Breeding from your bitch may be satisfying but it is also a big decision, says David Tomlinson, highlighting the issues that you need to consider

There’s much to consider before deciding to breed from your working bitch. David Tomlinson advises on how to breed gundog puppies, from suitability tests to finding happy homes for the pups.

Breed or buy is the eternal puppy search question. Read breeding or choosing a puppy to help weigh up the options. And if you choose to buy rather than breed, follow our advice on how to buy a gundog: The Field’s top tips.


Your dog has just performed the best retrieve of her career, watched by all the shooting party. As you walk back to the game cart, proudly carrying the cock pheasant that she has found, one of the guns wanders over to have a word. “Great retrieve. If you ever breed from your bitch, let me know as I’d be really interested in having a puppy.” You had long thought it might be good to have a litter of pups, but such a comment makes you consider the possibility more seriously.

Breeding a litter of puppies from your much-loved shooting companion can be hugely satisfying but at the same time nerve-wracking. It will certainly be hard work, while the experience will be memorable, if not profitable. I write with the experience of having bred a trio of litters from three generations of my springers. I may not be an expert but have experienced the highs and lows of puppy breeding.

Before planning anything, take a long, critical look at your bitch. Is she a good-looking specimen of her breed with pleasing conformation? Is she of sound temperament? What age is she? (I would hesitate to breed a first litter from a bitch over the age of six.) Most important of all, is she fit and healthy? Sadly, many of our gundog breeds suffer from a variety of genetic complaints, so don’t even consider breeding from a labrador, for example, that hasn’t been scored for hip dysplasia. Buyers will want assurance that their prospective puppy comes from healthy stock, but remember that DNA tests and screenings for your bitch may well cost you several hundred pounds.

If your bitch passes all the suitability tests, then the next decision is selecting a suitable stud dog. A few minutes of research on the internet will give you an idea of what dogs are available where, and at what cost. The general rule is that the stud fee should be the equivalent of the price of a puppy: expect to pay around £750 for a FTCh labrador that has had all the health tests. The Kennel Club (KC) has an invaluable free tool on its website called Mate Select, which provides all the facts you need about KC-registered dogs. Don’t breed without consulting it.

There’s the possibility, even probability, that you are not planning to produce a litter of potential FTChs but just want puppies that will grow up to be family pets for 350 days a year, shooting dogs on the other 15. If there’s a dog on the shoot that has caught your eye, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use him as a stud if his owner agrees. It’s a time-honoured system that has produced more puppies than any other, and it’s one that has worked well for me.


The next item to consider is arguably the most important of all: what are you going to do with the litter of puppies your bitch produces? Finding good homes for all the offspring can be a formidable challenge. My advice is to never go ahead with breeding a litter without several firm advance orders. I’ve never forgotten a friend who didn’t like any of the potential buyers for his litter of springers so he kept the lot, not something to be recommended.

Looking after a pregnant bitch is straightforward. She needs the best food you can provide and to be wormed daily after day 40 of the pregnancy. The gestation period is just 63 days, so that’s just three weeks of worming.

Prepare a roomy whelping box well before the due date, too, so that the bitch can become accustomed to it. She will still want to have her puppies in the garden, or your bedroom, but you can move the family to the whelping box once they have all been born.

Most gundog breeds whelp easily without human assistance but always be prepared for the worst. The first litter I bred was a near disaster. The bitch produced the first three puppies without any difficulty but the next one got stuck. She was rushed to the vet for an emergency caesarean; her first three pups were put on a hot-water bottle in the airing cupboard. The vet did a great job and five hours later she was back with four more healthy puppies, while their siblings were none the worse for their enforced separation. However, the cost of the operation ruled out any profit from puppy sales.

After their birth, the first three weeks of the puppies’ lives are easy as (in theory, at least) the bitch looks after them. All you have to do is feed her. From then on the hard work begins, for a litter of puppies requires a great deal of effort. You can be sure of numerous visitors, as everybody (and especially children) loves puppies. It’s good to encourage anyone who wants to meet them to do so, as puppies benefit from socialisation.

Puppies at four and five weeks are so endearing that it’s difficult to think of selling them, but just a month later they will be more than ready for their new home. The bitch will want little to do with them now, while they are all bent on mischief and destruction. To see them depart for their homes may be sad but it’s an emotion mixed with both satisfaction and relief.