How old should your dog be before breeding? How many puppies do Labradors have? And should you be breeding from your dog at all?
We will look at the reasons for breeding a litter, how to know if and when your female dog is ready to have puppies, and just what is involved in breeding a litter of Labrador Retrievers.
Breeding a litter of puppies has huge appeal for many people. And indeed, absolutely anyone can breed from their Labrador.
Whether or not they should is of course a different matter. And one on which many Labrador lovers have strong feelings.
Public opinions about dog breeding
It is quite common for Labrador owners thinking of breeding from their own bitch to post up on internet forums and groups, asking for advice and information.
Unfortunately the reaction they get from regular members is often enough to send them scurrying away without further comment.
I say unfortunately, because once someone has been driven away, the opportunity to guide or influence them has been lost.
This is a shame because there is possibly only one thing worse than a completely unprepared person producing a litter of puppies.
And that is a completely unprepared person producing a litter of puppies without help.
Who should breed from their dogs?
There are those that believe no-one should breed dogs at all. They feel that there are too many unwanted dogs in the world already, and that no more puppies should be born.
Many think that only ‘responsible breeders’ should be permitted to breed dogs, and others will predict dire consequences for any female dog unlucky enough to be mated and get pregnant.
The chances are, if you are thinking of breeding, you already know of a family whose bitch had a litter with no problems at all. And are not impressed by the ‘breeders only’ school of thought.
Getting at the facts
The facts are there are pros and cons to breeding. You need to consider the age, health and attributes of your female dog, and consider how breeding will affect her. And if you are to go down this route with minimal risk and maximum enjoyment, you need to do so with your eyes wide open, and armed with plenty of information
In this article we try to take a balanced view, and to give some objective and considered advice to those tempted to take the plunge and begin Labrador breeding themselves.
Popular reasons to begin Labrador breeding
In this section we take a look at some of the reasons why people want to breed from their dogs.
And we look at the important factors which you need to consider before going ahead with breeding from yours.
There are some reasons for breeding from a Labrador bitch which have no foundation in fact at all.
Here are a couple of examples
- A bitch should have a litter before she is spayed
- Having a litter will calm her down
Myth: A bitch should have a litter before she is spayed
There is absolutely no reason to let your bitch have a litter before she is spayed.
There are reasons for and against spaying at an early age, or even at all, and you may wish to consider these before committing your animal to such a major surgical intervention, but that is another subject.
It is certainly not to her advantage physically, to have a litter before removing her uterus.
Myth: Having a litter will calm her down
The temperament of your female dog will depend on a variety of factors, including the genes she has inherited, the way you manage her, and how mature she is.
Many dogs grow a little calmer with advancing maturity, but this has nothing to do with ‘maternity leave’ and can be observed in males as well as in females that have never had puppies.
If your dog is a bit excitable and hyperactive before having puppies, she is likely to be so afterwards, and what is more, will have produced half a dozen or more excitable and hyperactive puppies.
Let’s look at some of the other common reasons that people decide to get involved in breeding.
- It will be good for my children to see puppies born and raised
- I want another female dog just like mine
- It will make me some money
These three reasons have some foundation in fact, but there are a huge number of influencing factors which could be involved in your case, and that might mean for you, that breeding from your dog is not such a good idea.
Reason: It will be good for my kids
There is no doubt that in an ideal world, with a perfect pregnancy and easy labour, and half a dozen or so live healthy puppies, there is some pleasure to be had for all the family in the raising of a litter of puppies.
However, life is not always that straightforward, and it is important to consider the consequences of a less than happy outcome.
Although it is not common for a Lab to die in labour, it does happen.
Only you can judge the effect that might have on your children. For one or more puppies to be stillborn or die in the first few days of life is more common. A midnight dash to the vets for a caesarean section, and difficulties getting the bitch to feed her pups afterwards are a distinct possibility.
These are not easy things for adults to cope with, let alone small children.
A litter of healthy puppies will occupy a lot of your time, for several weeks, whilst hand-rearing puppies is exhausting, and caring for sickly puppies is gruelling and distressing.
Your children will not benefit from your lack of attention or the stress levels in your home during this time.
Reason: I want another bitch like mine
This is a completely understandable motive for breeding from your dog. Though it is worth considering that sometimes, we can be tempted to view our dogs through ‘rose-tinted’ spectacles, and it is important to take a really objective look at your dog and to try and see her through the eyes of others.
There are two factors to take into account here
- Replicating your dog’s characteristics:
- The quality of your dog
Replicating your dog’s characteristics:
Many people are not aware that the best way to get a dog like yours is not through her puppies, but through her brothers and sisters.
Your dog shares the most genetic information with her siblings.
Buying a brother or sister, from another litter by the same parents is the best way of getting a dog like her.
Of course, it may be that her parents are no longer alive or being bred from, but another dog from the same line of close relatives bred by a knowledgeable breeder is likely to give you a very similar dog.
Breeding your bitch to a dog of your choice, without any real knowledge or understanding of his genetic lines, is likely to produce uncertain results.
