#37 – How to Handle An Oops Litter

by | Apr 2, 2022 | Business Management, People Management

It was a Tuesday afternoon and the weather was just starting to get warm. I was in the middle of cooking dinner and was carrying the dripping spatula over to the sink, using my left hand to prevent the spaghetti sauce from dripping on my floor. That’s when I saw it. My daughter’s little Rat Terrier, Rosie, tied to Bill’s Cattledog, Cinch.

I closed my eyes as the wave of irritation flooded over me. You can’t pull apart two dogs that are tied. The damage is already done and you don’t want to injure them.

We have terrible dirt here in Arizona, it gets into everything, including sliding glass door tracks. The back sliding door had been pretty gritty when we went to close it so we had cleaned it. It slid open and closed like a dream. It slid so well on those tracks that if you closed it with a little too much force—the kind of force we previously needed to close it over the grit—that it would close and bounce back open. Those four inches were all little Rosie needed to get all doe-eyed with Cinch.

As I stood there, taking a couple deep breaths, I tried to reassure myself. Rosie had already had eight ties with our Rat Terrier stud in the past few days, so we were going to be fine, those babies were going to be all Rat Terriers. At least that was my hope.

The puppies came on a Saturday. Puppy after puppy came out. The first had normal Rat Terrier colors, and I breathed a sigh of relief…until the second came out. Her face didn’t have symmetry, which is unusual for a Rat Terrier. As she dried off I saw she wasn’t a tricolor, but a quad-color. She was white, with tan points, but her patches were gray with black flecks. That’s when it was confirmed. These weren’t all Rat Terrier.

My heart sank. After how many years of breeding, this?

Rosie normally had about 4-5 puppies, but of course, for an oops litter, she had 6, and they were all girls. As they matured it was obvious they were all part cattledog. I swear Cinch ran around the property prouder than ever. He already thought he owned the place, but now I swear he had a little extra pep in his step.

As you can see, oops litters happen. They can happen quickly. They are prevented through management, but management isn’t a perfect solution.

If you’ve had an oops litter, I don’t want you to feel bad. Unlike humans, dogs aren’t as discriminating with mate selection. They’ll pretty much take whatever they can get, even if it’s their dad, brother, or another breed.

It’s this fact that has me chuckle a little under my breath when people accuse breeders of forcing dogs to have sex; this is hardly the case, we do everything in our power to keep them apart.

So what do you do if you’ve had an oops litter?

All life is precious, I truly believe that; everyone deserves a chance at a good life, even if they weren’t exactly planned. I still love my son after all.

Let’s first clarify that an oops litter entails quite a range of accidents. It is any breeding that occurs without intention. This includes breeding a female too early, before you intended to breed her, or it could be breeding her to the wrong stud in your program, maybe one that isn’t as complementary to her traits. It involves breeding dogs too closely related, as in a father/daughter or brother/sister, and it, of course, involves the accidental breeding of one of your dogs to the wrong breed, as was my case.

Depending on the type of oops, you’ll handle it differently. If the breeding is too soon, as in the bitch was younger than you hoped, it’s okay. Scientifically, if she can cycle and carry a litter, she is physically mature enough to do so. A younger bitch often produces very healthy puppies, since she’s so young and healthy, however, she may struggle with emotional maturity with the puppies. I affectionately refer to this as teen-mom syndrome. I don’t mind this, generally. If her line has good mothering ability, then she will, too, it just may take into the second week of the puppies before it all clicks. I have never had an issue with a young first time mom, and I do breed my dogs on their first full heat as standard. This is usually around 12-14 months for my breed.

