Thankfully Ben Holt of HighHolt Labradors, Pugs & French Bulldogs and owner of Highlands Kennels Ltd (Horam) agreed for me to interview him as part of gaining HomeScan Master Breeder status. The interview took much longer than I had imagined in this bustling reception of the boarding kennel that he owns and managed for the last eight years and a reason why his breeding programme evolved so quickly. Ben shared some great information that any breeder would benefit from!
Ben was bought up with dogs, working Labradors and farm Collies. He had always bred animals including rabbits, guinea pigs and at one point had over 400 birds! Showing Parrot-like birds, Lovebirds, budgies, cockatiels all over the country.
He owned his first dog, a Collie cross New Zealand Hunterway when he was 11 years old, but decided intentionally to breed a family Dalmatian with his parents’ consent at just 13 years old, this was Ben first experience of being responsible for rearing a litter. His first independent litter was in his mid-twenties, a Black Labrador called Jess. She whelped 8 of which Ben hoped to keep a puppy, but due to work commitments he was unable too. Ben had a second litter from Jess and he as hoping to keep a black bitch puppy, so true to form she produced three bitches, all chocolate! Ben decided to have a final litter from Jess and that’s where his steps to considering himself a breeder began.
“That's where the breeding took off from. It was never meant for us to become breeders. We were only breeding for ourselves, and it's just taken off.”
Ben felt that his success in Labradors had exceeded his expectations, having exported puppies to south of France, South Africa and Austria plus having a two year waiting list with inquiries from America, Germany, Northern France, and New Zealand.
“People see our dogs. They know they're capable of doing a day’s work in the field or other activities like flyball, if people want them to. Recently two of our puppies went to be assistance dogs. The lady from the assistance dog charity said they were ‘the Best puppies we've ever had’ and booked a whole litter for next year.”
Ben felt he had achieved this success because he had found a niche of breeding the traditional type of Labrador (not as heavy as ‘Show Labs’ or light as ‘Working Labs’ with good heads, tails, nice ear sets) with excellent temperament making them the ideal family pet, due to these pups having a versatile mind set. Ben expressed picking key studs had been the success producing puppies that fit this type. He only uses dogs that are fully health tested with fantastic temperaments. He has a preference to using other people studs then keep his own, giving him the flexibility of choice and more variety by researching and finding better bloodlines, or lines to compliment his own.
“We always hip and elbow score our breeding dogs. I would never breed a dog with a high hip score and they have to completely clear elbows and they would have to have a current eye certificate. We use very good stud dogs, and the people's dogs that we use, they wouldn't let you use their dogs anyway unless your bitches are health tested. That's to the minimum, because we always use DNA tested dogs that are clear for all the diseases so we don't need to DNA test our bitches.”
Ben elaborated on why he felt health testing was so important, over the year the Breed Hip Scores have fallen, as a Kennel owner Ben has seen this reduction have a direct collation with the health issues he has seen reflected in his client’s dogs. Their health conditions are decreasing and the dogs are living longer up to 16 years old.
I asked Ben how he gained his breeding knowledge:
“I think one of the worst things you can do is go on Google. Absolute worst. You've been amazing (Sara). I think the best thing to do is talk to someone like you. I don't hold many vets in high regard in respect to breeding, because a lot of the young vets we see nowadays have never even owned a dog, let alone had a litter. I don't feel that anyone can give someone advice that they've learned from a textbook.”
I strongly agree with Ben on this and will soon be writing a Breeder Blog on why I don’t think you shouldn’t consider your vet an expert when it comes to breeding, it’s great to see other experienced breeders agreeing with me on this issue. Going to your local vet about breeding is like asking your GP to do a c-section it’s not comparable to a specialised midwife or medical consultants in a maternity ward. No wonder there can be confusion and blunders.
Anyway back to Ben, I asked him how he best prepared his females for breeding. He put a large emphasis on them being fit and healthy all year round not just the season of breeding and he had even suspended breeding a Pug bitch who had gained just under 1kg of weight during his 2 week holiday aboard. Ben felt this was too much for a dog that only weighed 6kg, and that she needed to lose them pounds before being bred. Ben keeps up-to-date with annual vaccinations, worming every 3 months but doesn’t use any flea treatment unless fleas are observed.
