Oh puppies. Nature’s anti-depressant. Is there anything better? They are sweet and soft and grow into these rambunctious, intelligent little gremlins with so much energy. It’s hard not to smile when you’re around them.
I was surprised at how interested people were in how we were raising puppies this small. One of my friends described it to me like this – newborn puppies are a “black box” a lot of dog lovers often never get to see. Unless your dog gets pregnant, you work in animal care, or you foster a pregnant dog like we did, most puppies tend to be seen at later life stages. The average age for a puppy to be adopted (or bought from a breeder, boo) is around 8-10 weeks. There’s a lot that happens in the early stages, so I’m happy to share our experience.
As you know, we thought since we were staying home for the holidays this past year it would be fun to have some extra happiness around by taking in a foster dog from The Milo Foundation (the same rescue we got Jack from). I picked up a very pregnant cattle dog named Whiskey the day before Thanksgiving and she and her puppies would end up bringing the total number of animals in our house to 10: 3 dogs, 6 puppies, and 1 cat. Why not.
Whiskey had the puppies at night a few days after she had settled in. She was pacing around and panting and displaying all the usual signs of an uncomfortable animal in labor. She climbed into the box we had put in the sunroom for her and had the puppies one by one into the night. She knew what to do. All animals do, including us. I think we tend to forget that thanks to movies and tv sensationalizing every labor to seem like an out of control emergency situation. I played doggie doula for a while as she gave birth to 1 puppy every 12-15 minutes or so, then I went to sleep around 2 am. There were 4 puppies.
In the morning I went in to check on her and the puppies and found that she had had 2 more puppies since I had last checked on her. What a sweet surprise! They still had parts of their umbilical cords attached. Puppies come out of their mother in their amniotic sac, which the mama dog chews through to get to the puppy, then she chews off their umbilical cord and later delivers and eats the placenta. I’m glad humans don’t have to do that.
There were 6 puppies in total – 3 girls and 3 boys. I grabbed an old lab notebook and flipped the page over from a Chelonia mydas (green sea turtle) necropsy analysis I performed in the Bahamas, to a blank sheet where I wrote down some basic distinguishing characteristics about each puppy and whether they were male or female. I haven’t been in a lab in over 2 years now, so I made the sunroom into one just for kicks – complete with an observation book, scale, and medications for Whiskey. Whiskey still had (what we think was) bordetella at this point which made her particularly wheezy and phlegmy with hacky coughs so I monitored her breathing for a little while. She received the medication late, and being that it is contagious, I looked for signs (coughing/sneezing) that the puppies may have gotten it too. Luckily they didn’t and Whiskey recovered quickly after a couple days on a broad spectrum antibiotic.
The first few weeks with puppies is really easy if you’re a human. The mama dog does everything. Whiskey was happy to rest and nurse and take care of her puppies. It’s really important to make sure your mama dog has lots of food and water since nursing requires extra calories and can lead to dehydration more easily. I fed her 3x a day, one more feeding than usual, with more in quantity and treats in between meals.
The puppies are pretty much immobile for the first 2 weeks. Their eyes are closed and ears sealed. They just sleep, eat, and poop/pee (with the help of their mom who licks them to stimulate elimination, then eats it….again, another thing I’m happy humans don’t have to do with their young). Puppies this young are more susceptible to cold so I made sure to put warm blankets in the box and a space heater in the sunroom so it stayed at a cozy 75-78 degrees or so.
By the 3rd week, their eyes were open and they were crawling around the box and it was all kinds of cute. I weighed them every morning to make sure everyone was gaining weight properly. Around the end of week 4 Whiskey decided she was done being available to the puppies to nurse on whenever they wanted (can’t blame her). She wanted to be outside exploring with Jack and Keeper, so I opened the doggie door that links the sunroom to the back yard so she could come and go whenever she wanted. She would come in and check on them and knew when she needed to nurse instinctively. Animals are awesome. By this time the puppies were standing/wobbling and starting to interact with one another. I added a few small toys to their box for them to gnaw on and paw at.
They had picked up nicknames now, apart from WM1, WM2 (white male 1, white male 2, etc.) that I had been referring to them as in my notes. Now they were:
Tux - the curious black and white male who looked like he was wearing a tuxedo.
Cherry – the cute tri-color female runt (named after Trey’s fav flavor of the candy runts).
Grandpa Polar Bear – the sweet white male who looked like a polar bear and was chill like a grandpa.
Wags – the adorable black female with white paws, named after how much she wagged her tail when picked up.
Patch – the charming white male with a black patch on his eye.
Dottie – the sweet white female with dots on her fur.