If you feel like me saying that just ran nails down a chalkboard, hear me out. As far as I can tell, the standard of two years to wait for a breeding bitch is only supported by one thing: the OFA holding off on giving a dog a permanent score on hips until two years of age. Somehow this arbitrary age given by the OFA has become an industry standard catch phrase…isn’t that what they always say on Facebook? “Wait until two years to breed and title your dog.” Well, you all know how I feel about titles as a means of vetting your breeding stock. If you don’t yet know, check out Episode #11, Are Titles Necessary for a Successful Breeding Program? To be clear, I have no problems with titles, I just don’t think they give a very complete picture on something so dynamic as a dog in a breeding program.

I have yet to find any scientific data that holds water as a reason to why hips receive a permanent score at two years of age. In contrast, PennHip states right in their website that their hip testing is accurate at 16 weeks of age. Well, if they can certify at 16 weeks of age, why are we wasting our time waiting until two years of age to certify? OFA’s own research suggested that the standard deviation from five months of age to two years of age is around 5%, meaning that it just doesn’t really change from the age of five months to two years. Wouldn’t it be nice to know at five months if your potential breeder isn’t going to cut it for your program? Wouldn’t it be nice to know you could rehome them at that young age and continue to find a replacement, instead of waiting two years and finding out so late, after the dog is already an established member of your home?

Additionally, why would we hold the same age standard for a Chihuahua, who is nearly fully mature within a year, as a Great Pyrenees who is still filling out and finally looking like an adult at two years of age?

Regardless, anecdotally, I can tell you that the dogs that took at a younger age had better fertility and bounced back better, not just that first time, but throughout their life. It was like their bodies just knew what they were doing and they made it look easy. I wish my pregnancies were as impressive as theirs. They were not.

Okay, but I digress, back to oops litters.

If your oops litter is to the wrong stud, and he isn’t as complementary as you would’ve hoped, then you need to assess if there are any known issues with this breeding. For example, are both dogs Merle? If so, is there a chance you’ll have deaf puppies in this breeding? Knowing this, we may need to make a special vet visit to check for these issues. This can happen with any genetic trait where both animals are carriers of the negative recessive gene. So if we have this information, we owe it to our buyers to do the best we can to understand the associated risks. Often this can be a DNA test assessing the traits of each puppy in the litter.

If she was bred by two studs, and the puppies are not obviously from one stud or the other, you may need to do DNA tests for parentage, as it is potentially a dual-sire litter. This will be especially important if one of the studs, in combination with your bitch, would create genetic issues for buyers.

That is the tough thing about oops litters, often they carry additional costs and sell for less money.

In the event the breeding is too close genetically, you may choose to refuse to offer breeding rights for those puppies. I think offering papers for purebred dogs is still a good rule of thumb, as it makes the buyers feel they are getting quality and value, but refusing to allow breeding rights ends any complications that may arise from the limited gene pool of the puppies.

If the puppies have any known issues, as in they got a double allele of a bad recessive gene, be honest, reduce the price of them, and advertise them accordingly. Often these puppies require a special buyer, so be open to holding on the pup until the right family comes along. And never give him away for free, people don’t respect free things the same way they respect things they’ve paid for. However, don’t expect people to pay you to have problems. There is a sweet spot in there and you’ll need to be careful to find it.

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What about the embarrassment?

Well, as we know, we have two things working against us. One, as breeders, people see us on a higher level of dog ownership, so having an oops litter can appear like we have no idea what we are doing, hurting our image in their eyes. Pair that with the idea that some people think we have to force dogs to tie, and now it seems like we are trying to play Dr. Frankenstein. The combination sucks, it’s embarrassing, but by the time we know it, we can’t change that it happened.

You have to be careful with this embarrassment though, I’ve seen it get to breeders and what happens is they try to be super open about how it wasn’t planned, that it wasn’t what they wanted and they’re super irritated about it. The reason we do this is because we are beating ourselves up as a defense mechanism. We are hoping that by doing this, we are beating other people to the punch, hoping they won’t beat up on us if they think we already feel bad and embarrassed about it.

