be all that they can be.

Free exercise is crucial to puppy development. It allows young dogs to become firm, sound and agile.

Recently, during a lunchtime conversation with my dear friend Connie, who is also a longtime breeder, the subject turned to the manner in which we raise our puppies. She asked a question that my daughter and I often ask each other: Why is it that we can sell what we consider to be the puppy with the greatest potential in a litter, only to see it a year or so later and find that it did not develop the way we thought it would? Yet the somewhat less impressive puppy (at the time) that we kept ourselves came along brilliantly? Connie’s question led to a lively discussion on the methodology of raising puppies to maximize their chances of reaching that full potential.

It Starts With The Brood Bitch

We agreed completely that it all begins before the puppies are born, with a healthy, sound, temperamentally stable brood bitch. The bitch should be in excellent condition prior to being bred and should be kept that way throughout her pregnancy. Regular exercise is a must. A strong, well-muscled bitch will have a much easier and less stressful whelping and will be able to care for her babies immediately once they arrive. Connie and I were surprised to find that we both feed our girls melted vanilla ice cream during whelping. The dogs love it, and we think it gives them the energy to stay strong during the process.

We agreed that the very best brood bitch easily produces her litter, is instinctively able to be a loving and nurturing dam, and lines her puppies up at the milk bar with a look to her owner that clearly says, “Thanks, I can handle this now. See you in four weeks.” When I was younger, I didn’t think that this was so important, but as the years passed, I came to realize that the correct mothering instinct is critical to the success of a litter. I dealt with bitches that were extremely stressful whelpers; the kind that would keep me up for two days panting, nesting, pacing, etc., before finally giving birth. Then during the whelping, they would fuss, cry and look at the first puppies like they were aliens from another planet. Once they decided they might be willing to care for them, I had to spend the next two weeks pulling them out from under the bitch, who constantly circled around them and tried to lie on top of them.

What I just described is not a stress-free bitch, and I became aware that their stress level transferred to their babies, which did not give them the greatest start in life. Plus, their daughters turned out to inherit those same characteristics. Somewhere along the way, I decided to remove those “unfit mothers” from my breeding program. It was one of the best decisions I ever made as a breeder. Now I have bitches that barely give an indication that they are about to whelp — most eat a hearty breakfast and then start having contractions a couple of hours later, and soon produce their first puppy. I’ve had them give so little warning about the impending birth that the first puppy appeared in a dog bed practically under my nose! My daughter has come home from work to an entire litter born, clean, warm and nursing. Yes, we do take their temperature if we need to have a guide, but if we are going to be home, we let nature take its course. My friend Connie uses a whelping monitor to ascertain when her girls are going to start, and she is very sold on the process, as her bitches are like mine and give little outward warning that puppies are soon to be on the way.

Another thing so important in a brood bitch is her trust level with people when it comes to her puppies. If she doesn’t trust people to handle her babies, that lack of trust will pass to her puppies. Connie and I both have bitches that ecstatically welcome complete strangers into the box with their babies, and this calm acceptance passes to the puppies at a very young age. This makes for youngsters that eagerly meet and greet every stranger they come across — no hesitation, no fear.

We agreed that the weeks before weaning begins should be simple and enjoyable for us as breeders. Keep the box clean and warm, Mom well fed and watered, and handle each puppy every day. Then we sit back and watch our good brood bitches do their jobs. Connie tends to begin feeding her litters between two and three weeks. I tend to start between three and four weeks, but her breed generally has larger litters than mine. What we strongly agree upon is that proper early nutrition is absolutely critical to the puppies if we want to give them the best chance of reaching their full potential. We feed the same brand of dry dog food, one that has been around for a long time and is well trusted by breeders. But we don’t feed our puppies just dry food. We both believe that the puppies need extras. Cottage cheese in one meal, yogurt in another, chopped hard-boiled egg and some raw ground beef, rotated from meal to meal. We both feed our puppies big meals three times a day. No, we do not want fat puppies. We want puppies that show the benefit of being fed nutrient-rich food, puppies in good flesh with abundant healthy coats and bright, shiny eyes. And to this we add another critical component: exercise.

