Breeding a Litter

 

Originally published in weekly installments on the social media site Reddit in /r/corgi.

As I’m part way through the process of breeding a litter, I thought it might be a good time to document all that goes into breeding so people understand the process of a reputable hobby breeder - from planning, to costs, to outcomes and the emotional side too.

The girl.

In reality the process starts in the whelping box of a previous litter (or with the purchase of a dog), where prospect(s) are chosen and run on to grow up in hopes of great things. They are raised to the best of our ability. Socialized, trained for life and for the show ring. They are watched closely as they are growing up, where we are mentally making notes of all the things we like or want to improve - This can come in the form of personality or temperament, structural soundness, or overall health and ability to thrive.

When a pup is old enough to enter the show ring at 6 months of age we’re able to compare our pup to others around. If we’re in a well populated area we’ll be lucky to see a fair number of dogs. If not we rely on previous knowledge, the knowledge and experience of a mentor, photos of other dogs from various trusted sources, and we scrimp and save to be able to attend the extremely important PWC only Specialty shows where one can see a large number of dogs. If a breeder/owner remains open minded they can see what the virtues and faults of all the dogs they see regardless of what a judge may think on that day, or if they match our own or those of another breeder/owner. We catalogue the virtues and faults of our own dogs to help determine where we improve in the next generation in our never ending quest to produce corgis of sound bodies and minds.

As breeders we should know our breed standards inside and out. The breed standard is the blueprint of each breed. They were written to have an ideal of what each dog should be, so that they can perform the tasks they were developed for. In this case herding (droving), vermin hunting, watch dogs and all purpose farm dog. We refer to our standard frequently, and have mentors and peers to discuss topics with. We need understand WHY our standard calls for certain things based on the function our breed was intended for. The need a certain structure to perform the job they were bred for, a certain temperament, a certain coat type etc. Thus at this point, a show breeder not only seeking a Championship title, but getting to know the dog inside and out so that you can determine IF they are a dog you think is worthy of breeding on.

In some cases a Championship title means little if there are feature(s) that a dog possess that shouldn’t be bred on. That could be a temperamental issue (extreme shyness for example), or a structural problem, or a hereditary health issue. If a dog has a poor top line for example - the line of their back, that instead of a straight firm line, is more like an old rocking horse, they could have the predisposition for more injuries than a dog with a level top line. Every breeder should have to ability to assess these things, without adding in our own emotional attachments to our dogs. Sometimes deciding that a particular dog should not be bred is a harder decision that choosing a mate for them.

A reputable breeder is also not breeding for fads - ‘rare’ colours or structure that might win in the show ring but isn’t true to our breed. We’re breeding to improve the breed so it suits its original intended function, to preserve it for future generations, and to make sure it’s great as the life as a companion. We want to produce healthy, happy puppies that are structurally sound, not prone to injury and look like their breed.

The cost of a championship will vary depending on many factors, including the number of other dogs being exhibited at that time in a region. I assume on average, it will cost approximately $500-$1000 in entry fees, training classes, registrations etc. (not including travel expenses and supplies)

Meet Willow.

She is the daughter of Heath and Rowan and while they both carry our kennel names, they are largely unrelated. Her pedigree is classified as an outcross (since there are no common ancestors in the first 3-4 generations). Willow is important to our breeding programme as she is the careful combination of 2 family lines, and well, she’s pretty cute and sweet tempered too. Willow’s official name - Can Ch. Curig FaerieTale Dusky Willow
Sire: MBIS MBISS Am GCh. Can GChEx. Curig FaerieTale Highlander CGN Dam: Can Ch. Curig FT Raindrops on Roses

Willow is a smaller sized girl at 23 pounds. She is fun, cuddly and sweet to live with, but due to littermate syndrome (my mistake!) she can be unsure in new situations, particularly if she does not have another dog with her for company. From a structural standpoint, Willow is a pretty nice girl! She has a correctly angled shoulder that allows her to move easily and freely with no wasted effort - this is important if she would be doing her job as a drover as she’d have the ability to work all day without tiring quickly due to structural problems. Her ribcage and sternum are long and able to protect her organs and back. A long ribcage with short loin is important in a dwarf breed to ensure their spine is well supported and lessen the likelihood of potential back problems. Willow has the signature Pembroke silhouette - long and low. She has dark eyes which are preferred in the breed for their expressiveness, a scissor bite, clean tight lips, and dark pigmentation around her eye nose and lips. In areas that she could use improvement; her foot shape and tightness - just like in people, a flat foot can cause pain and injuries. Her head does not have a sufficient stop - the area between her eyes is not prominent enough to really match that signature corgi face. Willow could also use more density of bone in her legs. A corgi should be sturdy and solid enough to move a large cow.

