I am always sad when a litter of puppies leaves home, but sadness is tinged with pleasure when I see the joy on the faces of the new owners and realise that the babies will get the chance to develop their abilities better on their own.
Today, I am also relieved - as the mother of these particular pups is none other than Petals, my physically handicapped bitch. This is a day that I thought I would never see. There have been many times when I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but to see these happy, healthy babies has made it all worth while.
Of course, having pups from Petals has not been without its challenges and has taxed my ingenuity to the full.
Petals' problem now is basically that, although she can get about very well, she is very unstable when standing still as her back legs fall into a straight-line front to back. I chose an experienced stud dog for her, which was a good decision because whenever he went to mount her, she fell over! Fortunately, both dogs were very keen and eventually we were able to hold her still enough to get successful matings. I was also very conscious as the time approached for the birth that, in her exuberance, her lack of stability would cause her to fall onto her babies and kill them. Not so: she has been a careful mother and has demonstrated that she is aware of her shortcomings by being overly cautious.
Throughout her pregnancy she continued her usual pursuit of chasing moths and butterflies although as she increased in size she did spend more time lying down waiting for them to come within range rather than going on the prowl for them.
She whelped her puppies naturally, although it was a very slow process because she could do little to assist them voluntarily. Three were born dead having been too long on the way, but she finished up with seven beautiful babies.
The first problem to surface was that she could not step into the whelping box because she could not balance for long enough on three legs to step over the side of the box. I solved that by removing the front panel so that she could walk in. However, with no front, the babies could roll out - so I made a barrier with an old tool box which went most of the way along the front just leaving sufficient room for Petals to squeeze in. Being mindful of the welfare of her brood, Petals refused to get into the box when her babes were sleeping just by her entry place. A cozy sheepskin bed, well away from the entry point, solved that for a while. Petals also realised that she could climb on to the top of the toolbox and step down into the box from there.
Devising a system whereby Petals could get in to her babies and they could not get out occupied my mind for days. Puppies grow so quickly that soon I had to put the front back on the box and place a sheepskin stool for her to climb on to instead of the toolbox. Within a few days the pups were big enough to climb over the front board so I took that off, letting them into a small enclosed pen. At the same time, I put a chair for Petals so that she could climb over the side. Next problem was that she could not get onto the chair unaided. Sheepskin stool to the rescue again. She climbed on to the stool, from that, to the chair and thence into the whelping box. (She also found herself an alternative route that involved using the chair where I sit as an intermediate stopping place!).
The system of stool to a higher barrier then down in to the puppies worked very well until the puppies discovered where she went to and stood in the way of her descent into the box. Getting out of the box did not present the same problems, as Petals just stood back and took a run at the side and pulled herself over – I have to say that the pups quickly became very adept at getting out of her way!
Feeding also presented problems because she cannot roll over on to her side, unaided. She solved this by crouching over her babies like a mother hen and later by propping herself up in the corner of the box in a semi sitting position and letting the babies pile in, "stacks on the mill" style.
Once they were big enough for her to feed standing, she propped her bottom into the corner and let the side of the box support her back legs. It was really amusing to watch if the pups caught her out of position; -- they would push her to the side, she would lose her balance and, without letting go, all the pups would race to that side with her and then back again as she regained her balance.
By now they were outside in the puppy area and Petals had access via the stool onto the flat roof of a dog kennel which was covered with rubber matting so that she did not slip. Since they were eating well, she did not need to get in to feed them too often.
By five weeks they were so strong that they could easily push her over and she could not regain her balance - so she became reluctant to get into their area. I weaned them overnight - "cold turkey". This was a great relief to Petals: she ran and jumped and wrestled with Rosie (who is 15 months) with barely a backward glance as if released from the great weight of responsibility.
Now the pups are nearly ten weeks old and all (except the one I will run on) have gone to their new owners. It will be interesting to see how they develop over the years as they are an independent bunch -- in fact, they remind me of their mother at that age.
To all the Vets and Specialists who supported us and encouraged me to keep Petals in my breeding programme - thank you. To my neighbour, Margaret, who had the strength to nurse Petals through the darkest days and had the faith to predict that she would live and one day produce pups to follow in her footsteps - thank you.
It's been a rough ride but we got there.