Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Dog Mothering Behavior
Will my dog be a good mother and take good care of her puppies? This question may seem like something that only concerns humans, but the truth is, there are actually cases where dogs weren't the maternal role models we expected them to be. Telling the owner to relax because "nature will run its course" and that everything will go fine once mother dog whelps aren't always the best practice. Unexpected things may, and unfortunately, do happen.
Allowing your dog to mate with a handsome stud is just a fraction of all the hard work it takes to raise a happy, healthy litter. Good parenting practices on the side of the mother dog are fundamental for a great part of the success. Most importantly, poor parenting skills in dogs may be reduced with knowledge and a good understanding of ethical breeding practices. First and foremost, what exactly is the maternal instinct in dogs? How does it kick in? Is it something all female dogs are naturally blessed with? What can be done to increase the chances your dog will be a good mother to her puppies? Let's take a closer look at the dynamics.
Understanding Maternal Instinct in Dogs
To better understand maternal instincts in dogs, we must take a closer look at the changes that occur in her body when she's pregnant, getting ready to whelp, and afterward. What happens exactly during pregnancy that triggers maternal instincts in your dog? Most likely, if your dog is pregnant, she was bred to a male dog during her estrus cycle. This is the fertile time when your dog will likely stand and allow the male to mount without much fuss. Once the mating is over, and your dog is no longer interested in the male, estrus ends and diestrus starts. Whether your dog got pregnant or not though doesn't really matter much from a hormonal standpoint; indeed, according to Colorado State University, "Following ovulation, the pattern of progesterone secretion is essentially the same regardless of whether the bitch is pregnant or not."
Let's take a more technical look at what may be happening exactly. Right after ovulation takes place, your dog's corpus luteum, a transient, hormone-producing gland located on the surface of the ovaries, produces high levels of progesterone regardless if the dog is expecting puppies or not. Those constant, high levels of progesterone in pregnant and non-pregnant dogs explain why we cannot reliably measure progesterone to detect pregnancy in dogs. Instead, we use a dog pregnancy test that measures the levels of relaxin, a hormone produced by the developing placenta after implantation of the embryo, This hormone can be detected as early as 22 to 27 days after breeding.
In the case an egg was fertilized, and thus, your dog is pregnant, the hormones will maintain the corpus luteum for those 63 days, which is needed for the maintenance of normal pregnancy, If no egg was fertilized and your dog isn't pregnant, there are chances the corpus luteum won't destroy as seen in other animals, but it will eventually stop from producing progesterone over the course of 70 or more days. This is likely the reason why we see false pregnancy behaviors in dogs; the dog's body believes the dog is pregnant no matter what.
Linda P. Case, author of the book The Dog, its Behavior, Nutrition and Health, claims, "In most species, the corpus lutea will regress and the female with return to anaestrus earlier if pregnancy didn't occur. In the female dog, however, the corpus lutea are maintained and remain functional for the same period of time whether or not the female is pregnant." It's therefore possible that the persistent presence of the corpus luteum at some point eventually triggers the development of physical changes and behaviors necessary to care for offspring. Let's take a closer look at how those maternal instincts kick in.
Pre-Whelping Maternal Instinct
Good parenting practices can be seen even before mama dog gives birth. Just as a parent works hard to find a good place to raise his/her kids, mother dog will start with what is called "nesting behaviors." She will start pacing around in search of a good place to give birth, often choosing closets or a quiet spot under a bed. She may tear up blankets or other material to create soft bedding. Behaviorally, she can even become "broody" just as hens do when they sit on a roosting area and don't want to be bothered. These behaviors are reminiscent of the old times when canines used to build an underground den to protect their pups from the elements and predators. Don't rely entirely on nesting behaviors though as a sure sign your dog is pregnant; these behaviors take place in false pregnancy as well. Indeed, false pregnancy in dogs can also cause relevant physical changes such as weight gain, mammary gland enlargement and even production of milk.
Post Whelping Maternal Instinct
What triggers mothering behaviors in dogs? No dog was taught how to be a good mother after all. Children play with dolls, see other moms taking care of babies and grow up knowing what to do, but dogs? In dogs we must thank the hypothalamus that triggers maternal behavior right after birth explains Dr. Nicholas Dodman. The distension of the cervix and uterus when whelping along with the simple sight, smell, and touch of the puppies nursing switch on oxytocin, which promotes a strong bond between mom and her pups, whereas prolactin helps control milk production and triggers that protectiveness that may even cause a new mother dog to resent anybody coming close to her newborn pups, especially in the first days when they are most vulnerable. Born blind, deaf, and unable to regulate their own temperatures, newborn pups need all the help they can get.
