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Pack Survival: A Surrogate Mother's Story

by Beverley Saunders

          An acquaintance of ours requested a breeding between his bluetick bitch and our bluetick male.  It seemed like a simple request at the time.  Little did I know I was getting ready to board an emotional roller coaster.

          Minnie was mated to Jack on a beautiful Monday and Tuesday in June. Our acquaintance’s wife who was suffering from terminal cancer accompanied him and was excited at the thought of her little Minnie having puppies.  After the mating was over, her husband said, “ I hope she keeps this litter, she ate her last one.”  I was aghast! Had I known this in advance, I would have probably declined his request.  I inquired about the fate of Minnie’s first litter and he explained how he had moved her into a dark horse stall the day she whelped because it was the dead of winter and the stall was warmer.  He felt it was his fault for putting her in unfamiliar surroundings for her first litter.

          After we calculated the days to her current whelping date, it was determined that she was due on the very day the couple had scheduled to leave for what would more than likely be their last vacation together.  Feeling kind of stuck, and worried about the fate of this litter out of Jack, I offered to keep Minnie and attend the whelping.  I thought perhaps I could redirect her past method of cleaning her pups until they disappeared!  He accepted the offer and we promptly brought Minnie into the house to introduce her to the small bathroom off the kitchen that we’ve used as a whelping room for our bitches.

          Minnie adjusted quickly to the indoors and the two house dogs – Sydney, a 3 yr old spayed beagle blend, and Jo-Jo, a 13 yr old Westie-Poo – both animal shelter rescues.  Minnie was actually a sweet natured little hound and her owners would be thrilled when they discovered how easily she house-trained.  As Minnie’s due date neared and her belly dropped heavily from pups, I started checking her daily for signs of impending whelp. There were none. No fidgeting, nesting, drop in temperature or milk production.  Maybe I miscalculated.  The Saturday afternoon before the day I had calculated her to whelp, I was taking a nap on the sofa with the two house dogs.  Minnie was napping, curled up in the recliner a few feet away.  An hour later, my son Paul came into the room and woke me in a loud voice saying, “ Mom, we’re having pups. MOM, I think she’s trying to kill it!”

          As I awakened, I could here the terrible cries of the newborn pup.  Minnie had the pup clamped tightly in her jaws down to its mid-section.  I jumped to my feet and instructed Paul to catch the pup as I literally pried Minnie’s jaws open.  I shouted for my husband Ralph.  When he saw what was happening, he helped me move Minnie from the recliner to the small bathroom we had prepared for her.  She had cleaned her pup nicely so I assumed my hunches were right – she just didn’t know when to quit cleaning.  To be on the safe side, Ralph held Minnie’s head and I placed the pup to her nipple for the much-needed colostrum.  As Minnie wheeled to attack the pup a second time, I noticed there still was no milk.  Ralph and I quickly realized the futility of the situation and looked at each other as if to ask; what do we do now?   We knew she would be delivering another pup any time now.

          I told Ralph to stay with Minnie and I carried the tiny pup to the screened-in back porch and placed her in a cage kept there for emergencies.  I tried not to panic as I gathered my thoughts.  My gaze fell to Dolly out in her kennel.  She was on her feet, returning my gaze and wagging her tail.  Dolly had successfully delivered ten healthy pups in that same little bathroom three months before.  My studies of wolves and wolf behavior came flooding back to me.  I knew that in the wild, the Beta female (second in the hierarchy) is always prepared to finish rearing a littler of pups should anything befall the Alpha female. They could even produce milk!  Inasmuch as I believe our domestic dogs of today still remain wolves in many ways, I was skeptical to the extent of that in this situation.  As my eyes quickly shifted from Dolly to the puppy and to the house, I decided we had nothing to lose by trying.

          I bolted to Dolly’s kennel, opened her gate and she willingly followed me to the back porch. I said to her,  “ Dolly, I have someone I want you to meet.  I hope you understand what I need you to do.”  The door to the cage was open and the pup was crying loudly.  Dolly casually went into the cage, sniffed at the pup, looked at me and walked out of the cage.  My heart sank. She had no interest in this strange little pup.  Before I could return Dolly to her kennel, Ralph was yelling for my help as Minnie was delivering her second pup.  I ran to the bathroom and grabbed the pup in my hands as soon as it appeared and shielded it in my hands so that only the cord extended between my fingers.  Ralph held Minnie’s head just enough to allow her to chew the cord.  I didn’t wait for the after birth.  I immediately took the wet, messy little pup to the back porch to clean it myself.  To my surprise and amazement, Dolly had returned to the cage and had tucked the first pup under her belly to nurse!  Without a second thought, I placed the second pup still all wet and messy into the cage.  I held my breath as Dolly extended her nose toward the pup.  She immediately broke the sac around the pup and began cleaning it for all she was worth.  We moved Dolly and the two puppies into the bathroom and Minnie out.  Six little bluetick girls later, Minnie was finished and Dolly had just begun.

