You can check out Part 1 and Part 2, in which Cici, a Leader Dogs For the Blind “mom” came to live with us in Traverse City… and, in addition to gaining a new human family, made a new sister with our other Labrador, Ginny. But now, it was time for Cici to bring her own little family into the world. As with the other two parts, this is an excerpt from a pair of articles that appeared first in Just Labs magazine.
Vickie and George Strait.
It took both of them to help Cici. After petting her from outside the whelping box for several hours, my wife finally got inside with her; and, with George Strait on the radio, Cici mashed her head into Vickie, pinning her down as the contractions finally intensified. Another hour later, and with her typical calm and collectedness, Vickie announced in a soothing, sing-songy voice, to help keep Cici relaxed, “Well, there’s a puppy!”
Pete, our 12-year-old son, who was there with us, looked at me. We had the same thought: Nah. And we went back trying to load up a missed episode of one our favorite shows through my computer.
“Uh, guys…” Vickie said, still serene, still composed.
Pete and I, by this point, were freaking out.
And just like that, one little Labrador girl came into the house. Over the course of the next few hours, five more joined her – two more females, and three males.
We found out firsthand what Sam Ziegenmeyer, Leader Dogs for the Blind’s (LDB) Breeding Program Manager had told me about the most difficult thing breeder-host families experience: “Patience is the hardest thing for host families. Whelping a litter of puppies is a process. It takes its own sweet time and cannot be rushed. Nature provides this miracle every day over and over again.
“Of course, it is difficult when a puppy does not make it through the birthing process, but it is quickly overshadowed by the next puppy that appears. The reward is seeing the whole litter happily nursing after they have all been born. Then rewards keep coming as the eyes and ears open, they start toddling, the first barks, and you see them learning lessons as they grow.”
And, oh, what rewards. So much so that Mark, our 10-year-old, firmly declared two weeks ahead of time that December 2nd would be the worst day of his life. That’s the day the pups return to LDB. And with the pictures seven-year-old Maddie keeps drawing of the puppies and the library books she checks out on how to take care of puppies and the evening snuggles with the puppies on the floor and the couch? Oh boy. December 2nd is going to be a long day.
Vickie’s calm demeanor at the birth of that first little female kept up through the whole night and the next day, even though the whole process is, frankly, a little gross. But it is nature in action, with Cici nibbling away at the sac the puppy comes in, devouring the sac and the placenta for a boost of nutrition, and licking the pup vigorously. Vickie dove right in to help, rubbing each puppy briskly with a towel when necessary until those first tiny cries as the mucous clears from their mouths.
Then, setting them down next to Cici, we stood in total amazement as, only a minute old, they belly-crawled right to Momma for immediate nursing. All the while, I recorded data on time of birth, weight, sex, the presence of dewclaws, cleft palates, and other measurements.
I was just fine with the clipboard, thank you very much. Vickie did such an excellent job with the, uh, business end of things, I didn’t want to interrupt.
Between pups, Cici devoured scoops of vanilla ice cream for an added sugar boost and energy. She didn’t like the first couple of spoonfuls too much, but she soon started anticipating it – it was so clear to see, as each pup emerged, her relief. And as nature continued with each birth, nature continued on in Cici as well. Such an amazing mom. To see her deal with all of the messes, licking the pups to stimulate their going to the bathroom, perking her ears at each little yip… for those first couple of days, Vickie and I were there to feed Cici (a lot, like 10-cups-of-food-a-day a lot) and to wash blankets and towels. She took care of everything.
“Host families stand watch to make sure that mom and puppies progress through the whelp and alert Leader Dog at the first sign of trouble,” Ziegenmeyer says. “They help as needed to provide mom and puppies with as natural-as-possible whelp with a successful outcome.”
LDB, and our breeding specialist Stacey Booms, as well as the LDB on-call vet, were available every step of the way, too. In addition to the whelping box, scale, milk replacement, some medications, a heat lamp, an exercise pen, and several other supplies they provided us when we picked up Cici after her being bred, the single most important thing they sent us home with was the “breeding bible.”
Unbelievable, how often we consulted it, and how accurate it was in what to expect and when, how to deal with certain things, and what to be on the lookout for. In addition, we had our mentor available for phone consultation should we have needed it. Helping Cici and LDB in the process of bringing tomorrow’s leaders into the world is certainly a team sport.
For the first two weeks, Vickie and I took turns sleeping on an air mattress by the whelping box. Call it new dog-grandparent paranoia: We just wanted to make sure that Cici fed them and didn’t step on any of them. When her milk came in and they lined up at the trough, nursing in a state of puppy bliss, those first two weeks saw a lot of growth as the six pups – who we named Pearl, Pixie, Buster, Yelsa, Olaf, and Reggie, corresponding to their colored ribbons of purple, pink, blue, yellow, orange, and red – went from right around one pound to more than three. After one week, their scrunched noses and smooth pads changed from raw-skin pink to black.
As Ziegenmeyer said, the rewards kept coming. First barks. Seeing them play. Seeing them wag when we stick our heads over the box or pick them up. Perhaps the most precious: those first squints as their eyes worked open.
And then, to have a little dog staring at you, reading you, at four weeks old… absolutely amazing.
To be continued… puppy exercises, playtime, food, and saying good-bye.