The puppies may have all of the dog’s worst points and none of her good ones. It is something to consider.
The quality of your Labrador:
When we have a really exceptional dog of great quality, it is only natural to want to breed from her.
If your bitch has been winning awards for her appearance and structure on the show bench, or successfully passed her Gundog Grades, if she is doing well in agility or obedience competitions, or succeeding in field trials or working trials, you at least have some measure of her quality as judged by other people.
This in turn will give you some idea of the potential for demand for her puppies.
If your dog’s role is that of family companion, it may be more difficult for you to make an objective assessment of her quality, and the principle factor you will need to assess is her temperament.
You will need to particularly consider her disposition towards people, especially children, and her trainability. It is these two qualities which she must excel in order to stand a chance of producing good puppies. It would be very wise to get several unbiased opinions on these important factors.
Reason: It will make me some money
This is not always a reason that people admit to, but it is certainly a motivating factor for many people in the decision to breed a litter of puppies.
Unfortunately, the costs involved in gaining health clearances for a Labrador will often outweigh any income gained from a single litter.
So unless you wish to breed on a regular basis, you are most unlikely to gain any financial benefit at all from breeding from your dog. On the contrary, you stand a good chance of ending up considerably out of pocket as we shall see below.
The betterment of the breed
It is very common for established breeders of show dogs, to state that no-one should breed from a dog unless it is for the ‘betterment of the breed’. This is an interesting argument and though in principle a fine ethical stance, it is a difficult one to define precisely.
What is and is not ‘betterment’?
Most of us would agree that you should not breed from a substandard animal, but what exactly constitutes a better dog is a very subjective matter.
Indeed the breeding of pedigree dogs by so-called experts has come under a great deal of scrutiny lately, and it is not always easy to know what is ‘better’ even when we are very clear on what is ‘worse’.
If your dog is just exactly as you like her, and if your friends and relative also like her and are clamouring for puppies from her, it may not be so important to worry about making a ‘better’ dog.
But most people would agree that you have a moral obligation to do your best to ensure that the puppies you produce will be healthy happy puppies that grow into healthy, happy, good-tempered, trainable dogs.
Fulfilling this obligation can be a time and money consuming responsibility.
Making healthy Labrador puppies
There are a number of inherited conditions to which Labradors are susceptible. It is vital that anyone breeding Labradors ensures that both parents of any puppies they produce, have been checked for these conditions before getting their bitch pregnant.
Apart from your moral obligation to do so, the consequences of failing in this duty can be serious.
Without these clearances, you stand an increased chance of producing unhealthy puppies, of failing to sell your puppies (most new owners know to ask for health clearances), of being sued by angry owners of unhealthy puppies that you have sold them, and of having unhealthy puppies being returned to you and the cost of their veterinary treatment being laid at your door.
The minimum health clearances required for a Labrador are hip scoring and eye testing.
Many breeders nowadays also test for a range of other disorders, and elbow score their dogs as well. These tests are a crucial part of maintaining and improving the health and happiness of our Labradors.
The costs of these tests are considerable and if you decide to go ahead and breed from your dog it is a good idea to get the cheapest tests done first.
That way, if your dog fails the cheaper test, you will be spared the costs of the more expensive ones. Information on health screening tests for Labradors can be found in our health screening section.
If you do decide to go ahead and breed from your female dog, you first need to make sure she is ready.
Your Labrador’s general health
Obviously, your Lab needs to be in excellent general health before you put her through the demands of pregnancy.
You need to be objective about this, if you mate a dog that is overweight for example, you may be putting her safety at great risk.
How old should my dog be to breed from her?
A female dog needs to be physically and mentally mature before she has puppies.
But she should also still be youthful. It is not fair to put an older dog through the stress of pregnancy, whelping, and raising a litter.
This means that she should be at least two years old, and probably not more than four when she has her first litter
Do you have the right support?
As you will be acting as midwife when your dog goes into labour, you will need a mentor, someone who has whelped a lot of litters, to advise you.
This may be your vet, though not all vets are experienced at dealing with a normal whelping.
It could be the person who bred your own dog, or just an experienced friend, but you will need someone who can advise you and who is willing to be phoned at 3 in the morning.
If you are confident about your role as midwife, you’ll also need to consider how you will feel about rehoming your new family at eight weeks old. And there could be quite a few of them!
How many puppies do Labradors have?
Many Labrador bitches will have six to eight puppies. Some may have as many as twelve or more. Some as few as one or two. Litters of ten are not at all unusual.
The extremes come with their own issues, but even if your bitch has an average litter, that will still be half a dozen or so homes for you to find.
Finding homes for puppies?
There are many, many litters of Labrador puppies born each year in the UK and USA. For much of the year it is a ‘buyers market’. Prospective owners can pick and choose. So you need to consider if and why they might choose you.
Is your bitch a show winner? Has she won several Field Trials? Is she an agility champion? Working Trials?
The hard fact is, these are the qualities that puppy buyers may be looking for. They want to know that the parents of their pup are successful in some way. They don’t need to settle for less.
