People often wonder what it feels like to breeders when we lose puppies. After consulting with hundreds of breeders I think it is fair to say that it is one of the hardest things we have to deal with, if not the hardest.
Of course the first feeling is grief for losing a life. Usually the little puppy gave his best, tried to hang in there. He let you poke him repeatedly with needles to keep him hydrated with fluids, he allowed you to drench him down the throat with medication, liquid food, and fluids. He looked at you with those eyes that said, “I want to live, can you fix me?”
Eventually those eyes begin to gloss over and the look grows more dazed. He might shift his eyes to look at you when you enter to see him, but he can no longer turn his head to you. Soon those eyes will barely react and you’ll fear the end is near. Rarely does a puppy recover from the listless stare.
It all happens so fast, puppies will seem fine and then very quickly get off their food and water. Without supplementation, they only have about 48 hours of stores in their hydration and fat levels before they are gone.
I always try and be there as they pass, I don’t feel any living thing should die alone. As he passes you feel your heart sink. With nothing more you can do, this chapter is over.
Since this often happens during the night I will kiss the puppy once more on the head and retire to bed. The next morning, I let any owners know as soon as possible, so they can adjust mentally. In my experience many buyers are already attached, but it usually is an easier adjustment if they have yet to meet the puppy. I’m fortunate that none of my buyers have directed anger towards me, but I have seen this happen to other breeders. If any buyers are listening to this, know we tried, and that it breaks our hearts, too.
I sometimes worry I’m losing touch because I no longer cry when I lose a puppy. In fact sometimes there is a little relief. Relief that the puppy is no longer suffering, relief that I am able to think about things beyond this puppy — as when they are suffering it is all I can think about — and relief that a puppy won’t be out there who is not going to be able to live up to the life intended for him. There is also relief that it happened here, with me, and not with the family after they already took him home and fell in love. I’ve been there, too, and it is awfully heart wrenching to watch a family fall in love with a puppy only to lose it a short while later.
Then the worst part happens: I question myself.
First a blanket of insecurity waves over me. My inner critic glares at me saying, “do you really know what you are doing? What kind of breeder loses puppies like this?” I have to stop and remind myself that I work with live animals and although you can build plans and procedures, and have a bunch of knowledge on how things should go, you can still be thrown curve balls.
I can now diagnose a lot of the problems I see with puppies and treat them at home, but there are still things that baffle me and require a trip to the vet’s office. In a way, I’m relieved — and defeated — when the vet is stumped, too. When that happens, I at least feel it wasn’t an easy problem that I should have been able to solve at home, but at the same time I feel defeated that it wasn’t a simple diagnosis. Yes, I’m guilty of having a little bit of “breeder ego” that I have to keep in check. I just take knowing my dogs very seriously; it is my job to know them.
Although I have never skipped on taking a dog to the vet that had me stumped, I also try not to go unnecessarily. I feel it is easier on the puppy and myself if we can manage the condition at home. Sometimes when I think I know the diagnosis and treat it accordingly and he doesn’t make it then I question myself, wondering if I’m the one who screwed up and misdiagnosed. That inner critic looks at me and asks, “who are you to think you can handle this all by yourself?”
Then I move into questioning my kennel management. If my kennel was set up differently would this have happened? There is a balance between fresh air and germs — which are great things for a puppy’s immune system — and exposure to poisonous insects, viruses, bacteria, and protozoa that can really tap out all of a puppy’s defenses in quick order.
What about my procedures? Should I have docked tails earlier? Later? Should I have supplemented with MOOM during that time? Should I have used preventative chemical medications? Were antibiotics the solution? Is killing gut flora an acceptable loss if it stops this protozoan infestation? Or will it annihilate the immune system in a way that leaves him more susceptible? Should I keep the moms in with them longer? Less? Did I start supplementing with kibble too early?
These questions, while helpful in building a quality kennel (facilities and practices included), can be very internally defeating.
The worst part is questioning your breeding stock selection and potentially removing a breeder from the program or changing the breeding entirely. This is the worst because there is no quick solution. It takes a while to get your first puppies from a breeder. There is a considerable time investment. This kind of investment cannot be rushed, so it places a lot of importance on selecting the right dog for the job, and makes you feel even worse when you begin wondering if you selected the wrong dog.
Then I always question my selection of temperament. We know in dogs — as with people — that mindset and personality have a lot to do with the ability to maintain a strong immune system. For example, someone who is alienated and experiencing depression will have a much harder time fighting the flu than someone with a support network and a generally positive outlook on life.
Temperament is largely genetic. You can purposefully select dogs that are independent or codependent, calmer or crazier, or even select based on whether the dog is outgoing or introverted. People sometimes think I’m a little crazy calling a dog more of an introvert, but they carry many similarities to people.
I breed for dogs that thrive well with families, often with young children, therefore calmer is more desirable, but you have to be aware of where the calmness came from…did it come from a confident dog that isn’t easily flustered? Or did I misevaluate and only perceive her as calm because she was shy?
I usually question all these things for 2-3 weeks after losing a puppy, even if I feel what I’m doing is working and the situation couldn’t have been avoided.
In the end I come back around by reminding myself that I did everything I could with the resources and information I had at the time. I know breeding is a work in progress and that it will not always be perfect because nothing is perfect with live animals. I look back at my inner critic and pull constructive thoughts on where I can do better next time and what I can change now.