I asked Ben, what advice would you give to somebody breeding for the first time?
“If they've never bred before, would be to find someone like you. Or me. Or a very good, experienced breeder, but preferably in their breed. There's no point asking a Labrador breeder what to do delivering a litter of pugs, they’re a different kettle of fish. Once you've delivered a litter of pugs, you can deliver anything. Or bulldogs as well. You can deliver anything.”
Ben expressed his dislike to Google, because all it seems to do is induce panic. We all want the best of our dogs and you don’t want to think they are suffering or need medical attention. You can overthink these situations, the best thing to do when they go into labour is to try and remain as calm as possible and have someone at the end of the phone who’s done it before.
“Don't put too much out on the internet, on Facebook forums and stuff like that, asking for advice. Go to one person who's done it for years, who's experienced, who knows what they're talking about and will give you sensible advice.“
So I asked Ben what he’s future breeding plans where and he voiced he’s concerns about the future of some breeds:
“Nearly every litter we've ever produced is to keep a puppy ourselves. I don't think we'll really be breeding much more of the Pugs. Just because there's too many people out there breeding them now. They've saturated the market, so many are unhealthy that they've given all Pugs, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs etc a bad reputation. We know people that have struggled to sell them and they've all been tarred with the same brush. I think that kind of needs to die down, which I think it has. It's waning now.”
And my final question to Ben, What do you feel is your biggest achievement or success when breeding?
“People coming to us saying, "I've seen one of your dogs. I want one", the fact that they've gone abroad with no advertising. One of our puppies is going to be trained as a bomb detection dog for the U.N, another that's going to start his career as a stud dog in South Africa (health results dependant) for a top trialling owner over there, as a working chocolate Labrador. Same with another one in this country with Di Stevens. Plus the autistic charity had two puppies off us this year, and then come back to book a whole litter for next year. So I class them all as an achievement.
It's quite an achievement when we're not in the show ring, we're not in the working world, we’re not winning medals and trophies and accolades all over the place yet we are highly regarded and recommended by word of mouth.”
An extended interview with more essential information on pregnancy supplements, utilising Facebook groups and group chats for puppy owners and ways to improve your puppy vetting process will be published in the Home Breeders Herald.
To date (December 2018) I’ve confirmed a positive pregnancy in over 1,100 animals (mainly dogs), that’s nearly 72% of all my scans are confirmed pregnant. Owners are always surprised when I confirm pregnancy for just one puppy and I’m equally surprised when they comment that it’s rare. I’ve looked over my figures and there’s a 6.4% chance of a pregnancy being a solo puppy, unlike the chances of having a large litter of 10 or more puppies is only 2.3%.
Singleton puppies are not typically a reflection on the sire or dams reproductive capacity and more likely due not mating at the most fertile time, either too early or too late meaning the semen has only just managed to fertilise an egg by surviving and waiting for the egg to mature, or by racing to it super quick before the egg died. Urban myth is that a female puppy results from a mating too early and a male puppy from a mating too late.
I would highly recommend that should the female be bred from again, that a form of ovulation testing is used such a vaginal cytology swabbing or the more accurate Progesterone blood testing. I sent a quick email to all my clients who I had previously scanned with solo babies (pure and crossbred) to find out their experiences after I broke the singleton news, they provided me with 32 sets of data which I’ve attempted to constructively summarise!
Singleton puppy was birthed by...
The puppies that naturally whelped and survived were on average born around 62 days gestation, the survival rate decreased from 63 days. Owners shared that the whelping process was ‘typical’, confirming the puppy tended to be bigger rather than average in size. For some the labour stages were prolonged and difficult, 15% of the owners that whelped naturally said they would recommend other owners going through the same experience to elective section on due date.
The majority of owners mentioned no issues with milk production or the need to hand feed or supplement. 25% did visit their vet for additional physical checks and advice, 1 owner felt they were given poor advice and changed practices during this critical period.
The puppies surviving born by c-section were on average born around 61 days, the survival rate decreased from 65 days. 2 owners felt their vet had delayed the option of a c-section (66 days) which compromised the puppy’s viability. The majority of owners who decided to c-section was because their female had shown partial signs of labour then stopped. Suggesting a more complex labour, possibly due to a stuck puppy or wrong positioning.