Free Exercise And Enough Food

Neither Connie nor I believe in raising puppies in a drop pen, ex pen or 4-by-8 whelping pen. These sorts of environments severely limit the free, vigorous activity that we both think is crucial to early puppy development. Once out of the whelping box (generally around 4 weeks of age) our puppies immediately have large indoor and outdoor pens to explore. They are never confined to a small space. My puppies have a 5-by-10-foot indoor pen connected to a totally covered 10-by-30-foot outdoor run by a dog door, which they learn to use by following their dam. Interestingly, Connie and I use the same brand of dog doors because they are easy for the puppies to maneuver. By 5 weeks of age, our puppies are already going in and out the doors like pros. We provide them with tunnels, steps, plastic swimming pools and a variety of surfaces to play on. By around 6 weeks of age, our litters are going on short walks every day, which increase in duration as the puppies grow. Connie has huge grass pastures with paths cut through them for daily walks. I have wonderful woods to walk my puppies in that provide them with small hills to climb, logs to jump and branch piles to explore. I don’t think that there is a better place to walk puppies than in the woods. It builds their coordination, stamina, musculature and mental acuity. I let the puppies go at their own pace, never forcing exercise but allowing them all they want.

High-quality food in abundance and tons of free exercise produces puppies that by 8 weeks of age are firm, sound and agile. There is no comparison between these puppies and others raised in 4-by-4 or 4-by-8 pens that are given limited freedom to exercise. Our puppies are strong trotters that move freely and with good backs, while pen-raised puppies rarely trot well at all and certainly not with strength and vigor. And I completely believe that puppies that are kept in a pen for several months with little or no free exercise often grow up actually lacking the ability to trot correctly, as their early muscle development is inhibited. I’ve seen it over and over.

So after we give our puppies this wonderful beginning, we send them off to new homes. Only the best homes, of course. And we send them with extensive written instructions, emphasizing the continuing need for quality food in abundance and as much free exercise as the growing puppy wants. Lots of food, exercise, fresh air and sunshine in combination create a formula for success. But what happens in so many cases is that new owners drop the ball. In my breed, the fastest growth stage is between 4 and 8 months of age. At this age, my puppies are eating between 5 and 6 cups of food a day to support that growth, and on their walks they are running 2 or 3 miles a day, while I walk a mile-long trail. They don’t lose their bone, they continue to build muscle, and they grow incredible amounts of healthy hair because they are receiving everything they need to maximize their potential. But then I see a littermate that I sold, and it is too thin, has half the amount of coat that mine does, and not nearly the amount of bone, and I find out that the puppy is only being fed half what mine is. It just isn’t getting enough food (and corresponding exercise) to support the rapid growth stage. And it shows clearly in the lack of development in the dog.

Some breeders feel that growing puppies should be kept thin, as it causes “less stress” on their bones and joints, slows growth and offers better hip results. These breeders say that the dogs will “catch up” when they are through their fast growth stage and allowed more food. I have never believed this theory, and I never will. I have seen too many that started out brimming with promise and ended up mediocre, and the common factor has always seemed to be food and exercise. I also do not believe that attempting to slow the growth of a dog by withholding proper amounts of food will increase the dog’s chances of having better hips. No, young dogs should not be fat, but there is a huge difference between being well fed and fat. Young dogs need the extra calories to grow correctly, and the abundant free exercise, in my mind, can only serve to increase the possibility of good, strong joints, as it strengthens the muscles, ligaments and tendons that hold those joints together. Knock on wood, in 45 years of breeding and raising puppies in the manner described, I have never had a dog bred and raised on my premises that did not pass OFA. Between Connie and I, we have 90 combined years of breeding, with considerable success. We left lunch that day happy that we had reaffirmed our common beliefs in the best way to raise puppies to meet their full potential.

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