These painful moments build you on the inside and make you stronger and better prepared. You’ll reflect on these years later as the instances that gave you the insight to change and improve.
The puppies I have lost have brought to light some critical changes in my program and facilities and I cannot begin to comprehend how many lives of puppies will be saved going forward. This is how I keep their memory alive. I made a deal with myself that these dogs would never die in vain, they would be remembered as a crucial learning event, a critical moment in time that forced me to reevaluate for the better.
I have yet to meet a seasoned breeder who didn’t have grit — that relentless perseverance fueled with passion. That passion for your dog, for your buyers, and to fill the void that your dogs fill, gives you strength to continue on, to get up the next day and try again.
If you have lost a puppy, I’m sorry. It sucks, and I feel you.
We know that we need to reevaluate what we are doing. At a minimum we owe this to the pup who passed. So where do we start?
Well, there are three main areas I review and make adjustments to based on these situations. They are facilities, dog health, and the mothering ability of my mama dogs. Let’s discuss some things to think about regarding these areas.
First off, facilities. Often facilities are to blame for the health of our dogs, so when it seems the dogs need to be healthier it typically comes down to the facilities, which, as the name implies, facilitates healthier dogs.
For example, it’s adorable and beautiful to see puppies playing in the grass, but it’s not adorable and fun to have puppies get an infection because of the things or insects that live in that grass. You may have your dogs in a shed to keep them warm, but the shed is hard to sanitize or has poor air flow and the dogs are getting sick.
Maybe you struggle to keep the puppy pens clean because there isn’t an easy way to clean them. Maybe you have a floor that is too textured and poop gets stuck in it or maybe your washer has a hard time handling the cleaning of the blankets, so you delay washing them.
Maybe your water bowls get stepped in too readily and you need to move the water off the floor.
Maybe you don’t have a sanitizable floor to put the puppies on, exposing them to dirt because it places too much of a burden on your family to have them inside.
I’ve struggled with all these things at one time or another. The truth is, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to spend thousands of dollars on a facility in your first few years. You probably don’t yet have the cash flow to justify it without placing a financial burden on yourself and family. It’s also possible that after whelping and raising a few litters, you may decide you just don’t enjoy breeding the way you thought you would. Needless to say, I waited a little too long to build facilities, but the good news is, you’re smarter than me. If you want a quick pdf cheat sheet on what I’ve used to whelp and raise puppies in my home in a cost-effective way that’s also easy to clean, get the cheat sheet using the form below.
Want to Get the Puppy Pen Setup Cheatsheet?
The next thing to evaluate is the health of your dogs. I once had a hard time getting the dog food I normally use because the feed store wasn’t stocking it in the quantity I needed, so I put my dogs on another food for a few months. Man could you tell the difference. Not only were their stools worse, they were inconsistent, and their coats suffered. They looked dull, were shedding more, and I had smaller litters with smaller puppies. If I hadn’t had that good experience with good food before, I might not have noticed, but it was a big difference. Even Bill said something to me within two weeks of switching back to the good food. He didn’t know we had switched back, but suddenly said, “Hey, why are all the dogs so shiny recently?”
Another dumb thing is parasites. Dogs do dumb things. They love roadkill, they lap up dirty water, and occasionally they’ll eat another animal’s poop. Truly, it’s incredible they aren’t sick more often. That being said, parasites can be relatively undetectable. For example, tapeworms often don’t have too many symptoms. They won’t make a dog super skinny or anything, so if you don’t see the actual tapeworms in their stool, the only real symptom is that their coat will look a little dull. Given the amount of dirt my dogs are exposed to daily (all my white dogs look reddish brown), it can be hard to notice.
This is why it’s important to have a routine that checks for these health things. They place a burden on the system and can be nearly undetectable. Yet if they give this to their puppies the consequences can be dire.
Sometimes health is more about genetics than it is management. For example, dogs with a more submissive temperament seem to be less stable in their health. Think of your friend that has a lot of anxiety and always gets a winter cold. Temperament can make a dog more susceptible to health issues and they will pass this on to their puppies.
The last thing to look out for is mothering ability. Some mama dogs are just bad moms. They won’t demonstrate good habits to their puppies and the puppies will pick up the less desirable traits.
For example, I’ve had moms who were too rough on their puppies during weaning, biting them or nipping them instead of just growling with a gentle bite. I’ve also had moms lay right down on their puppies, not noticing their muffled screams. Some moms won’t go to the bathroom away from their puppies, contaminating the area.
These moms may be amazing on health testing, structure, and temperament, but they lack the necessary mothering skills to raise healthy puppies. Sometimes you just have to pull her from the breeding program and keep her daughter as a replacement, hoping your stud will improve the issue.
Breeding isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, as you know. The important thing is to take the lemons from the bad days and try to make a palatable lemonade out of them.
If you’ve lost a puppy, don’t feel bad, it happens. What you do AFTER losing the puppy is more a reflection of you as a breeder than the actual losing of the puppy.
Don’t forget to get the simple cheat sheet on how to set up an affordable whelping and puppy rearing pen using the form below.
Thank you for joining me for another episode of the Honest Dog Breeder Podcast, with me, your host, Julie Swan. I’m glad you’re here with me, through good and bad. If you find this podcast helpful, please leave a review with your podcast provider, it helps to get the word out to other honest dog breeders. Thank you again, and I can’t wait to see you in the next episode.