When my Irish Water Spaniel bitch came in season last summer, I decided to breed her for the first time. She was 5 years old and in great shape, and I felt that if she was ever going to contribute to the gene pool in a lasting way, the time had come.

While the search for a stud dog got underway, I made an appointment with my vet and scheduled time at a few clinics to have ‘Kurre’ screened for the health issues most commonly encountered in her breed. A positive test result would end her chances for motherhood, I decided, but eventually she proved herself clear of any known diseases and was issued a CHIC number from the Canine Health Information Center.

I started taking her for a 90-minute walk every morning to keep her in shape and to assess her general condition. After several weeks of controlled exercise, she seemed as fit as ever. The time had come to begin making the necessary arrangements for her to be bred.

For this litter, my good friend Dede Selph would be co-breeder. Dede got her first Water Spaniel from me in the ‘80s and has since developed her own family of multipurpose companions. The decision to co-breed was easily made, and the division of responsibilities allowed each of us to focus on specific tasks. The litter would be born and raised in my home, and Dede would keep a bitch puppy for herself. Dede helped me choose the sire, and I worked closely with the stud dog owner and the repro vet to increase the likelihood we’d have puppies. This was my first experience with artificial insemination. The seven puppies that eventually resulted made all the time and effort – not to mention expense – worth it.

When an ultrasound confirmed a pregnancy, it was time to begin preparing the house for puppies.

Dede provided her greatest assistance, I think, by helping to prepare the whelping room. It was the first time this house had accommodated puppies, so preparations had to be made almost entirely from scratch. Dede loaned me the equipment I lacked and offered suggestions for getting everything set up in time for the delivery.

Selecting a spot for the whelping box was the first decision that needed to be made. After considering each of the bedrooms, the second floor office was selected as the ideal area for a couple of reasons. Its central location just off the guest room made it easy to keep tabs on things throughout the night, and it would be easy to socialize with mother and pups throughout the day while checking e-mail and posting photos on Facebook.

Weeks before the puppies were due, a few pieces of office furniture were replaced with a 4-by-4 whelping box. The model we used was made of nonporous materials, so it was easy to keep clean. Its plastic frame construction proved durable, and assembly was extremely easy. An insulated floor and rubber mat provided protection for the hardwood flooring below and a comfortable environment for the mother-to-be.

The office layout allowed the whelping box to be positioned in such a way that an open area was created behind it for storing newspaper, towels, quilts and trash bags. Office supplies were replaced with items such as a digital scale, a heat lamp, hot water bottles and a heating pad with several settings and no cut-off switch. A flashlight and extra batteries were placed on a nearby shelf in case of a power outage.

In a pair of plastic bins, essential items were stored that might be needed during the whelping. Among the contents of one were a pair of scissors, a hemostat, unwaxed dental floss, rubber gloves, lubricating jelly, an aspirator, antiseptic, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, a plastic syringe and puppy formula. In the other were rickrack in assorted sizes and colors, and snoods for keeping the dam’s ear coat clean. Hand towels were placed in a small plastic tub where puppies could be safely tucked away during the delivery.

The freezer was stocked with vanilla ice cream to boost the dam’s calcium and frozen pizzas for Dede and me to boost our spirits. A birth weight chart was uploaded onto the computer. The phone number for the emergency vet was programmed into the phone.

With the whelping room readied, we waited patiently for the big day to arrive. Irish Water Spaniels are generally easy whelpers, but they can have large litters. Since this would be Kurre’s first litter, we had no way of knowing how the delivery might go. I didn’t let her out of my sight as her due date approached.

An Irish Water Spaniel puppy rests snuggly in the whelping box. Photo by Dan Sayers.

As it happened, things could not have gone more smoothly. On a sunny Friday afternoon, signs of labor indicated it was time to call Dede with the news and settle Kurre into the whelping box. While I was on the phone, the first puppy was born and, thankfully, her mother was very happy to see her. Dede arrived in time to deliver the second pup and stayed awake long enough to help bring a surprise boy into the world. By midnight, the soiled towels were washed and everyone was doing fine. Kurre settled in nicely to nurse her brood of five girls and two boys.

During the next several weeks, the office-whelping room proved the ideal spot for mother and babies. Kurre could lie in the box and look down the hallway to see who was coming to visit, and we could sit at the computer telling the world how much weight the puppies had gained!

Thanks to Dede’s help, everything we needed was right at our fingertips and keeping the whelping box clean was a snap. After feeding, the puppies were placed in a lined tub while the old bedding was thrown into a laundry basket and the soiled newspaper tossed into a trash bag. After wiping down the rubber liner, new layers of paper were put down, followed by a padded quilt and several clean white bath towels. Only white towels were used, as these could be cleaned with bleach. We had several dozen on hand that we used in constant rotation for the two months the puppies remained at the house.

When the puppies began eating solid food from a pair of flying saucer bowls, a 28-inch-by-48-inch kennel pan was placed in one half of the whelping box. Newspaper was layered in the pan to create a separate potty area. By the second day, each of the pups was beginning to eliminate in this area and within a few days the white towels remained virtually unsoiled. This little tip from Dede proved one of the best ways to keep the entire area relatively clean and odor free.

By the fourth week, some of the puppies were doing their best to climb out of the whelping box. To give them a bit more room and a place to go exploring, the downstairs dining room was converted into a daycare by rearranging the furniture and raising the chandelier. A 4-by-8 sheet of melamine-coated hardboard was laid face up on the floor and two small ex-pens were joined to create a single large play area. The space was filled with various toys and a dog bed where the puppies could enjoy a mid-afternoon nap. Another kennel pan was placed at the opposite end, and this was immediately put to good use. Even as the puppies grew, this setup was easy to maintain and went a long way toward housebreaking the entire litter all at once.

Although they were getting bigger by the day, I decided to keep the puppies in the whelping box throughout the night. Every morning I’d gather them up and carry them downstairs to the ex-pen. At first I’d carry four at a time, but eventually I was lucky if I could carry one under each arm. Interestingly, they never tried to climb out of the whelping box. The pups waited patiently to be picked up and carried downstairs, and at the end of the day their tired bodies were taken back upstairs. There was very little crying from them day or night. They seemed to understand there was a routine to their day.

For two months, a steady stream of visitors made the dining room the busiest room in the house. We took the puppies out a few at a time, and they’d go off exploring shoelaces and fingers with their sharp little teeth. It was during these visits that I learned the puppies were unafraid of steps. In fact, several were climbing up the stairs before they were a month old. The boldest among them were working their way back down a week later! The daily migration up and down the stairs seemed to remove any fear they may have otherwise had. In fact, the constant handling and our many guests helped to condition the litter to people right from the start. In a breed known for being “reserved with strangers,” the setup Dede and I created seemed to give each of the puppies the best start possible for happy, healthy, social lives.

As the day approached for each of the puppies to go to its new home, it was time to begin thinking about returning the house back to normal. Transforming the whelping room back into an office took no time at all, although the dining room remains without its table and chairs and is still a big open play room – even if there’s only Kurre home to enjoy it.

The puppies are over 6 months old now and each is enjoying life with a family of its own. Two live on the water, and one spends each day on a 600-acre dairy farm. A converted firehouse is home for another, while one makes regular television appearances with her well-known owner. Receiving news about each of them puts a smile on my face and reminds me of the value of raising puppies at home.

As with most things in life, success in the whelping box depends on preparation and planning. Of course, it helps to have a bit of luck on your side too. With the support of a dependable, experienced friend, raising this litter proved to be an enjoyable and (relatively) carefree experience.