On any given day, our California campus kennels are buzzing with newborn puppies with their fuzzy faces, soulful brown eyes and wagging tails. Our professional canine welfare neonatal staff welcomes approximately 800 pups into the world each year, all of which are born into a warm and nurturing environment under round-the-clock supervision. Our 24-hour a day attention allows for:
- Whelps any time of day or night ("whelp" is the canine term for "birth")
- Care and feeding of newborns and their mamas
- Efficient administration of medications
- Oversight of veterinary treatment
- Ongoing puppy socialization
With all of this attention, guide dog puppies can't help but get off to a good start. Staff and volunteers ensure that all of their earliest needs are met, from health care and nutrition to socialization and human interaction.
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Long before our puppies are even born, they have been receiving the utmost in care while they are in the womb. Pregnant female breeding stock dogs are brought to our California campus about a week before their litters of puppies are due (gestation for dogs is 63 days). To prepare for whelping, they are put in stalls that contain plastic wading pools lined with newspaper. The whelping kennel is heated and cooled with an air exchange system that maintains clean air and an even temperature; additionally, the floors of the stalls are warmed with radiant heating. There are a number of stalls equipped with closed-circuit cameras that allow the kennel staff to keep an eye on the expectant moms around the clock.
Our kennels also see many adult dogs: guide dogs in various stages of their formal training; dogs being boarded; breeding stock dogs; and dogs awaiting placement in adoptive homes.
When labor begins, the females start to "nest"—tearing the newspaper into small pieces and settling into the pools. During the whelp, the canine welfare neonatal staff is present to monitor the labor and delivery and assist when needed. This assistance may involve:
- Assessing fetal heart rates
- Qualifying uterine contractions
- Resuscitating newborn puppies
- Clamping bleeding umbilical cords
- Feeding females tired from a long whelp
The newborn puppies are weighed daily for the first five to seven days of their lives to ensure they are gaining weight properly. If a puppy's growth is lagging, the pup may be bottle-fed or tube-fed with supplemented milk or formula. As a health precaution for the newborn puppies, only the staff members working in the whelping kennel that day are allowed to go into that kennel.
The puppies spend their first three weeks in the wading pool with their mother and littermates to nurse. At 3 weeks of age, they graduate from the wading pool and are put on the floor on shredded newspaper; they start eating solid food and are slowly weaned. They are fed a high-quality dry puppy food softened with warm water three times each day.
HOW DO WE KEEP TRACK OF ALL THE PUPPIES?
A shaved area on the shoulder and/or hip identifies each puppy after birth; this shaved area is used for identification until the pups are weaned. They eventually receive a microchip inserted under the skin by the shoulders. The microchip can be scanned by any veterinarian or rescue organization and will alert them to the fact that the dog is from GDB. Additionally they will have a collar with specific GDB information, including a short unique identification number. Prior to being placed in their puppy raising homes, each puppy is given a name; all littermates are given names that start with the same letter of the alphabet, and no active dogs in our program can have the same name.
WHEN DO THE PUPPIES MEET THE OUTSIDE WORLD?
Our puppies begin formal socializing at just a few days old via our toddler socializing program, where they learn to enjoy humans in their personal space and get to explore new environments with the mentorship of their mothers. By 6 weeks of age the puppies have been weaned and are moved to a new kennel (called the puppy kennel) where they share stalls with their littermates. Their mamas get to return home to their volunteer custodian families at that point, and the puppies continue their socialization with our volunteer puppy socializers who gently introduce them to new sights, sounds, and situations, so they will gain confidence and experience. When the puppies are about 8 weeks old, they are ready to be placed with their puppy raising families living throughout the Western states.
Visitors to our campuses are quick to notice the big blue tubes and brightly colored play structures in our kennel complexes. These big, durable toys offer a glimpse into the "fun" that we infuse into our kennel environment as part of our Kennel Enrichment Program, which serves to positively stimulate and engage the dogs during their stay with us. So, our kennels are far from sterile or boring! And although the theories behind the Kennel Enrichment Program are firmly rooted in fun, they are also based on solid research.
WHAT PURPOSES DOES THE KENNEL ENRICHMENT PROGRAM SERVE?
- The program provides varied opportunities for human/dog interaction with staff while the dogs are in the communal runs. We use agility equipment (such as tunnels and walk-over ramps) to allow the dogs successful experiences through non-training-related activities, improve their physical coordination and confidence, and heighten their body awareness.
- Our dogs have supervised access to a variety of toys (including interactive wall-mounted toys), and are introduced to different odors, sounds, and visual stimulation in the kennels. Stuffed Kongs and frozen treats serve as interactive goodies; spray-on scents give the dogs' noses new smells to explore; piped-in music serves to soothe and sound like home.
- Play structures (tunnels, barrels, plastic play houses, plastic baby pools) and crates or plastic "igloos" in runs create micro-environments for the dogs, giving them choices that can be either more stimulating or feel more secure for them than their basic kennel stalls. All are designed to be environmentally interesting and, in some cases, functional (i.e., grooming tables mounted over barrels in which the dogs can play).
- The enrichment program is designed to give dogs a chance to expend excess energy in a positive way and reduce barking, repetitive behaviors, and other negative activities that might result from being in a kennel environment.