The maternal instinct will continue for as long as the pups need their mom. She will always be attentive to their needs, feeding them, keeping them warm, and licking their bottoms to stimulate their bowel movements and ingest their waste so to keep the whelping area clean and free of odors, which in the old days would have attracted predators. She will then start resenting nursing them when their sharp teeth start erupting and hurt her nipples. This is when the puppies can be successfully encouraged to try new foods and the weaning process can start. Slowly, the mother dog will cater to her pups less and less, which makes it an ideal time to find them a new home.
As seen, mother dog should come naturally programmed to take good care of her puppies; however not always things may go as wished. There are some circumstances under our control and others beyond our control when it comes to maternal instinct. Next, let's see at some things that may go wrong.
When Mother Dog Doesn't Take Good Care of Pups
It's unfortunate when you wait several years to breed your dog, finally find a handsome stud, and wait 63 days only to discover that the mother dog doesn't want anything to do with her puppies and even seems to dread taking good care of them. What causes such behavior? What can be done to prevent this? Let's take a look at predisposing factors. Some of these factors can be prevented through education, while in regards to others not much can be done to prevent such problems.
Being Bred Too Young
This is one of the biggest mistakes made by first-time breeders: breeding the female dog on her first heat cycle. There are many reasons why not to do this. First and foremost, the dog is still developing. When she has her first litter, energy that should have gone in growing will go into developing the litter instead. Secondly, dogs should be allowed to develop first so to ascertain they are free from hereditary issues that may be passed on to the litter. This is when a health test should be done. And last but not least, many dogs in their first heat are immature and not ready to deal with a litter.
On their first heat, mother dogs are pretty much puppies themselves, explains veterinarian Ron Hines. As some say to put it bluntly, "It's like allowing a 12-year-old child to have a baby." As such, these first-time mothers (primiparous females) may refuse to take care of the litter causing the breeder to have to intervene. However, many mother dogs become better moms as they gain more experience (multiparous females) even though one must consider that older mother dogs at times don't make the best parents either. So when's the right time for breeding a dog? Ideally, female dogs should be bred on their second or even third heat period after they have been health tested for common hereditary disorders and have demonstrated a sound temperament.
Having a C-Section
Awakening from the anesthesia at a vet's office makes new mother dogs wonder where all those puppies came from. Are they hers? There are no placentas to eat to confirm that. Why don't they smell like her? They may rather smell like the people who delivered them. How can we help her feel less confused? Allowing mother and pups to interact in a quiet place and the pups to nurse may help. It's important for the pups to get their dose of colostrum as this special milk is only produced temporarily. However, it often takes a day or two after a C-section for mother dog to have enough milk for the pup and to recover fully so to cater to their care. You may need to intervene and supplement the pups to prevent dehydration, explains Pembroke Welsh Corgi breeder Anne Bowes. Close supervision is important to ensure acceptance of the pups, especially the first few days. Generally, the pups are accepted within one to two days once mother dog cleans up their waste and recognizes her own smell from the milk passing through them. Some breeders recommend having the vets save a placenta so the breeder can pass it over mother dog's vulva and then on the pups so they smell similar and help mother dog recognition.
In some cases, mother dog may be too stressed to take good care of her puppies. If the whelping box is in a highly frequented area or you have too many visitors stopping by or other animals in the home, the stress may affect the way she bonds with her pups. A common sign of problems is a mother dog who repeatedly moves her puppies from one spot to another. In some cases, mother dog may be so stressed that she redirects her stress by acting aggressive towards the pups. It's very important to keep your mother dog's whelping area in a quiet, dark place where she has the opportunity to be the best mom as she can.
Not Feeling Well
Often, dog owners may think that the mother dog is being a bad mom when in reality she is neglecting her pups because of an underlying illness. There are several complications that can take place after whelping such as a retained placenta causing an infection and fever or other complications after birth. In the case of aggression, it's important to rule out medical problems such as low levels of calcium in the blood (hypocalcemia). Your dog may be panting excessively, acting lethargic and may not be interested in caring for the pups. While new moms may not be interested in eating right after whelping because they are too occupied in caring for their pups, a mother dog that appears listless and not interested in her pups warrants a veterinary check-up.