          Dolly worked diligently on cleaning, snuggling and allowing the pups to nurse.  I knew she had no milk and didn’t expect her to produce any.  I had pushed my luck far enough and was grateful for what Dolly was doing.  She had imprinted the pups to her with her saliva and her scent.  They would have a canine mother after all.  I had bitches’ milk on hand as I do before any whelping and knew that Ralph and I would be providing the food every few hours for some time to come.  We contacted Minnie’s owner and arranged for his neighbor to take Minnie into his care with the owner’s other hounds.  When he arrived, Minnie was up hopping around happy, as if she hadn’t delivered a litter at all.  Her belly was normal and she still had no milk.  Looking back on this I often wonder if she was hormonally imbalanced, unable to care for pups and her ingesting them was nature’s way of solving the problem.  I had read where wolves with very large litters would eat pups in excess of what they felt they could reasonably feed.

          Over the next few weeks, Ralph and I would sit at the kitchen counter a few steps away from the little bathroom and watch Dolly care for the pups as if they were her own.  She didn’t leave them at all the first twelve hours, even growling once at Sydney when she passed by too closely.  She would eventually allow Sydney to not only approach the puppies, but assist in their rearing even though Sydney had never known motherhood.  We settled into a routine.  Ralph and I would alternate feedings while Dolly lay watching, ready to clean and “poop” each one after their feeding.  She cuddled them and allowed them to suckle and Sydney would stand over the pups when Dolly took her breaks outside.  It was like a changing of the guard!  When Dolly rose to leave the bathroom, Sydney took this as her call to duty and they would pass each other in the small bathroom doorway – one going out and the other going in.  Between the two of them, the pups were never left unattended.

          Every hour of every day, I was amazed at this eclectic pack’s effort to raise this orphaned litter.  Words cannot describe how privileged I felt to be able to participate and witness this event first-hand and I interfered as little as possible.  When “the girls” as we called them were between two and three weeks old, Dolly started spending less and less time with these now very rambunctious and robust pups.  She would stay outside longer and would lie by the couch, periodically checking the pups to make sure they were clean and allowing them to suckle a bit.  We decided it was time to let Dolly return to her kennel and her life of running rabbits.  She had done the hardest work in giving these puppies a chance at a normal life.

          We began vaccinations at two a half weeks since they had literally no immunities, and started them on solid food. Dinner was now a disgusting gruel of soaked kibble, canned food and cottage cheese and the pups would simply wade in. Sydney remained well in-tune with the schedule and amused us with her fussiness over the pups.  At feeding time when the food pan was placed on the kitchen floor, she knew that all puppies had to eat.  If one would wander toward the family room instead, she would roll the pup with her nose like a soccer ball across the kitchen floor until it landed with a ‘plop’ into the food pan!  After the girls’ second round of shots they were moved to the back porch and then eventually to their own kennel.

          Over the course of the next few weeks, Lily, Luci, Jakki, Yankee Rose, Grace and Della were slowly integrated into the rest of our pack of 17 hounds.  In the evenings when all hounds were let loose in the yard to play and socialize, Ralph and I watched from our Adirondack chairs as the new hierarchy was formed.  Dolly’s natural pups were no longer the lowest in the social order and relished pinning the girls to the ground and just pulling rank on them in general.  Maxx, who is neither Alpha or Omega in the pack was our natural pup-sitter.  Maxx always enjoys lying flat on the ground allowing puppies to chew ears, pull his tail and wallow him unmercifully.  He gives them a fake, sing-songy growl as if they are causing real harm.  Maxx also guarded them somewhat as they were introduced to each adult dog.  Molly, our Alpha female, and Dolly, restored order when the older pups played too rough.  No hound in the kennel directed harm to the pups.  To the contrary, each has done his or her part to properly socialize the pups to the pack.  The pups that started with no mother and little hope now belonged to everyone.  They are happy, healthy and well-adjusted thanks to Dolly’s unselfish gift and the help of the rest of the pack.

          If I live to be one hundred, I will never forget this experience and the lessons I learned from this marvelous creature we know as the dog.  I wonder if our own existence would be better if we employed the same honorable qualities our dogs so instinctively display:  unconditional love, patience, acceptance of those unlike ourselves, the willingness to roll up sleeves and pull together to ensure everyone’s survival – for no ulterior motive but that it just needs to be done.  In spite of the great strides we’ve made to domesticate and humanize our dogs, they remain true to their ancient and strong sense of family and order.  They are much better at it than we are at times.

          One of my favorites gifts is a small wall plaque that reads, “ My goal in life is to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”  Between you and me, I would settle for being at least as good as my dog!

Happy Hunting to All!


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