The cellphone connection was poor, so Ann Silberman couldn't hear exactly what the veterinarian, Dr. Alastair Westcott, was saying, only that she should come and pick up Sasha, her 11-month-old Labrador retriever, who was at the clinic to be spayed. Since Sasha hadn't been there long, Ann was puzzled, but when she arrived, it all became clear. "I can't spay Sasha today," said Westcott. "She's pregnant." He had been able to feel three fetuses in Sasha's tight abdomen and said there might be more.
The Silbermans -- Ann, her husband, Jack, and their 22-year-old son, Ben -- who live on Bowen Island, B.C., had meant to have Sasha spayed sooner but, as often happens, hadn't quite got around to it. Sasha was their first dog, and while there had been some early discussion of puppies, it had never been more than the vaguest of notions. Now their young dog was going to bring forth a litter -- in less than a month.
Adjusting to the news
As the initial shock wore off, the reality sunk in: they knew nothing about whelping (the term for a dog giving birth) or raising puppies. Ann turned to a local expert, Pamela Cleary, a dog trainer and breeder, who offered books and advice. With Sasha more than halfway through her two-month gestation, the Silbermans started learning and readying their home.
If puppies were a sure thing, the identity of their father was not. The suspects included a geriatric boxer, a prolific wolf/Doberman mix, a lively fox terrier cross and a black Labrador retriever, plus any other of the island's motley assortment of roaming canine lotharios. Clearly, the Lab would be the preferred choice; his puppies would likely be easier to find homes for than ones that were odd-looking or had less desirable personality potential.
How Sasha got knocked up
When Sasha had come into heat, Jack had inspected the high fence that enclosed their yard and was convinced that as long as Sasha was either in the house or yard or on-leash during her walks, she'd be safe from male overtures. Then, on a walk to the store for milk one evening, he and Sasha met the black Lab. "It was love at first sight," says Jack. "They were ready to do the deed right there." Jack managed to drag the seductive Sasha home, all the while fending off the male's amorous advances; but now the suitor had Sasha's address.
Late that night Sasha woke up Jack, wanting to be let out. Half asleep, Jack complied. Soon afterward he heard her at the door and went to let her in. "There she was with this big guilty grin on her face and right behind her was the black Lab, smiling." To this day, Jack has no idea how the Lab got into their yard. "I guess where there's a will, there's a way," he says. Somehow Jack persuaded himself that maybe nothing had happened. Not wanting to worry Ann needlessly, he never mentioned the incident to her, so when Westcott delivered the news of the impending puppies, she was stunned. And then the paternity was still a question; if the Lab had managed to breach the perimeter, another dog might have done so, too. They'd have to wait for the puppies' arrival before they could identify the father.
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Planning for the birth
With guidance from Westcott and Cleary, the Silbermans converted their laundry room into a whelping box. They borrowed a heat lamp and baby gate, gathered lots of bedding and they curtained the little room to create a den. It was an anxious time for the Silbermans, who realized that birth is a messy event with inherent risks. They knew they could lose some puppies -- they could even lose their beloved dog. It was not to be taken for granted.
Worried, Ann called her friend Patti-Jo Wiese, a trained doula, to ask if she would help with Sasha's delivery. Doulas work with doctors and midwives to provide emotional support and continuity for women during the labour process. Wiese agreed to be a doula for the dog, with one condition: "I'll help," she said, "but I'm not taking one of the puppies. There's no way." (Wiese named her puppy Koko.)
Restlessness and urgent efforts to hide signalled Sasha's labour. She became increasingly agitated as the day wore on and her pain intensified. Late that evening, as the Silbermans and Wiese tried to soothe the pacing, panting dog underneath the kitchen table, Ben caught the first of the puppies -- to everyone's great relief, a tiny black Lab. Sasha's maternal instincts quickly overcame her initial confusion. She tore open the sac and began to lick her daughter. Over the next five hours, Sasha delivered nine more puppies, all of which were golden, like her. "Every puppy was a miracle," says Ann. "They were the sweetest little things I've ever seen, and extremely fragile."