A Puppy Is Sick
Another instance of lack of interest may take place when there is a sick puppy or a puppy with some birth defect. Mother dog may not care for this pup and the pup may be pushed away and not allowed to nurse. In this case mother dog is not being mean, she is only doing what nature instinct tells her to do. In some cases, mother dog may even kill her puppy, for more on this read why "mother dog may kill her puppies."
Lack of Guardrails/Supervision
Many times, dog owners blame mother dog for killing her puppies during the night. They label her as a vicious and careless mother. They often fail to realize though what really happened. During the night, or when unsupervised, mother dog may accidentally lie down on the puppies and fail to hear their muffled moans for help. This is why all whelping boxes should have special guardrails installed so to reduce the chances of mother dog laying down on them and suffocating them. Also, it's highly recommended for breeders to sleep nearby the whelping box, especially the first days. This way they can intervene swiftly and save those pups from a sad fate that could be prevented. Hearing those moans can really make the difference between life and death.
Genes at Play
In some cases, mother dog just doesn't make a good mother dog, just as simple as that. There may be a genetic predisposition for this which is why breeders will often decide to no longer breed a dog that shows such a disposition, especially in severe cases. The fact that a trend towards not being exemplary mothers is seen in female Jack Russell terriers seems to suggest that a genetic component may be at play, according to Pet MD. Some say that cocker spaniels may join the club as well even though there's no quantitative study to back this up.
As seen, there are several steps to help prevent mother dog from not caring for her pups as she should. Hand-rearing puppies may seem like a good solution, but there can be devastating consequences in the future of these pups as they may fail to learn many important life lessons from their interactions with their moms. It also requires loads of knowledge on caring for the litter, feeding the pups properly, keeping them warm, encouraging elimination etc. A good breeder should take steps to prevent this from happening in the first place. Ideally, a mentor should be available to help out.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: My American Bulldog is a little over a year old and deaf. Although I don't plan to breed her for a couple more years, if I ever do, I can't find a straight answer if she would be a good mother or not. I know there is a chance her puppies would be deaf. Should I just go ahead and spay her now, or wait and have a litter or two and then get her spayed?
Answer: Generally, deafness is noticeable a few weeks after birth, but it may be difficult to determine the exact mode of inheritance even in congenital deafness (passed down from one generation and another). For instance, it could be that the deafness is transmitted from one parent and not the other or perhaps it's from both. It's all a matter or recessive/dominant genes and these things can get quite complicated. Without knowing, it might be best to take a conservative approach and not breed dogs that are at risk of producing deaf puppies.
© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli
Dondre on August 15, 2018:
My dog just had her second litter of puppies and shes not listening to their moaning when she is over them how do i teach her to understand their needs shes almost 2 years old and she crushed two puppies and now shes become depressed and i don't think shell be able to keep this litter
Zowie Skilling on June 22, 2017:
Hi, my dog Bella has just had seven pups she is doing everything she should be feeding clean ing.. we are now on weining stage. But my question is, my dog isn't really interacting with them so the teaching stage where she would be showing them wen they are growing an viewing isn't really happening she feeds an leaves.. I have been keep her with them after now an not letting her out let her bond even tho they are mostly sleeping..they are 4 weeks old now an ate very independent pups because of this but I'm not sure if this is normal or not.. this is my first time doing this an it was an accident I had them booked in vets an was too late.. dad lives with us as well an only time she shows any signs of interest in them really is if he come bear but this is only from outside their pen.. I might sound thick but, I don't know an have to ask..
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 08, 2016:
Sounds like your dog trusts you enough to do that.
Lakotah Presti on December 08, 2016:
My question was why does my dog feel the need to keep them close to me? Did I do something right, or horribly wrong?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 20, 2014:
Thank you for sharing your story Jandee, it's not unheard of for mother dogs to do this, but, luckily as you can attest it's not that common though.
jandee from Liverpool.U.K on October 20, 2014:
You have taken me back to a sad happening years ago. The puppies came early and during the night. In the morning I was first up (aged 15) to my horror only the heads were remaining. She had cleaned (eaten) the bodies.
The vetrinaire explained that she -mother dog-knew naturally,that there was something wrong with the pups !
It was a nightmare but happily I have had many dogs,same breed,since then, and they have been fantastic mothers,and fathers.
Thanks for nice information, Sorry if it was a little shocking about my dog,best from jandee.