What a wonderful world

One challenge of rescue work is not knowing what experiences our foster dogs have been through. Have they been mistreated or neglected? Do they have any particular fears or triggers?  While I do my best to observe a new dog when she first arrives, I can’t always predict how she is going to react to new situations or new people. A few years ago we fostered a seemingly well adjusted and friendly mother dog named Connie. One afternoon while Connie and I were in the backyard with her puppies, my daughter Amanda – then in her late teens – came out to join us and sat down in our old swing set. Amanda began to slowly swing and Connie charged her and bit her hard in the rear. Luckily Amanda had heavy jean shorts; no harm done but some mild bruising and hurt feelings. But we were extremely alarmed that this seemingly innocuous action was so provocative to Connie. And it was a strong reminder that we needed to be very careful about introducing anything unfamiliar to our foster dogs, even ones like Connie who before this event had shown no signs of aggression or fear.

I’ve also seen many of my foster dogs’ personalities change after they settle into our household. Once safe and secure, their true personalities emerge. Usually the changes are positive. Dogs who were once unsure will let us know they need to go out and stop having accidents. Dogs who at first were insecure will play with us and Wendy. But they may also become territorial and growl or bark at guests or neighbors, try to dominate Wendy or Little Dog, or chase our cats who they previously ignored. Jenny, a very frightened mother dog we fostered last fall used to hide in the bushes whenever she heard a noise.

Jenny 2
Jenny fall 2015

But as her confidence grew she stopped hiding and started barking instead.


And a mother dog’s personality and behavior may change during pregnancy and the puppies’ different developmental stages. Initially the puppies require a lot of care from their mother and a large quantity of her milk which leaves her energy for little else. As the puppies begin to eat solid food, the mother’s energy level usually increases. As the weeks pass, our mother dogs tend to want to spend more and more time with me and the rest of our family. When the puppies are old enough to be weaned, the mothers will often run away when they try to nurse and show other signs of impatience. I fostered one mother dog, Ruby, who would pull her puppies off our laps if we were holding them and put her own head down in our laps to be petted.  She seemed to be saying “Get rid of these puppies and pay attention to me.”  And we did.  After the puppies were adopted she stayed with us until we could find her a home too. She even went away with us for a weekend trip to West Virginia:

Amanda and Rachel with the dogs (Wendy and foster dog Ruby) on the hiking trail

Now that Holly is spending more time outside, I don’t want a repeat of the situation we had with Jenny. While in the yard, I’d like her to be comfortable and relaxed, to get used to  noises from the street and our neighbors and not respond with barking.

It takes patience, consistency and time to change a dog’s response to something, especially if fear is behind the response. The key is to get the dog focused on something other than her fear, something that makes her happy or excited. In Holly’s case, dog treats.

I grabbed a bowl of doggie treats and by tossing some near the open door, I lured her outside:



She tried to go into the back yard which is quieter and more secluded than the side yard but found I’d shut the gate.


That’s when I began tossing treats around so she could seek them out.

I first learned about the “seeking system” while reading Temple Grandin’s wonderful book Animals Make us Human. The basic idea is this. Animals (humans, mammals and some birds) are more receptive to new people, experiences and settings when their “seeking system” – one of several emotional systems – is engaged. Tossing Holly treats to hunt for in the yard is a way of “turning on” on her “seeking system.” And when her “seeking system” is engaged in the side yard she’ll be more excited about being there. She might even be too caught up in her seeking to notice or react to any noises.

As Holly looks for treats she begins to relax and forget her fears. Look at these pictures – above and below – see how she changes from cautious:


to confident:


to eager:


Looking at this picture of a very happy, eager Holly, I think to myself what a wonderful world 🙂








Life is good

The past week has been blissfully quiet and easy. The coccidia seems to be under control now (i.e. no more diarrhea) and Holly is eating well and looking healthier each day. And the puppies have been nursing and sleeping just as they should be. We’ve settled into a nice routine. Steve checks on Holly when he gets up in the morning, lets her out and fills her food and water bowls. A few hours later, I let her out again, change the puppies’ towels and the newspapers on the floor if necessary and refill the bowls. I continue to check on Holly and the puppies throughout the day. If the puppies are sleeping and Holly seems to want some company, I bring her upstairs. When the weather is nice, we’ll often go in the back yard together.