Defense mechanisms exist because they work. If a kid knocks his drinking glass over and spills red punch on the white carpet, you won’t be as angry if he immediately apologizes and helps clean it up. But if he spills it, looks up at you, smiles, and says, “are you going to clean that up?” Well, your face is going to turn the color of the new stain on the carpet. In the first story, the kid beat himself up before you could, reducing the likelihood you would be angry with him, unlike the second story, which probably would’ve just enraged you further. Notice how the actual incident of a red-punched-stained-carpet is exactly the same, the same clean up, same accident. The difference is how the offending party acted after the fact.

This is why so many breeders throw themselves to the wolves when they have an oops litter. I’ve done it, too.

Yet, there’s a significant issue with this tactic. While it spares you some potential reputation damage, it greatly reduces the value of the puppies in everyone else’s eyes. These puppies didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t choose to be an accident, and yet, with this tactic, everyone sees them that way, as unwanted and undesirable. They come across as burdens to the dog world.

When you make a mistake, you need to own it, but this doesn’t mean throwing yourself to the wolves and beating yourself up. Sometimes it means you need to take it on, straight-faced, and make the best of it. Treat these puppies like any other litter you raise. It shouldn’t matter if your puppies are worth $500 or $5,000, they should get the same love, care, and attention.

When you place value in your puppies, buyers will place value in them. That is the goal, finding owners who will value them. But it has to start with you, the breeder.

Another problem that comes with an oops litter is the advertising. If the breed is a mix, then you have to consider the conflicted drives of the dogs. Chances are your normal ideal puppy buyer won’t be a good fit for them. So sit down, really evaluate the differences in the two breeds and how they will mesh or conflict, and see who would be a good fit for them.

In the case of my Cattle Rats, they had the coat of the Cattledog, but it was a little thinner, though still prone to shedding more than a Rat Terrier. The bonus was they were more people-focused like the Cattledog, who is all about his owner, but they were less prone to separation anxiety because the Rat Terriers are fairly independent–they love their owners, but have no issue managing themselves on their own. I would say they are a little less neurotic than a Cattledog. This became a selling point. We advertised them as cattledogs who weren’t prone to separation anxiety. They looked a lot like Cattledogs with their ticking, but were much smaller, and so we were able to advertise them as more Mini-Cattledogs instead of “cattle rats,” which does sound terrible, I’ll have to agree with you. A cattle rat sounds like a disgusting rodent living among the cows and ruining their feed.

The lack of a honed ideal puppy buyer, paired with embarrassment that it happened, often delays us in our efforts for advertising. We freeze because we don’t know how to do it. It’s scary worrying that we won’t find the right homes, that people won’t appreciate them and love them for who they are.

This is normal, but your best bet is to start advertising them right away. You don’t need to say they were an oops, nor do you need to say they were planned, you can just start by saying they’re available and explaining what they’re like in temperament, personality, size, and design.

I was pleasantly surprised by all the families who took the Cattle Rats, they were amazing homes. Yes, there were people who were only concerned with getting a cheap puppy, but I avoided them, refusing to engage in further conversation once their intentions were clear. You’d be surprised how good your gut is at seeing this in people.

I highly recommend reducing their price if they aren’t purebred, an intentional cross, or a good fit of purebred parents, even if they are genetically sound. The goal is to find them quality homes who value them, not ones to pad your pockets. They’re a unique situation, so we have to be flexible with them. However, remember they are worth money, they have value, and they still deserve the best.

I hope this helps to put your mind at ease if you’ve ever had an oops litter. It certainly happens. How you handle an oops litter is more telling about you as a breeder than the fact that it actually happened.

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Thank you for joining me for another episode of the Honest Dog Breeder Podcast, with me, your host, Julie Swan, I’m so glad we are able to spend this time together. Thank you again, and I’ll see you in the next episode!

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Hey! I’m Julie Swan! I’m here to help you build a breeding business that you love, one that produces amazing dogs, places them in wonderful homes, gives you the life you want, also pays the bills!