By the end of week 5, I started making them a gruel – which is dry puppy food softened with warm water or chicken broth, mashed up. With them getting bigger (with teeth) and Whiskey wanting to spend more time away from nursing (re: teeth), I followed Whiskey’s lead and started transitioning them to the gruel. Whiskey would still sleep with them at night and nurse for another couple weeks after this, which was especially good for the little runt Cherry who needed all the extra feedings she could get.
The puppies really grew over weeks 6, 7 and 8. Their personalities all became very distinct and they were running and jumping on each other and playing with toys. These weeks are fun to watch because they are really socializing with each other and start assessing their rank in the litter by growling and wrestling with one another. I started cutting back the water I was adding to soften their food so they could transition slowly to eating dry, solid food. I added a weighted water bowl in the corner of the pen for them to drink from. Tux figured out how to get out of the box first. He’s was a smart one, that guy. We were sitting in the living room and all of a sudden he comes waltzing in like, hey man! The others followed shortly after.
We replaced the box with a wire pen we had from when Keeper was a puppy and put fresh newspaper down before every meal since now it was our job to clean that up. We used a muffin pan to feed them 3x a day since it had 6 little compartments and we had 6 little puppies. By this time (beginning of week 7), Whiskey was completely done nursing even at night. She slept nights with Jack and Keep instead of being in the sunroom. The puppies quickly learned the routine and started letting us know around feeding time that they were hungry by “barking” (it’s really like puppies squawking at you). Their feeding schedule at 8 weeks was 7am, noon, and 6pm. Water was free range.
Week 9 and Adoptions
Week 9 was for shots, deworming, and spaying/neutering (Whiskey too). We gave everyone a bath, then loaded them up in the back of the Land cruiser and dropped them off at the vet. Afterwards they rested/recovered at Milo to get ready for the adoption event that weekend.
By the end of the weekend, 3 of the puppies and Whiskey had found homes. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to them. But that’s the deal. You bring them in, help them out, then send them on their way. Meeting the families who were adopting was really special. I don’t think I could hide the happiness I felt even if I tried. I remember meeting the couple who fostered Jack the day we showed up to adopt him from Milo 7 years ago. To do that for someone else just feels good. The other 3 puppies were adopted soon after. I only managed to get photos of some of the families, but here they are:
Little Cherry (now Pua) was adopted by a sweet family in San Francisco.
The dad wrote to me – “My wife is from Hawaii and we always talked about getting a “Poi dog”, a mixed race dog that also represents our mix race family, Japanese/European. We named her Pua which means flower.”
Tux was adopted by a great family with lots of land just outside San Francisco.
The guy holding him was so stoked and told us a lot about how much he loved (and missed) his last cattle mix dog. They sent us an email shortly after saying Tux was already adjusting well to his new pack. Tux was Trey’s favorite, so it was particularly great for him to see a rad guy who really wanted to train a smart pup ending up adopting Tux.
Grandpa Polar Bear (now Pete) went to my friend and former biologist colleague, Natalie.
She drove down from just outside Portland to meet him and I’m glad it was a match. I met her parents (and their dog, Carl!) too. I’m so happy he went to someone I know. He was definitely my favorite of the litter (though I shouldn’t have one!) and it’s really awesome to see him show up in my Instagram feed from time to time.
Whiskey (now Annie) was adopted by a family with 3 kids and 5 acres of land in Washington state.
Whiskey was so special to us. As you know, when I picked her up she was super pregnant, had this nasty respiratory infection, and wasn’t sure whether or not to trust us. She wasn’t house trained, knew no commands. By the end of the few months we had her she was sleeping in the bed with us and so affectionate. She raised 6 adorable pups and in the process (I hope) learned to trust a couple of humans. She morphed from a timid and frightened dog into a happy, sweet one. It was hard to uproot her again from the routine she had come to know with us, but we knew finding her a forever home was what was best. The family came down and spent some time with her and decided they wanted to adopt her. It’s the perfect home for her, one where she gets a lot of love and attention and we couldn’t be happier for her and her new family. Driving home with an empty truck I couldn’t help but hope she was doing okay. Just a few minutes after thinking that, the mom texted me this photo:
If you’ve ever thought about fostering a dog or cat, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s important to make sure you have the time, space, and right living situation to make for a comfortable experience for everyone involved. If fostering seems like too much to take on, there are lots of other ways to help out shelter animals. You can volunteer to walk dogs, donate money or high quality food, or even offer your skills such as photography by coming in once or twice a month to take photos of new dogs/cats for the website pro-bono. A great way to start is by calling your local rescue organization and asking them what supplies or services they are in need of at the moment and how best you can help.