I often think of the first three to four weeks after puppies are born as the honeymoon phase. The mother dog takes care of feeding the puppies, most of the clean up and is too tired to demand walks or much in the way of active entertainment. Besides changing some dirty towels and newspapers and keeping a food and water bowl filled I often have very little to do. For this little effort I’m rewarded with something miraculous: watching a stray dog become a mother with just instincts to guide her;

Cherry and puppies August 2010

seeing these funny, blind and deaf creatures turn into dogs:

Cherry’s puppy August 2010
Cherry’s pup August 2010
Cherry’s pup August 2010
Cherry’s puppies August 2010
Cherry’s pup August 2010


One of the highlights of the early weeks is when the puppies open their eyes.  And while we can’t see it, their ear canals open up and they begin to hear around the same time too.  Earlier this week Holly’s puppies hit that milestone.  My daughter Rachel videotaped them yesterday as they crawled around in the whelping box:



Life is good.



A nice calm day

Friday was a beautiful sun filled day. So it was a relief that Holly and the puppies were doing so well. I really wanted to spend the day planting and weeding. Now that she was feeling better, I could see Holly was bored being locked up with the puppies. I brought her in the backyard so she could hang out with her friends Wendy and Little Dog:


She was very excited to see them and immediately ran over tail wagging to lick their faces. Not all the mother dogs we’ve fostered have been so friendly. As a result, Wendy and Little Dog are a little wary of our fosters. Perhaps they remember being barked and lunged at. Maybe Holly’s new mother smell even reminds them of those experiences. But as long as they continue to have good encounters with Holly they’ll come around soon enough.

Holly was becoming more comfortable in the yard too. I was happy to see this because once the puppies are old enough, they’ll be outside in the side yard whenever I’m home and the weather allows. This gives them more room to play, exposes them to more sights, sounds and textures and is more sanitary than a crowded whelping box. But a mother dog is a puppy’s first teacher. If a puppy sees that his mother is afraid every time she goes outside  he may well learn to be frightened of being outside too. So the calmer and more comfortable Holly is around her puppies, the better chance they’ll grow up to be outgoing, friendly confident dogs.


But with their eyes and ears still closed and them sleeping most of the time, the outside world is no immediate concern.


And Holly’s made great strides toward becoming a more comfortable confident dog already.




What about the puppies?

What’s that old saying, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”?  Nothing could be more true with a nursing mother dog. Holly had been my biggest concern since the two underweight puppies had died early Monday morning. The other five puppies were big and fat, had been content, either nursing or sleeping and were getting lots of towels wet and messy. The general situation looked great. But how was each one doing?  Thursday evening Rachel and I weighed them again and then recorded the change in weight:


In two days each puppy had gained at least 6 ounces and two had gained 8 ounces.

As a general rule body weight should double by 7 to 10 days with an average increase of 5-10% body weight each day

source: http://www.theveterinaryexpert.com/general-interest/newborn-puppy/

So over the two days:

Puppy number 1 gained  100%  x  8oz/(16oz + 7oz) = 34.8% of her body weight or around 17% each day.

Puppy number 4 gained  100%  x  6oz/(32oz) = 18.75% of her body weight or around 9.8% each day.

And the other three puppies weight gains fell in between both of those percentages.

Great work puppies!  Great work Holly!

The puppies celebrated by going back to sleep.









A very good day

Holly seemed to eat continually Wednesday. Whenever I checked on her the food bowl was empty and she was begging for more. Overnight she’d made a mess on the newspapers; during the day she was able to hold it for a few hours until I let her outside. The rice and Albon seemed to be working. She was drinking lots of water, had more energy and even her coat looked better. Late in the afternoon when I went outside with her she even got down in a play bow in front of me!  The first time since she came to stay with us that she’d done that. She was starting to show me the real Holly. The dog she was before she was dropped off at the shelter, abandoned by her people. The dog she could be when she felt safe and loved. I was so thrilled. I felt honored to be part of her reemergence.