Some puppies were born naturally when the female had been sedated and prepared for a c-section, the relaxation of the muscles means the puppy was easier to pull free (these puppies were deceased). Distressed puppies did not survive the operation or longer than 2 days after birth, some seemed weak and some dams were not attentive to their young. Of the owners that had veterinary agreement to elective section on their due date 100% of these puppies where born alive.
Singleton puppies can be whelped naturally, the statics are in their favour. If the labour is not typical (mainly due to puppy size, positioning or lack of contractions) the chances of c-section increase significantly, but the survival rate reduces significantly too. Only a pre-planned elective c-section increased the survival rate above being whelped naturally. Risk can be managed by allowing the female to whelp naturally up to her due date and should she go more than 1 day over, have an ultrasound scan to check for foetal heart beat and if confirmed, opt for an elective section.
Puppies born 2 or more days after their due date have significantly less chances of surviving in both whelping methods. There is a high chance that financially you’ll need to cover the costs of c-section, given that a “unscheduled” emergency c-sections result in a higher mortality rate, realistically booking an elective c-section ‘in hours’ increasing the puppies rate of survival and keeping operating cost to a minimum, along with your anxiety and any stress on the female.
It’s generally advised not to change the dam’s diet during pregnancy, neither in quality or amount. Because the puppy has ‘wombspace’ to grow and develop, changing the dam’s diet may entice the puppy to overgrow due to having no competition with littermates for nutrition or space. Being restrictive on food will hopefully prevent any excessive and unnecessary growth.
Even if the puppy is a typical size and the dam is maiden you are still unaware of her ability to deliver naturally due to her pelvis size or strength of contractions. Females that have already successfully birthed puppies will provide the owner with additional information to gauge her ability to whelp or not. Raspberry leaf supplement is said to aid birthing and should be considered along with any veterinary agreement to calcium supplements or oxytocin should contractions weaken.
The lack of contractions or weakening contractions is called inertia, with solo babies it can happen in the first stage of labour due to the puppy not stimulating or applying enough pressure on the uterine wall and cervix to trigger a natural birth. The second stage is when contractions were existing but stopped, mainly due to an oversized puppy and the muscles have become tired trying to push the puppy out.
It could be easy to miss primary inertia so I strongly recommend tracking the dam’s temperature before and up to her due date. You also have the option of ‘Reverse’ Progesterone testing, if the numbers are low this confirm the puppy is ready for birth, so you can confidently c-section. If you Progesterone tested on mating, then you would have confirmed ovulation before breeding so your due dates will be reliable to work with for possible c-section. Not all puppies will can be seen moving or even felt, especially on deep set breeds, I strongly recommend checking the puppy for a viable heart beat with ultrasound before deciding on a c-section.
Long Term Observations
Surviving singleton puppies develop like a typical puppy into adult dogs. Many commented the puppy ended up larger than the breed standard or then their Dams. Solo pups tend to be more demanding when it comes to play and stimulation due to the lack of siblings/playmates. This can mean they are more dependent on human interaction and if not handled correctly can become over demanding and dominate. One owner decided to neuter their male at 9 months old due to behavioural issues.
Credit to contributing owners
Thank you to the follow owners for replying to my plea with such detailed information on your experiences Dawn Gloster, Yvonne Kneller, Sue Jones, Ryan Hall, Katie Eyres, Lynn Clark. Catherine Fuller, Maggie Flack, Lynn Page, Michelle Ransom, Tracy Rolfe, Tracey-Ann Ryan, Alan Fisher, Karen Edwards, Sarah Roberts, Linda Gregory
Lisa Hayes, Casey Stipp, Ailsa Pocock, Kerry Maynard. Sandie Cullen, Rebecca Burr, Tracy Robinson, Lynne Underhill, Emma Beck and Lauren Mccarthy.
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I'm Sara otherwise known as 'Canine Family Planner' who founded HomeScan Breeder Services a premium pet-care business in 2014. I am an experienced and educated breeder, who specialises in domestic animal reproduction. I bred my first litter 20 years ago whilst in my teens and tend to breed annually. Breeding is pretty much in my DNA – a way of my life if you will! I've started this blog to share some of my knowledge and if possible help out a few like minded animal owners!