Oh, Mama


I didn’t plan to foster this year – not until Otto has passed. But a friend, the vet tech from my local shelter, called in a special favor, and for the past few weeks, I’ve had a little mama dog and her five puppies staying here.

I was already aware that, at the moment, the shelter is caring for an extraordinary number of mothers with puppies (and motherless puppies, too), and I was keeping my heart hard, holding that space for my own dogs as we negotiate what is likely to be my increasingly rickety old dog’s last months. Also, I’ve taken on a part-time teaching position at a friend’s training center; I have NO EXTRA TIME right now!

But my friend said this particular mama dog was causing problems for the shelter staff; she is a very good, protective mother – to the point where the staff was having a hard time keeping her kennel clean. She didn’t want anyone near her pups, and would jump at the cage door and bark and growl at and menace every person who passed by. Once separated from her pups, she’s almost frantically friendly. But separating her was a challenge several times a day for an already too-busy shelter staff.

The shelter workers are accustomed to a certain amount of aggressive behavior from some of their highly stressed charges; after a while, they don’t even flinch as they walk by the kennels containing truly dangerous dogs, who leap at the cage doors, roaring and snarling. But, to their credit, they recognized that not only was this poor little mother dog stressed out of her mind, she was about to start stressing the heck out of her puppies, too.

Six weeks is the sweet spot. They are inquisitive, social, and adorable, and are starting to embark on small adventures when out of the kennel – but they still sleep a lot. ©Nancy Kerns

Did you know that puppies’ ears are essentially sealed closed until they are about 12 to 14 days old? That they can’t hear until then? WDJ’s contributor Kathy Callahan taught me that recently. I was sure she was wrong – but every authoritative source confirmed this. Well, that made me feel better about the poor pups being born in the noisy shelter, but at three weeks of age, they were already flinching and ducking for cover every time their mom exploded from their bed, barking in warning at every shelter worker passing by.

I have an outdoor pen that’s all set up for stray or foster dogs. It’s covered and shaded and pretty much escape-proof, sitting on a concrete slab that had a giant (and defunct) spa on it when we bought the house. The weather is nice enough that the mother and puppies alike would be comfortable outdoors, without having to completely rearrange my office to accommodate them indoors. I told my friend I would take the little family until the pups were ready for adoption and the mother was ready for heartworm treatment (of course she is positive for heartworms! Ugh!) and spay surgery. I put an electric heating pad (the hard plastic kind that is meant for pets) in the doghouse for the cooler nights, and also provided the mama with a bed on an elevated platform so she could escape the pups when she needed space.

Phoebe was one of 20 dogs that were seized by our county animal control in a neglect case. She and all the other dogs were dangerously underweight when taken into custody, but given that all the dogs were intact, the shelter staff knew that some of the females were likely to be pregnant. They hoped that the wheels of the law-enforcement bureaucracy would churn quickly enough to put pressure on the owner to sign over the dogs to the county as soon as possible – quickly enough so that the shelter could perform spay surgery on the females, aborting any pregnancies in the process, before they gave birth. But three of the seized dogs, including Phoebe, gave birth in the already crowded shelter.

I am sure it sounds insensitive, this talk of aborting puppies. But the shelter was already caring for four litters of puppies (totaling 24 puppies) and about 10 other puppies that had been surrendered to the shelter individually or in pairs before these three mamas added 17 more puppies to the shelter population. That’s 17 more mouths to feed for at least three months (and sometimes five or six months), 17 more spay/neuter surgeries to pay for . . . But they are here now, so, let’s move on.

mother dog playing with puppies
Boone hasn’t had a female playmate before, and he’s riveted by the boobalicious young mother, especially since she’s no longer trying to menace him when he’s near the puppies. ©Nancy Kerns

It’s been a joy to watch Phoebe decompress from her shelter stress (and what had to have been a stressful life in a home of 20 dogs living together with very little food). She was highly protective of her babies at first, but we made friends at a distance from them, and within a day or two she was no longer growling or barking at me or my dogs, though for the first week, she would still give me a wagging but closed-mouth muzzle punch if I bent over the puppies too quickly, and was quick to put herself between the pups (and her food) and my dogs if they dared to come close to her pen. She takes such assiduous care of the pups, I’ve hardly had to clean up after them; they are taking up far less of my time than most litters. And now that she’s been here for about three weeks, she will allow any of my dogs to approach and sniff the pups, and is no longer guarding her food. That’s a very fast transformation; she’s a very nice little dog. She hasn’t bothered Otto in the slightest, and is starting to play with Boone and Woody, abandoning her now-6-week-old puppies to flirt like the teenaged mother she is.

I’m glad my friend at the shelter pulled me into the project, even though I have NO EXTRA TIME.

puppies playing
They are just getting to the right age to interact with “Fun Uncle Woody,” puppy wrangler extraordinaire. ©Nancy Kerns


  1. Funcle Woody!

    I’m glad your friend recognized that she would do well with you and you made the space. She will be much more adoptable now that she has adjusted and destressed. The puppies won’t have developed any behavior problems and Funcle Woody can help take a bit of pressure off Mom.

    I can almost smell the puppy breath.

  2. You’ve truly changed the lives of this young mom and all her pups – forever!! So wonderful!!

  3. You are wonderful Nancy, and giving them such a good start in life. I know you will keep us posted and will hope for future happy homes for all of them.

  4. You are a blessing! So happy for these pups and their momma who are under your caring and watchful eye.