Monday and Tuesday

Monday morning I found the sick puppies right where I had left them the night before. And as I had expected, they were both dead. Skinny and stiff with rigor mortis, with their mouths hanging open, they didn’t even look like puppies. What had gone wrong, why had they faded away so quickly? I didn’t have time to think about it though, I had other things to deal with. Poor Holly had made another big mess. I had put newspapers down everywhere but she’d managed to hit the walls, the back door and in her excitement to see me, she’d run through it all. And of course she was hungry. Always hungry. So I gave her some rice and chicken and cleaned everything up, changed the towels and checked over the five remaining puppies.  Thankfully they all looked big, fat and healthy.



Unfortunately Holly was not big and fat. Or healthy looking. I’d done my best to fatten her up in the week and a half before she delivered the puppies but all the extra weight had melted away in the last few days, especially since the diarrhea started. She was skin and bones. Even her coat looked bad. And while the rice and chicken diet might be giving her intestinal tract a break, it wasn’t nearly high calorie enough for her current needs as a nursing mother.

Later that day, when I brought my cat Pad Thai in for a well kitty visit, I spoke to my veterinarian Dr. Bonnie Hileman about Holly. Dr. Hileman gives me free advice whenever I have questions about my foster animals. And she is a wealth of information. When I described everything that had happened with Holly, the stillbirths, the puppy deaths, the long delay in labor and now the severe diarrhea she strongly recommended I bring Holly in to be seen by a vet. She explained that Holly might have a health problem  that contributed to the stillbirths and the puppy deaths and if we didn’t discover it that the rest of the puppies might also start so slowly fade away.

As soon as I got home I sent a message to my Adoption Coordinator Miranda relaying the information Dr. Hileman had shared with me and asking for permission to bring Holly to the vet. One of the realities of rescue work is that we simply don’t have the funds to take our animals to the vet every time we have a concern. If we did we’d soon run out of money and be unable to pay for more critical things: vaccines, spays and neuters and the fees to pull animals out of shelters – yes, we paid an adoption fee to the shelter that was going to euthanize Holly had we not taken her off their hands. Homeward Trails has some basic medications and we frequently diagnose common ailments ourselves based on observations of the animal and an examination of its excrement (I’ve looked at a lot of poop over the years). If the animal doesn’t get better with treatment, we consider the possibility that our diagnosis may have been incorrect and look at other options. Trial and error isn’t harmful in most cases. But a stressed nursing mother dog and newborn puppies simply don’t have the reserves to be ill for long so it’s best to get things right the first time.

Miranda let me know Tuesday that Jenn, our Dog Program Director, authorized the visit to the vet. Diamond Veterinary Hospital, one of the places that very generously treats Homeward Trails animals at a discount, is only five minutes from my house. How lucky is that?!  I called and they had an appointment for 3pm. I put a dog crate in the back of my car and went down stairs to put a harness and leash on Holly. She didn’t want anything to do with being led so I just let her follow me upstairs with the leash dragging behind her and out to the garage where I picked her up and slipped her into the crate. When we arrived at the office, she jumped right out of the crate and was too startled by her new surroundings to notice that I was holding onto the leash.

In the exam room she crouched on the floor behind the exam table. Dr. Bonner came in and fed her a few treats then we lifted her up on the table. After looking her over, Dr. Bonner said she was very concerned about how thin Holly was; she also said Holly was dehydrated. Dr. Bonner said we needed to do two things, get more calories into her, and get the diarrhea under control. Otherwise her milk would start drying up. She said to start feeding her a mixture of 3 parts white rice – not brown – to 1 part dry puppy food (what I’d been feeding her before the diarrhea). The white rice would help absorb the excess fluid in the digestive tract and help control the diarrhea. And let her eat as much as she wanted. She also recommended a fecal test to see if Holly had any parasites that might be causing the severe diarrhea. I carried Holly outside and took her for a short walk in their yard. And she quickly gave me a generous sample (the one upside to her condition).

By the time I got her home and settled back with her puppies, Dr. Bonner had an answer. Holly had coccidia which can cause severe diarrhea and hookworms. The coccidia would be treated with a ten day course of a drug called Albon and the hookworms with a de-wormer that I already had on hand called Strongid. I went back to the office and got the Albon, cooked up a big batch of white rice and fed Holly. Then Rachel and I weighed the puppies. It seemed like a good idea to keep track of their weights so I could be sure they were doing well. Rachel wrote down simple descriptions of each puppy:


And using a kitchen scale, I recorded their weights in pounds and ounces.