Health testing.

Many puppy producers will have a litter of puppies based on a simple veterinary examination as ‘proof’ their dogs are healthy and perhaps have has simple vaccinations. Sadly this doesn’t look further into issues that could be avoided or ultimately removed from the gene pool eventually. Many breed clubs track the general health and longevity of the gene pool and will make recommendations to breeders based on their findings. The PWCCA has worked with OFA to develop a survey for those of us with Pembrokes. If you have a PWC now, or had one in the past and can remember details about their life and health, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey. It could help us to determine the overall health of our breed, and if there are any areas that need research funded to help find solutions or to develop testing options.

The great thing about many of the tests we have available in the breed, is that they can be done at any time. von Willebrands Disease - a blood clotting disorder (vWD), Degenerative Myelopathy - like ALS in humans, a painless degradation of the spine typically in old age (DM), Eyes - an exam looking specifically for potentially hereditary issues performed by a board certified ophthalmologist, Fluff - long coated factoring does not affect the overall health of a dog but can help us determine the suitability of a mate should one wish to avoid possible long coated offspring. These can all be tested well before your girl is grown up as most are simple DNA tests done via cheek swab. The ideal is that we wait to breed until a girl is over 2 years old so that there are official results on hips to check for signs from hip dysplasia from Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). In some cases a girl that’s cycling quickly, or for a myriad of other reasons, you choose to have a prelim of her hips done and breed her based on those results.

The important thing is that the tests are done and that we know what the results are and what they mean. Breeders can wave vWD clear, DM clear certificates around madly, but if they don’t look at the rest of the picture, they can still breed and produce substandard or even unhealthy puppies. Tests are tools. They are absolutely necessary, but they are only one aspect of a breeding. Testing for only one aspect of health is as detrimental - we see many BYB types testing only for DM for example and ignoring other issues. Considering there are a great many factors associated with DM and many that are still being researched, we would be wrong to throw away dogs from the gene pool based on one test that we don’t have full information on yet. Not taking other health or temperament issues into consideration is also detrimental - breeding on a line that get cancer at a young age, or has heart problems for example. This is why researching pedigrees is essential. Taking a dog to a vet and having them check them over for general health doesn’t unearth what their genes may pass down to their offspring.

Willow is vWD Carrier, DM Carrier, Eyes Normal, Hips OFA Fair, OFA Normal Elbows. Her health testing cost approximately $600 - $800 and does not include regular veterinary care, vaccinations, and other related costs.
To explain Willow’s test results; she carries one copy of the normal vWD gene and one ‘faulty’ one. To try to make sure her puppies do not have the mild form of this disorder we will ideally want to find a mate that is vWD clear. In an ideal world the same would hold true for DM, but PWCs have a high incidence of at risk dogs in their gene pool and we choose to use those dogs in breeding programmes so that we don’t do further damage to the gene pool by removing too many. As DM is a disease that still has many questions, many breeders are testing for the one genetic marker we have and waiting for more research to be published to determine our course of action moving forward. Willow’s eyes have been cleared by a veterinary ophthalmologist and show no abnormal hereditary issues. Willow’s hips have been passed by OFA, but we know that with a lower score they could use improvement in their overall shape. We will research pedigrees with dogs that have a record of good scores for multiple generations to try to improve this.

Assessing the needs of the bitch and breeding programme.

No dog is perfect, a breeder should be honest about both the faults and the virtues of their bitch and their breeding programme. Determining what we feel are the most important aspects to pursue is a choice every breeder has to make. Attending specialty shows, which allow us to view many corgis at once, is essential in a breeders growth. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of this as this process is very personal. Every breeder will have things they wish to improve on their dogs from structural improvements to overall health and temperament.

After assessing the faults and virtues of the girl, a breeder must also look at their breeding programme over all. The big question is always; why have you chosen to breed in the first place? What goals are there for all the dogs, & how will this girl and her progeny fit into that? Is there something she has to contribute to the line? Or would it be better to choose not to breed her? If she’s had a litter previously, were her offspring healthy, structurally sound, good temperaments? What were your likes and dislikes of her offspring? Did she have problems whelping? Was she a good mother? The list of questions is never ending and a breeder will constantly be asking themselves questions as they go through the process.

To recap my needs in short: Willow is a smaller bitch at only 23 pounds. She’s a little light on bone, needs a tighter arched foot, a stronger pastern, and a much better head. As for virtues, Willow has a lovely dark eye, good pigment, correct neck, lovely outline, beautiful pro-sternum and ribbing with a short loin. Her top line is solid on the move and she moves effortlessly with little wasted movement anywhere. She has a sweet laid back temperament, but could use a bit of confidence - though that was also my fault in raising her so closely with her litter sister. She produced an amazing first litter of 6 puppies (the Star Wars Litter) that were consistent in quality, temperament and structure. 4 of 6 have gone on to become Champions & and most importantly we just love having them around. 