Sasha was exhausted. The whelping had left her physically spent. Ten puppies is a big litter, says Westcott, particularly for a young dog's first. The early days are critical; a lot can go wrong. The Silbermans quickly devised a system of rotating the puppies -- five at a time with Sasha, five safely beside her in a little basket under the heat lamp -- and were careful to see that each puppy nursed well at her eight teats. Without enough teats for each puppy, smaller ones can easily lose out to their stronger siblings and fade fast. Although all were healthy at birth, a few were clearly weaker than the others and needed help latching onto their mother. The Silbermans worked tirelessly around the clock to ensure that all of Sasha's puppies lived -- and thrived.
Feeding 10 ravenous puppies took its toll on Sasha. Despite eating huge amounts of food, by the puppies' second week Sasha had become gaunt and developed a calcium deficiency, which required veterinary attention. The Silbermans had to supplement Sasha's dog food to keep her strength up. Soon the smell of meat being cooked wafted through their staunchly vegetarian household.
Planning on bringing home your own puppy? Don't do a thing until you read our guide to adopting a pet.
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Raising the puppies -- a full-time job
Properly caring for a litter of puppies is pretty much a full-time job. It's a testament to the Silbermans' devotion to their dog and attentiveness to every detail that none of the puppies died. "Our lives were entirely about managing Sasha and the puppies," says Ann.
Westcott and Cleary say the Silbermans were exceptional. They made the commitment to care for Sasha and her pups and do it properly, says Cleary who, along with Wiese and other friends, helped when none of the Silbermans were able to be at home. A mother and her litter shouldn't be alone for long. Puppies are good at getting themselves into trouble, and keeping 10 of them safe isn't easy. The puppies grew, becoming less dependent on their mother and more active and demanding of the Silbermans. By the time they were three weeks old, they had outgrown the laundry room, so the dining room's furniture was removed and the space was securely fenced off, lined with tarpaulins and covered with newspapers, and a bedding area was created at one end. As the puppies began to be weaned onto solid food at four weeks, the work intensified. ("What a mess!" says Ann.)
A relentless routine
The 24-hour routine of feeding, cleanup and supervised exercise was relentless. Each week Ann put out roughly 30 garbage bags bulging with compressed soiled newspapers. Although some puppies sleep better than others, few litters sleep through the night before they're eight to 10 weeks old. Once the pups were on solid food, the Silbermans had to provide the food and water -- every three to four hours. Their routine: bed at 11 p.m.; up at 2 a.m. for feeding yapping puppies, then putting them outside for exercise and to pee, etc., and while they were outside, cleaning up the soiled papers in the dining room. Then up again between 4 and 5 a.m., then again between 7 and 8 a.m. And the puppies' bowels were constantly active, relentless, 24-7. Ask any breeder: producing puppies and caring for them well is an exhausting, full-time undertaking.
Letting the puppies go
Finding good homes for puppies can be problematic. However, the Silbermans are well-liked members of a dog-friendly community, the father was the black Labrador and all of the puppies were healthy. Friends and neighbours stepped forward to take Sasha's puppies. Had the Silbermans lived elsewhere, had the puppies' attractiveness-potential not been so great, or had any of them been physically impaired, the situation could have been quite different.
The Silbermans had known that letting Sasha's puppies go would be difficult, but they hadn't anticipated how hard it would be on Sasha. After the first one left, at eight weeks old, she was frantic, counting the remaining nine, searching the house and yard. As more puppies went over the ensuing days, she sank into depression. The normally ebullient dog, whose tail was always wagging, became distant and sad. Although the Silbermans knew the puppies had to go and that they had picked good homes for them, Sasha's distress was terribly upsetting. It wasn't just Sasha, but also the puppies that concerned them. "You start to love those little beings," says Jack, "and you feel increasingly responsible and anxious about their lives after they leave." Most of Sasha's puppies went to homes near hers. She saw them often and her depression soon lifted.
Sasha's puppies are recognized all over Bowen Island and have created a bond among their owners. They all participated in the For Sasha's Puppies Only training course taught by Cleary. Sasha even had her own float in the island's summer festival parade: Wiese, dressed as Cruella de Ville, driving her 1967 red Mercury convertible with Sasha and her puppies in the backseat. "These dogs have brought such joy," says Wiese.
Looking back, the Silbermans say that if they had had even an inkling of what caring for puppies would entail, Sasha would have been spayed before her first heat. Nevertheless, Ann adds, "It's an experience I wouldn't have missed for the world."
Epilogue: Sasha has been spayed. Each of her puppies has been spayed or neutered.
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