foster dogs, fosterdogs, fostering, pregnant dog, puppies

A Mama’s Instinct

The natural instincts of animals are remarkable. Spending so many of my hours with animals in the course of a lifetime, I’ve come to respect this, but I’ve also come to wonder at length about human instinct and whether we are compelled to follow it the way animals do, but that is decidedly a topic for another post.

A week ago today, I had just finished a post about Thelma’s arrival and the happenings in this foster house, when I glanced at the puppy monitor and realized that Thelma was in labor. I watched for a minute or two and even posted it to the Facebook Group and then I went to Thelma.

Like most of my laboring mamas, she desperately wanted to go outside. Like Estelle, the other first-time mom I fostered, she seemed to be trying to potty, knowing no other reason for the pain and pressure building in her bottom. When nothing of substance came out, I convinced her to come back inside.

With older moms like Darlin’ and Daisy, they both wanted to go out for a different reason—they wanted to find a safe place to hide to have their babies. Dixie was the only mom who knew what was coming, had been here long enough to know she was safe (three weeks), and proceeded to climb in the puppy box and take care of business when the time came.

Once back inside, Thelma paced the box and shook like a leaf. When she cried out in pain, I climbed in the box beside her to comfort her and she crawled up in my lap, desperate for comfort.

in labor

This went on for another twenty minutes – her crying, shaking, confused and me trying my best to comfort her until finally, a puppy came out. As soon as the puppy’s tail hit the ground (most of her puppies came out backward), it was as if a light went on. Thelma knew what her job was and she did it beautifully.

20190416_141506128_iOSThe next four puppies came out in quick succession and then she took a long break before delivering the last puppy (who was the largest). From start to finish—two and a half hours. That’s a record for this house. She may have been confused about what was happening and scared at being in a foreign place, but Thelma’s instinct took over and she has been a model mom.20190417_162304312_iOSI’m curious who the dog will be that emerges after the puppies are weaned. I’m fairly certain I haven’t met the real Thelma yet. The Thelma I met at the shelter was scared but content with her sister; the Thelma who arrived here was sick with a stomach flu and mourning the loss of her sister. The Thelma who is caring so well for her puppies is calm and sure, but her eyes reflect a bewilderment.20190416_174229458_iOS As we walk carefully and slowly across the yard, Thelma shooting glances back at the house each time she hears a dog bark, I try to picture her running happily, tail wagging and face smiling across my playyard—the way I know I’ll see her in just another month or so.

All six of the puppies were fine the first day—nursing and snoozing and allowing mom to lick and maneuver them, but not long after one of the pups, the smallest one seemed off. He wasn’t nursing much, so I spent lots of time making sure he found his spot and latched on. And yet, every time I checked on them, he seemed to be the only pup not nursing heartily. I would climb in the box and get him situated and stay long enough to be sure he had the hang of it.

This went on for a few days, and he seemed to be holding his own, and it looked like we were in the clear. I named the pups after my OPH Rescue Road Trip Team—Fitz, Slat, Mattski, Jen-Squared, Jess, and Les.20190418_221830700_iOS

It was little Les who had struggled in the beginning and I chose to name him after Leslie because one thing I’ve learned about her is that she is a determined person who has had to fight for her health.

Other than Thelma’s continued tummy issues things seemed to be going well until Little Les started downhill again. Ian woke to Thelma barking at 3am and went downstairs and took her out, thinking that was what she needed. When he put her back, he saw that one puppy was all by itself in the far corner of the box, away from the others. When he picked it up to put it with the others he noticed it felt cold, so he came and woke me.

Les was alive but weak and cold. I held him under my shirt for a time to warm him and then tried to help him nurse with the others. This time, no matter what I did, he wouldn’t latch on for more than a few seconds. Again and again, I tried to convince him to nurse. I wiped a little Karo syrup on his gums, hoping some sugar would give him the energy he seemed to have lost. It was almost dawn when I finally snuggled him with his siblings against Thelma’s side and let him go. He passed quietly safe against his mama’s side and we buried him the next day in the garden.

I am sad for his loss but know it wasn’t preventable. Anyone who witnesses animal births on a regular basis knows that sometimes babies simply ‘fail to thrive’ as the vets label it. We can’t know if there is a deeper reason—a genetic defect, a virus from in utero, it just happens.

A friend who lives nearby and raises cows and pigs stopped by over the weekend and shared her picture of their newest piglets, also born this week. They look much like Thelma’s piglets – black, shiny, and plump. They also lost a few piglets and it happens the same way. They are fine at first, but then they slowly but surely simply fail to thrive.

When Thelma moved Les away from her other pups, she didn’t do it to be cruel, it was simply animal instinct. She knew he was dying and she had to protect her other pups. Instinct is a powerful thing and the need to protect ourselves and our babies is a strong drive.

It’s the same drive I feel to protect my own children, to do what’s best for them, to fight for them if necessary, but most of all to prepare them to protect themselves as adults. For Thelma, it will only be about a five-week process, and then she will be free again, ready to be a pup herself.

For us, it takes much longer, but as my oldest prepares to graduate from college, I’m reflecting quite a bit on this weaning process. I’m hoping that when my own puppies take off for the real world, they will be confident and prepared and I, like Thelma, will be ready to be a pup myself.


Thanks for reading!

If you’d like to know more about my blogs and books, visit or subscribe to my occasional e-newsletter.

If you’d like to know more about the book, Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs, visit, where you can find more pictures of the dogs from the book (and some of their happily-ever-after stories), information on fostering, and what you can do right now to help shelter animals! You can also purchase a signed copy or several other items whose profits benefit shelter dogs!

If you’d like to know how you can volunteer, foster, adopt or donate with OPH, click here. And if you’d like more pictures and videos of my foster dogs past and present, be sure to join the Another Good Dog Facebook group.

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Released August 2018 from Pegasus Books and available now

Another Good Dog cover


8 thoughts on “A Mama’s Instinct”

  1. You are getting to be a real doggie midwife. I compare your writing about Thelma with your first litter in “Another Good Dog,” and your confidence, experience and compassion come through clearly. Good luck and health to Thelma and the Roadtrip pups.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just discovered you sweetie, and will be looking for your books at Barnes and Noble near me in Newburgh, N.Y..
    I too just finished writing a chlidrens/adult read about a problem neighbor I have, I hope she does not (figure that out), that it is her lol.
    It has not been published yet!
    Anyway I have 3 rescued dogs and 9 cats I also rescued.
    I am a very busy Grandmother taking care of my only Grandson on the autism spectrum not such an easy feat.
    I will be buying your books SOON.

    PS If you know anybody who LOVES CATS, it would be nice to get the number down from 9 to about 3 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow – a woman after my own heart! That’s a lot on your plate – hope you take care of you too. Nine cats and three dogs!? You are a busy woman. One of my novels features a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, so I did a lot of research to create his character and his family’s life with him and it gave me a new respect for people like you who love and care for a person on the spectrum. It sounds like your life is full, but rich! Blessings on you.


  3. This is beautiful, Cara. ❤ Thelma is a lovely dog and Dusty and I approve of all the little black puppies.

    My cat Howler — decades ago — had a litter of kittens (only litter). I knew nothing about the signs of labor. She had her first kitten on my bed while I was sleeping. I guess she felt safe there.

    Liked by 1 person

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