Choosing a mate.

Not that long ago, before health testing and other technologies were available to us, maybe breeders would utilize test breedings to ensure their bitch was able to conceive and carry a litter. A wise person once told us “Always breed a bitch like it’s her ONLY litter”. We’ve chosen to follow this philosophy. We start with “if you could breed to any dog in the world, who would it be” and start to make a shortlist based on many factors - virtues of the dog, pedigree, temperament, and health testing. This process takes months and months of research. A breeder doesn’t just look at the dog, but his entire pedigree - from their phenotype (how they look), to what they have behind them (genotype), and to the health and temperaments of their ancestors. If the dog has produced litters, these too are considered. What does he seem strong in producing? Does he provide improvement across a variety of pedigrees, or does he seem best bred to particular lines?

Once a shortlist is made, the breeder starts contacting owners of the potential stud dogs. We ask a myriad of questions about the dog, his progeny, his pedigree - from structural faults and virtues, to heath concerns (there are other issues than just the ones we can test for, some family lines may carry predispositions to issues you may want to steer clear of - early cancers, heart issues etc), to temperament and trainability. If the stud dog has other litters born already, we will often contact those breeders to get their take on the puppies they had by a particular dog.
Here is a list of sample questions I have sent out in the past, as well as all the usual questions about health clearances, fees, contracts, and general information.

  • Do you ship chilled? Do you do it yourself or at a vet? Have chilled breedings been successful?
  • How much does he weigh?
  • Is he a good eater?
  • What's his temperament like? Does he get along with other dogs? Other males? How is he with children?
  • How many litters has he produced?
  • What has he been throwing? what type of bitch does he do best with?
  • Are there any health issues that have cropped up?
  • Has he thrown mismarks? monorchids?
  • Does he have a scissor bite? (the Cdn standard does not allow for level)
  • Has he been tested for brucellosis?

Then begins the agonizing, weighing the pros and cons of each dog against the list of things you are looking for for your bitch. At some point, after many months of debating you’ve got to go with your gut and make a decision. It could be great, or it could be a disaster - breeding is as much an art form as it is a science.

Every stud dog owner also have a breeding contract they have the owner(s) of the girl sign. This covers things like basic guarantees for puppies (typically 2 live puppies at birth), that the owners agree to ensure resulting puppies are placed in appropriate homes and cared for for the entirety of their lives, and sometimes other stipulations and fees.

We’ve chosen a stud dog in another country as we feel that he has a good chance to be able to provide the things that Willow needs without losing the positive things she has. Thankfully with current reproductive technology, neither dog needs to leave their home to be bred allowing us access to what we feel is the best possible match over just finding dogs to breed to that are geographically close. While costly, this is much nicer for all parties. A typical stud fee for a proven male is anywhere from $1000-1500 USD

The breeding process.

OMG my girl is in heat! A quick lesson in dog reproduction: A dog will cycle 1-2 times a year, typically every 5-8 months for a PWC. Most dogs ovulate about 10-14 days into their heat cycle. It takes 2 days after ovulation for the eggs to become fertile and they are viable for 2-4 days from ovulation. Canine gestation is only 63 days (9 weeks) from ovulation to delivery. Yes, I said 63 DAYS.

As soon as the girl shows signs of being in heat, we notify the stud dog owner. They will need time to make arrangements for a vet visit, or delivery of supplies for shipping the chilled semen to the girl when the time comes. Approximately 1 week from the start of the season, we start regular trips to the vet clinic. The clinic draws blood and sends it to a specialized laboratory to read progesterone hormone values. Once progesterone values reach a certain number, it’s typically safe to assume ovulation has occurred. Depending on the test results, blood draws are done every other day, or daily until ovulation has occurred with one more to ensure values continue to climb.

We have done as few as 2 progesterone tests and as many as 11. Each test costs $85. Willow needed 3 tests thanks in part to experienced stud dogs living with her that can help pinpoint timing based on their reactions. $255 total for Willow’s testing.