No matter how lovely and how beautiful your bitch, there is a very good chance that you could be left with several rapidly growing puppies, long after the cutesy eight to nine week stage has passed. Could you cope with this?
Providing long term support
Once your puppies have left and gone to their new homes, in the eyes of many, your responsibility continues.
So you need to consider how you might feel about this, and whether or not you would be prepared and willing to take a puppy back if the new owner really cannot cope.
Unless you can do this, you are simply adding to the mountain of unwanted dogs currently languishing in rescue centres throughout the land.
The financial costs of Labrador breeding
There are a range of costs to take into account when breeding from your bitch for the first time. These include
- Health clearances
- Stud fee
- Worming and veterinary antenatal care
- Extra food for pregnant and lactating bitch
- A secure and appropriate whelping box and plenty of soft washable veterinary bedding
- Heated pads for pups to cuddle up to when the bitch is not with them
- A fund must be available for a caesarean section and any other emergency postnatal care that may be required by your lactating bitch or her puppies
- Worming medicines for puppies
- Kennel Club registration for each puppy
- Food for weaning
- Advertising costs
- First vaccinations and vet checks
- Costs of extra care and vaccinations for any pups unsold after eight weeks.
If you have to take unpaid leave from work to be with the puppies you will need to factor this into your costs as well. Breeding a single litter can leave you substantially out of pocket, especially if your bitch needs a caesarian section (not uncommon).
The other ‘costs’ of breeding
Obviously the cost of breeding a litter involves more than money. The greatest cost is probably the mental and physical effort that you will be putting in to the whole exercise.
During the weaning process, puppies need feeding six times a day to begin with, and this is quite a pleasant if somewhat sticky process.
However, this is only a small part of your responsibilities. The two most challenging factors to take into consideration are
The time factor:
A pregnant Labrador requires your absolute and undivided attention from the moment she goes into labour until several hours after her last puppy has arrived safely.
This whole process can take 24 hours or more. That means no sleep for you.
After that time, your bitch requires that a responsible adult is on your premises and available to see to her needs, and those of her puppies for the next seven to eight weeks.
Keeping puppies clean, fed and generally well-cared for is enormously time-consuming. You will see in the section on ‘mess’ below that you cannot hold down a full-time job and breed a litter at the same time unless either your boss is willing to give you six weeks off, or you have another adult available to replace you at home.
The mess factor:
Most Labs make a pretty good job of cleaning up after their pups until you start to wean them at about three weeks old. If all has gone very well, then for the first three weeks you will be able to gaze at this adorable pile of Labrador loveliness with a deep sense of pleasure.
Everything changes at weaning time.
From this time onwards, cleaning up is your job. Bear in mind that all puppies have the primary objective of covering themselves in poo during their every waking moment.
As fast as you clean them up, they will get messy again. This process is no fun at all. And the bigger and livelier the puppies get, the less fun and more challenging the cleaning process becomes.
You will need the biggest mountain of newspaper in history, and a lot of hot soapy water and patience.
The cleaning up process takes place every time you feed (six times daily), and in-between where necessary. This is hard and smelly work, especially with kibble fed puppies.
Is this the right time for you to breed from your Labrador?
To sum up, here are the factors that you need to consider carefully before making a final decision to breed from your bitch
- Are your objectives realistic and is mating your bitch likely to achieve these objectives?
- Is your dog of suitable quality to ensure quality puppies?
- Is she is tip-top condition?
- Can you afford the necessary health checks, stud fee, veterinary treatment and other costs of raising a litter?
- Do you have an experienced mentor to help and advise you throughout pregnancy and labour?
- Can you be at home for seven to eight weeks without a break?
- Are you prepared to interview and vet prospective new owners and to turn away unsuitable buyers? This can be a time consuming and sometimes uncomfortable job.
- Can you house and care for any puppies that are unsold after eight weeks?
- Are you willing to take responsibility for any puppies that are returned to you later (it happens).
- Are you prepared to take the risk to your bitch of undergoing pregnancy and labour?
It is not unheard of for rescue centres to be given an entire litter of twelve week old puppies that the owner has simply been unable to sell and does not have the resources to house now that they have outgrown their puppy pens.
Be aware that friends who expressed an interest may melt away when the puppies actually arrive.
People often back out after choosing and booking puppies, so it is well worth keeping a ‘back-up’ waiting list of interested parties.
If you are confident that breeding is for you, then you can probably answer ‘yes’ to all the above questions, and are willing and able to equip yourself with help and information you need.
You will definitely benefit from buying a copy of “The Book of the Bitch” by J Evans and Kay White. This is an excellent guide to caring for your bitch throughout pregnancy, labour and beyond.
If you are still unsure about breeding do take your time with this important decision.
And if you are yearning for another dog please spare a thought for the many thousands of unwanted Labradors in rescue societies awaiting re-homing throughout the UK today, often through no fault of their own but as a result of divorce, emigration, or the death of an owner.
Please check our health screening section for details of the current health checks now recommended for Labradors in the UK.
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This article was originally published in November 2014 and has been fully revised, expanded, and updated