I don’t think this has ever been as clear to me as it has been over the last two weeks. Having lost all manner of animals on the farm over the past 5 years (despite best efforts and education), I thought I was fairly innoculated to whatever could possibly happen when I finally became a dog breeder. I was SO wrong.
I can’t remember exactly when I decided on my breeding philosophy, nor can I remember exactly the moment I decided that Ivy, my main LGD, needed to pass on her genetics, but suffice it to say that this litter was in the works for quite a while – years. I worked my way past the “only registered dogs deserve to be bred” poppycock (yes, I believed that too, once upon a time), tested Ivy in all kinds of ways both medical and behavioral, measured her worth to the future gene pool as best I could, and agonized dramatically over every eventuality; lost sleep became a pretty common occurrence in my life. Breeding dogs responsibly who only have a limited pedigree information in a world that wants to crucify those who don’t shelter in the kennel club system and often just breeders in general takes nerves of steel. No exaggeration. It’s always hilarious to me how it takes so much internal fortitude to carve a new path while consistently being accused of just not caring at all…. but that’s fodder for another post. Back to Ivy and what happened in the last two weeks.
This is Ivy.
You’ve seen pictures of her before on here, and if you’re FB friends with me or on the BWD group, you’ve seen more than a few – most notably the one where she is wrapped around the 2lb ewe lamb we had this spring. She has been our stalwart guardian, the quintessential LGD: nurturing, protective, ever vigilant, ever willing to go to the mat with anyone or anything that is a threat to her charges. She has always been “as healthy as a horse” despite no veterinary care whatsoever for the first half of her life. She overcame a puppyhood and early life of misunderstanding and neglect to become everything that a stock guardian should be. At 5.5 years old, I believed that without a doubt she deserved to pass on her genes to future generations.
I picked a complimentary sire, a nice Great Pyrenees, for the litter – which was easier said than done given that I had no options with registered dogs (ew, who would mate a registered dog to one who isn’t???? Grrr.) and had to pay for testing of whichever working dog I chose. I hoped that I would find an amenable owner as well (I did, incidentally – she far exceeded my expectations). Getting two working dogs together was no easy task either. Ivy and I managed it all, better than I could have hoped; then we sat back and waited. Well, I sat back. Ivy just went back to doing what she always did, guarding her wooly children.
Since this was the first time for both of us, after it was clear that she was in milk and getting bigger all the time, I decided to take her in for an x ray. Ivy thought that was a pretty stupid idea and her normally tolerant self nearly bit the vet as we were removing her from the table. Still, we had this:
PUPPIES! Many, many more puppies than I’d expected for a maiden litter at her age. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t over the moon, but still worried. If anything, this post should be a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks that being worried and vigilant will keep disaster at bay.
I’ll spare you the rest of the details leading up to labor, but since I was determined to whelp in situ, I will set the stage in the barn, late Sunday morning. The first pup was born, a fairly colorful, wormy-squirmy little girl. She was joined in short order by a little boy who looked just like his dad. We were on a roll and Ivy was doing fabulously. Then we had the first stillborn.
When all was said and done, 24 hours later, we had 4 stillborn pups in various stages of development. The vet felt at that time that it was likely to be coincidental and wouldn’t affect the remaining pups – 7 in total. I moved everyone up to the house before whelping was done – I was taking no chances. When we had one who seemed lethargic from the get-go, I wondered if the stillborns weren’t more of a red flag than we’d both thought. When one died in his sleep the next morning, my daughter and I packed everyone up for a trip to the vet. When two seemingly vigorous pups died on the way home from the vet, the icy cold fingers of dread traveled down my spine and touched my toes. We were in deep trouble. Both pups were packed off to the vet to be sent for necropsy.
Ivy was frantic. She’d had a hard labor – a lot of pups – and now only 4 remained. One was hanging on by a thread by the time we got into the house. My daughter revived her; I revived her 3 times after that. I dribbled electrolytes onto her tongue with a tiny syringe. She was dying and there was nothing I could do. The urge to weep was overwhelming, but no tears would come. Screaming seemed easier, but I couldn’t. I whispered to her to hang on as my mind flailed desperately, trying to sort out what to do. As she took her last breath, I decided to post on a FB reproduction group. Typically I try to stay away from such postings as the advice can be so random and conflicting on larger groups… but I needed something, anything. Ivy looked at me with her pleading eyes as two more pups flopped more than they should.
Fortuitously, one of the first commenters advised me to get antibiotics into the survivors. Finally, something I could do! Within a short time, I had the antibiotics (a big thank you to my vet!) and we started on our journey to health. There was still around the clock care, temperature management and managing a first time, traumatized mom who wasn’t used to being in the house… but we’d pulled those two pups back from the brink of death and nothing else mattered.
It turns out that Ivy, the ever healthy, ever vigilant, ever working girl that she is, had an overgrowth of bacteria; three types, all three common, run-of-the-mill strains. They infiltrated the pups’ placentas, and since Ivy didn’t show any signs of infection herself, we were none the wiser. Nature kicked our collective asses, and none of us had a clue.
Breeding in general is not for the feint of heart, I knew this going in. What I didn’t know is that breeding my beloved working dog would impact me far and away more than any other kind of breeding ever has. I also didn’t know how polarizing this experience would be for me, and as a result how it’s informed my choice of who to trust as a friend in this crazy dog-eat-dog world. Those who professed support but were nowhere to be found when the proverbial shit hit the fan and those who made themselves available to support me through this both surprised and reinforced for me that I’m on the right track in what I’m doing.
I’ll leave you with pictures of these future stock defenders I’m sharing my life with at the moment. They’re just 2 weeks old in these. As sheep breeding starts up here on the farm, grazing winds down and winter preparations kick into high gear, I am left with thoughts of what to do for Ivy’s second and final litter. I do know that I am a much wiser and empathetic dog breeder for having gone through this experience, and that if I can manage to produce as tough and fiesty pups as Gus, Bogs and Frank the second time around, I’ll be doing something right.
P.S. – Gus is going up north to join two working LGD with their sheep flock, one on the verge of retirement. Bogs doesn’t have a placement yet. Frank the Tank will be staying with us here on the farm.