Once ovulation has occurred we typically inseminate 2-3 days later for optimal timing of the most fertile period. Using the progesterone values, the vets and owners of the dogs determine the best days for shipping chilled semen to the girl. This often means a vet visit for the boy, where he is collected, evaluated and semen is put in a special medium for transportation that can keep it alive for a couple of days. The shipment is then sent via Fed Ex to arrive the following day. At this point you cross all your fingers and hope that the forms on the package are correct, that there isn’t a heatwave or freezing temps somewhere on the route that could kill package contents, that customs doesn’t hold you package until it’s dead, or that it gets lost. All of these things have happened at some point! Typically you spend a 12-24 hour period frantically refreshing the fedex tracking info in hopes your package hasn't been accidentally routed to Timbuktu, then another 3-4 hours on the phone with FedEx trying to locate your package that was supposed to be held for pickup, but they thought they should put it on a truck for delivery in -25˚C.

Once the ‘boyfriend-in-a-box’ arrives, there are numerous ways to inseminate. Each method is chosen based on the needs of the girl, the timing, and the quality of the package on arrival. If everything is ideal, a simple insemination can be done at home by an experienced breeder, or by the reproductive veterinarian. Should there be reason to use another method it’s typical we will opt for a TCI (trans-cervical insemination), this method is non-invasive and using a scope, deposits the semen through the cervix into the uterus. This method has a much higher success rate than a simple AI. If you have a girl that is not very fertile, or semen of poor quality, or it was previously frozen (thawed from frozen only lives approximately 1 hour and it’s imperative it be placed as close to the eggs as possible) a surgical AI is recommended. This method involves full anesthetic and a small incision.

The bitch owner pays all costs associated with breeding. On average a veterinary visit for collection, including extender medium and the special shipping containers is approximately $200-400 USD. Shipping overnight is about $175-250 per shipment. If something goes wrong in the shipping process and the sample is dead on arrival, it’s sometimes possible to do the process again in enough time to still breed the girl. Again, all costs apply. Insemination costs - AI $50, TCI $200, Surgical AI $500-700.

The waiting.

There is no pregnancy test for a dog like we have in humans. Progesterone levels spike shortly after ovulation and remain high whether there is a pregnancy or not, so we have little to measure. We can't devise hilarious methods to get them to pee on a stick, we can't do a blood draw... We spend a lot of time looking at our girls, asking them if they’re pregnant, rubbing their bellies and chanting 'puppy, puppy, puppy", biting our nails and generally worrying. At approximately 3 weeks gestation the fetus’ implant in the uterus. There is some times morning sickness associated with this and it’s seen as the first sign of a pregnancy. Thankfully at 4 weeks we can take another trip to the vet clinic for an ultrasound! (yes, I’m pretty sure I’ve paid for the college education of my vet’s 2 children). A good reproductive veterinarian will be able to determine if there is a pregnancy, and sometimes can give a very rough count of puppies. The ultrasound can also show if there are any fetuses that will not reach term, or other issues that could affect the pregnancy.

As we were away for the PWCCA National Specialty, we chose not to ultrasound Willow at 4 weeks and instead wait it out. Typically there will be more signs of pregnancy around 5-6 weeks. Thickening of the waist, mammary development, increased appetite (or decreased in the case of Willow’s first litter), as well as temperamental changes. If pregnancy ultrasound is done at about 4 weeks gestation, it will cost about $150.

Willow is now coming up to 7 weeks pregnant and and we are wondering if she's even carrying a litter at all. If she is it may be a single pup. In an act of insanity I did something I've never done before and that was to breed another bitch at the same time as Willow. Sprout is definitely pregnant and is due in about a week, 10 days before Willow is due. I will be taking her for an X-ray tomorrow to find out how many she may be carrying and if there are any reasons to for concern. 

The Whelping

Seeing how Willow is not pregnant, we're substituting another girl in for the remainder of this process. Yes, in a moment of insanity I did something I've never before done and bred 2 bitches at the same time. Sprout is carrying 4 puppies! 

  

If I'm considering free whelping, I will x-ray a bitch about a week to 4 days prior to their due date. This helps get a count of how many pups we can expect when whelping as well as determining any potential issues. Let's just say I'm glad I did! Sprout has BIG babies in there! Due to the size of these pups with 4-5 days left to grow, and her family history of producing larger puppies, we've opted for an elective c-section. The average pem puppy is anywhere from 6-12 oz at birth. Sprout's dam had puppies that were 12-15 oz which meant that she was able to deliver some, but the 15 ozer getting stuck meant a section. Are we being overly cautious? Yes. I'm a softie and I want both my bitch and the puppies to make it through the whelping process. They have a higher chance of doing so with a section.

Sprout's temperature is being monitored 4-5 times a day. When the progesterone levels drop a temperature drop also occurs. This means that the first stage of labour is imminent and that if delivering naturally, puppies would be born in 12-36 hours. Once we have signs of labour and a significant temperature drop, we'll be notifying our vet clinic to make arrangements for the section. She is tentatively booked in for this thursday and for now we monitor her closely for signs of labour.

 

Part 2 - Raising the litter

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