The puppies were wiggly and whiny. They  were letting us know they did not like what was going on.  Once on the scale, they wiggled even more, making it challenging to read the numbers.  But their vigorous complaints were encouraging. So were the numbers. Two pounds is a lot for a one week old puppy whose mother is only 34 pounds.

I fed Holly twice more Tuesday night and she seemed to look a little better already. I went to sleep feeling hopeful.







Days Two through Six

The next few days were uneventful. Holly continued to eat and drink well and care for her puppies. And the puppies seemed fine. They slept, nursed and seemed content. Towels were get wet and messy which was a good sign, just like wet and messy diapers are with human babies. Puppies are born with their eyes and ears closed but they can smell and feel and they use those senses to find their mother and their litter mates for warmth, food and comfort. They can’t walk on their feet yet either but sort of scoot around using their front paws.

Saturday, Holly developed a bad case of diarrhea. Diarrhea is very common among nursing dogs. To produce enough milk for their puppies, they need to eat a tremendous amount of food. So much food that their digestive tracts often become overwhelmed. And eating the placentas may have given her diarrhea too. Every nursing dog I’ve ever had has experienced loose stools. But Holly’s diarrhea was the consistency of chocolate milk.  Diarrhea that severe could make her seriously dehydrated and her milk to dry up if it continued too long. And forgive me for repeatedly using the “d”  word; I don’t even like having to type it. But it’s kind of hard to tell Holly’s saga without using it and other icky words.

Sunday morning I noticed something even more immediately worrying, two of the puppies were crying and crying. They were off by themselves, not near Holly and the other puppies. I hadn’t noticed it before, but they were significantly smaller and thinner than the other five puppies. Almost as if they’d gained little or no weight since being born.

See how much smaller and thinner the puppy on the right is?

I put each of them up to Holly to encourage them to nurse. But they wouldn’t latch on. The two biggest health risks to newborn pups are hypothermia and dehydration. I was sure they were cold since I’d found them away from Holly and it was a little cool that morning. They might well be dehydrated too if they hadn’t nursed for a while. When both conditions are present, you tackle the hypothermia first. I put the space heater back in the whelping box, sat down next to Holly and tucked the two puppies under my clothes and up against my bare skin (honestly, not the weirdest thing I’ve ever done to help a baby animal). They weren’t moving much and they were still crying. After a few hours, they started crawling around, a good sign that they were warm again. I tried to get them to latch on again but no go. Then I tried giving them a mixture of water with sugar from a small medicine syringe. My hope was that if I could get some fluid into them, they’d have enough energy to latch on and nurse. They swallowed a few teaspoons and I waited to see if they showed any signs of renewed energy.  But only one of them would latch on and he didn’t have the energy to actually nurse.

The best thing at this point would be to give the puppies subcutaneous fluids, a much more effective way to re-hydrate them. I texted my Adoption Coordinator Miranda (the wonderful person at Homeward Trails who gives me medical advice & support and finds & screens adopters for the moms and pups) to ask if someone could bring me some from Virginia. But it was a Sunday afternoon. Not a good day to find someone to transport supplies. It’s much easier for volunteers to make the trip during the week. Many of the people who volunteer live in Maryland and commute to Virginia (or vice versa) and thus can pick up and drop off medications and other supplies before or after work.

Since Holly’s diarrhea had not gotten any better, Miranda suggested switching from her regular food to a diet of 2 parts brown rice to 1 part chicken. Despite having his own busy day, Steve ran to Giant for me so we could get her on the new food right away.  Wendy and Little Dog were so excited by the smell of chicken cooking –  we are near vegetarians when cooking at home –  and so jealous when they saw me taking the rice and chicken downstairs to Holly.

I tried again to give the puppies sugar water by mouth but they weren’t swallowing well and I was afraid of getting it into their lungs. I put them down on a towel in front the the space heater. They were very weak now, but they still had enough energy to cry. I knew they would be dead in the morning. Poor sweet babies.