Sasha’s surprise

Jack and two of Sasha's offspring

Jack and two of Sasha's offspring

sasha-puppiesThe morning Ann Silberman took Sasha, the family’s 11 month old yellow Labrador Retriever to their Bowen Island, B.C. veterinarian clinic to be spayed, she was surprised to receive a call a short while later.
The vet explained that he couldn’t spay Ann’s dog because she was already pregnant. Ann, her husband Jack, and their son Ben were astounded. Sasha was their first dog and they had meant to have her spayed sooner but the busy family hadn’t quite got around to it.As the initial shock wore off, reality sunk in.

The vet said he had felt three fetuses at least. The Silbermans knew absolutely nothing about whelping or raising puppies. With their young dog more than half way through her two-month gestation, they sought the advice of a local dog expert, Pamela Cleary, and began learning and readying their home.

One of the things on their minds was the identity of the father of the puppies. To this day Jack still has no idea how a male dog had entered into the yard. When Sasha came into heat, he had inspected the high fence that enclosed their yard and was convinced that as long as Sasha was either in the house or the yard or on-leash during her walks, she’d be safe from male overtures. Famous last words. The suspects included a geriatric Boxer, a prolific wolf/Doberman mix, a lively Fox Terrier cross, and a black Labrador Retriever, plus any other of the island’s motley assortment of roaming canine lotharios. Clearly the Lab would be the preferred choice, as his puppies would likely be easier to place in homes than the presumably odd looking or less desirable personaliy potentials. Their imaginations boggled.

With guidance, the Silbermans converted their laundrey room into a whelping box. They borrowed a heat lamp and baby gate, gathered lots of bedding and curtained the small room to create a den. It was an anxious time for them because they realized that birth is an event with inherent risks.

Ann called her friend Patti-Jo Wiese, a trained doula, to ask if she would help with Sasha’s delivery. Doulas work with doctors and midwives to provide emotional support and continuity for human females during their labour process. Wiese agreed to be a doula for the dog, with one condition. “I’ll help, she said,”but I’m not taking one of the puppies. There’s no way.”

Sasha signalled that her labour had begun by restlessness and urgent efforts to hide. She became increasingly agitated. Late that evening, as the Silbermans and Wiese tried to soothe the pacing, panting dog under the kitchen table, 22 year old Ben caught the first of the puppies. To everyone relief it was a tiny black Lab. Sasha’s maternal instincts quickly overcame her initial confusion. She tore open the sac and began to lick her first daughter. Over the next five hours, Sasha delivered nine more puppies, all which were yellow, like her. “Every puppy was a miracle,” says Ann. “They were the sweetest little things I’d ever seen, and so fragile.”

Sasha was exhausted. Whelping had left her physically spent. Ten puppies are a lot, the vet told them, especially for a young dog’s first litter. The first days, the Silbermans learned, are critical as ‘a lot can go wrong’. The family quickly devised a system of coordinating the puppies – five at a time with Sasha, five safely beside her in a little basket under the heat lamp. They were careful to see that each puppy nursed well at mother’s eight teats. Without enough teats for each puppy at the same time, smaller pups can easily lose out to their stronger siblings and can fade fast. Although they were all healthy at birth, a few were clearly weaker than the others and needed help latching onto their mother.

The Silbermans worked tirelessly around the clock to ensure that all of Sasha’s puppies lived and thrived. Feeding ten ravenous puppies took its toll on Sasha. Despite eating huge amounts of food, by the puppies’ second week of life, she had become gaunt and developed a canine calcium deficiency which required veterinary attention. Soon the smell of meat cooking wafted through the Silberman’s staunchly vegetarian household.     

Proper care for a litter of puppies is pretty much a full time job. “Our lives were entirely about managing Sasha and the puppies,” says Ann. By the time the puppies were three weeks old they had outgrown the laundry room, the dining room’s furniture was removed, securely fenced off and lined with newspapers. A bedding area was created at one end. As the puppies began to be weaned onto solid food at four weeks, the work intensified. The twenty-four hour routine of feeding, clean-up and supervised exercise seemed relentless.

Each week Ann put out roughly 30 garbage bags bulging with compressed, soiled newspapers. Some puppies sleep better than others. Few litters sleep through the night before they’re eight to ten weeks old. Once the pups were on solid food, the Silbermans had to provide the food and water–every three to four hours.

This was their routine: to bed at 11 p.m., up at 2 a.m. for feeding little yappers, then putting them outside for exercise and to pee, etc. while the young ones were outside, cleaning up the soiled papers in the dining room took place. Up again between 4 and 5 A.M. and then again between 7 and 8 A.M. The puppies bowels were active 24/7.

A children’s wading pool turned out to be a life saver. It was placed into the middle of the living room and was just big enough for Sasha to stretch out and feed all the puppies. The edge was high enough that they couldn’t climb out, but any time Sasha was fed up with them she could just stand up and leave for a few minutes of freedom.

The Silbermans had known that letting Sasha’s puppies go would be difficult, but they hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be on Sasha. Various friends and neighbours had signed on adopt her attractive offspring. After the first puppy left for its new home at eight weeks old, Sasha was frantic, counting the remaining nine, searching both house and yard. As more puppies left over the ensuing days, the retriever sank into depression. The normally ebullient dog whose tail was always wagging became distant and sad. Her distress was upsetting. It wasn’t just Sasha but also the puppies that concerned the family. “You start to love those little beings,” said Jack, “and you feel increasingly responsible and anxious about their lives after they leave.” Fortunately, most of Sasha’s puppies went to homes near the Silbermans. She saw them often and her depression lifted.

Sasha’s puppies were recognized all over Bowen Isand and created a bond among their owners. For example, they all participated in the For Sasha’s Puppies Only training course taught by Pamela Cleary. Sasha even had her own float in the island’s summer festival parade. Sasha’s doula, Patti Jo-Wiese, dressed up as Cruella de Ville and drove her 1967 red Mercury convertible with Sasha and several of her puppies in the back seat.

This story was originally published by Canadian Living, and was written by Fiona Beaty.

EPILOGUE: Sasha was spayed. Each of her puppies was spayed or neutered. Patti-Jo Wiese, the woman who certainly didn’t want one, named her puppy Koko. 2009 update: Sasha and her pups are doing fine.

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