Mama dogs are the heart of FSD
While our adorable puppies often steal the spotlight and our highly skilled service dogs carry out our mission, it’s the mama dogs, also called “dams” or “broods,” at FSD that are the heart of our organization. These carefully chosen females give birth to dozens of service dog hopefuls each year and in return, they are given an extraordinarily high level of care and affection during their time in our breeding program.
“Our moms are the foundation of everything we do,” says Allison Peltier, FSD’s reproduction and genetics manager. “There is no way we could have good adult service dogs without the moms in our program.”
So how do we choose our beloved mamas? When a group of dogs leaves their volunteer puppy raisers and returns to FSD for advanced training, our reproduction and genetics staff considers which females might be good candidates for our breeding program. They examine the dog, including tests on the hips, elbows, eyes, and heart, to ensure she is at peak health. They perform genetic testing to determine whether she carries any genetic diseases that could be passed to her puppies. They also look at her current behavior and past behavior evaluations starting at 8 weeks old to determine whether she has the appropriate temperament for motherhood and the appropriate characteristics to pass down to puppies who will be trained for service dog work.
If our reproduction, health, and training managers agree that the dog is a good fit for our breeding program, she is matched with one of our volunteer guardians. These guardians take our future mama dogs into their home and care for them throughout the breeding process, aside from those times when the dog returns to FSD because she is in season or whelping and raising puppies. FSD currently has 14 dams with volunteer guardians.
Because our female dogs join the breeding program between 15 months and 2 years old, and remain in the program until they are either 6 years old or have four litters of pups (whichever comes first), the guardians make a minimum four-year commitment to that dog. To thank them for their long-term dedication, guardians are given first option to adopt their mama dogs when they retire. To date, 10 broods have been spayed and retired from FSD’s breeding program, and all of them have been adopted by their guardians!
Once pregnant, our mamas remain with their guardian until one to two weeks before their due date, when they return to FSD. Before they give birth, our staff ensures that the dam’s health and behavior are normal, in addition to monitoring fetal heartrates to ensure the pups aren’t in distress. When signs indicate the mama will whelp within 24 hours, she starts receiving around-the-clock care, and as the pups arrive, at least two specially trained staff members assist with the births as needed. They ensure each pup is breathing properly and then clean, weigh, mark them with an identifier, and return them to mom so she can start bonding with them right away.
For the next six to seven weeks, our mamas and their pups live in our nursery, receiving constant attention, care, and love. During that time, our staff and enrichment volunteers make it a priority to give the mamas frequent breaks from their pups. Says Allison, “It’s essential that they spend some time with humans and other mom dogs so they get a break from motherly duties and aren’t constantly with their puppies. We let the moms be dogs as much as possible even though they have a super important job.” Once the puppies are weaned around week seven, they enter our training program, and the dam returns to her guardian home for rest and healing.
“It’s important for people to understand how much we are involved in the care of our moms and how much we do to ensure they are not ‘just’ breeders,” says Allison. “We are providing an extremely high level of care of our mom dogs and making sure they are safe and comfortable, first and foremost. We have their health and best interests in mind at all times, and we want to make them as happy as possible, so they make happy puppies for FSD. No one could love these mamas more than the FSD staff and their guardians.”
We are always in need of nursery volunteers who can spend quality time with our mama dogs and their puppies at FSD. Learn more about our onsite volunteering opportunities.