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FIRST LITTER: The story of a special Irish setter and the first months of her litter.


For many years, my "bucket list" included raising a litter of gun dogs. I delayed actually doing so because I think, bringing a litter into the world should be done only after careful deliberation.

Many years ago, shortly after my wife, Etna Ann, and I were married, we decided to get a puppy. There was a reputable kennel that had bird dogs fairly close to us, so we went puppy shopping. The mom and-pop kennel had a litter of Irish setters that day. We bought a red puppy that grew to be a wonderful dog. We have had Irish setters ever since.

The time came, too soon, that our old dog died. I had recently subscribed to a new magazine, GUN DOG. Paul Ober's ad for his Celtic Kennels impressed me. I called Paul. Etna Ann and I decided that we would make a trip to see Paul and his kennel.

The puppy we selected, with Paul's advice, CH Celtic's Fireboy's daughter out of Celtic's Ademption, grew to be a wonderful dog, but again the years passed quickly and it came time for her to retire. Kate was such a joy that we decided to go back to Paul for another puppy.

Paul had a new litter of puppies sired by Kate's full brother, CH Celtic's Superfund. Paul selected Holly from that litter for us.

If bird dog abilities follow a bell curve, Holly fell on the very high end. Training was a delight for both of us.

When Holly was about three years old, we were hunting wild quail in near perfect conditions. Holly pointed a covey at over a hundred yards. I began to seriously think about breeding her, but I needed to be sure that she was as exceptional as I thought.

At the time, I was hunting regularly with a good friend, the Reverend Colonel Bob Hayes, a great advocate of guided hunts. Pairing Holly with the best of the guides' dogs gave me the opportunity for an excellent evaluation.

Holly was not only good in the field. She was able to adapt to being in a car, truck, dog trailer, hotel, or an elevator with strange people. Holly was OK with whatever I wanted her to do.

The final decision to breed her came after a Texas hunt. The outfitter and both of the guides that we hunted with made a special effort to compliment me on Holly and her. work.

The fact that she was drop dead gorgeous at this point in her life didn't hurt, either.

There were still many other factors to consider such as timing, facilities, and availability of a suitable male.

Not trusting my own knowledge, I sought help. I asked for suggestions and pictures. We even made a few visits. Everyone was friendly and helpful.

In the end, I went back to Paul Ober because I had known him and considered him a friend for more than 20 years. The bloodlines of Holly's litter would follow those of dogs that I knew and which pleased me. Possibly most importantly, Paul was willing to help me.

Spring came, and Holly showed signs of coming in season. We took Holly to Pennsylvania. She stayed two weeks, but didn't stand. Just a few days after getting home, she did come in. We took her back; she stood, and caught. Puppies were coming!

To insure healthy puppies, we concentrated on Holly's health. Her regular ration of Purina Pro Plan Sport Performance 30/20 was supplemented with extra vitamins and minerals and some mother's milk substitute near her due date. We watched her skin and coat and made sure she had plenty of exercise.

I had noticed that Paul used a triangular whelping box. I built one following his instructions. I added a warming plate but used a heat lamp as well.

A few days before her due date, I decided it was time to transfer Holly to the whelping box. Big mistake! Holly refused absolutely, no matter what I did.

On a Saturday night very near her due date, she refused food. The puppies started coming in the middle of the afternoon on Sunday. There were six big, healthy, beautiful puppies.

Paul had told me to just let Mom take care of everything, but I was concerned that a pup might get trapped in the confines of her travel crate since Holly wouldn't use the whelping box. So I watched but she was extremely careful.

I was hopeful that Holly would move to the super nice whelping box once the puppies had arrived. She still refused.

That night I shut the travel crate door to avoid a pup getting out and getting chilled. I checked often that night, but all went well.

The next night I got up to check almost every hour. About 2 a.m., Holly had vomited, and also had diarrhea. Somehow she had managed to fold the bedding to catch the vomit and feces. The pups were absolutely clean. As I was cleaning the mess up, I said, "Now you see why I wanted you to get in the whelping box." Holly got in with the puppies, and stayed. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I'm not a big believer in coincidence.

The puppies grew quickly. I began mixing in a little "mother's milk substitute" before they were even a week old. I rubbed the warmed milk on their noses. Soon they were lapping the milk up as soon as I put a dish down. Then I began grinding Purina Pro Plan Sport Performance into a powder and making a thin soup. At 18 days, one of the pups decided her dish made a pretty good bed.

I gradually added more ProPlan to make a thick paste. At three weeks the pups were thriving and becoming adventuresome'. Our big German shepherd mix, Boy, readily accepted the role of big brother and helped Mom and us out with supervision.

Preventing gunshyness was an important objective. Several years earlier, I cured a young English setter of gun-shyness with a recording published by Stephen Rafe. I played this recording over and over for the pups. Gunfire was not a problem.

Paul told me that the pups should be weaned at exactly four weeks by removing Mom from the pups. Holly had other ideas. At three weeks and four days, Holly refused to allow the pups to nurse. One of the boys threw a tantrum that day. He lay down on his back, waved his feet in the air and howled. After he kept this up for what seemed like an hour, Holly finally relented and let him nurse. That was the last time she allowed any pup to nurse. She was dry within a few days.

At about a month the pups graduated to the outside dog run. We provided a large igloo dog house inside the run. It could be closed at night for extra security. At just over a month, the pups were simply adorable.

This presented a new problem. We fell in love with them all, but we knew that most would have to go to new homes soon. Choosing the ones to go was going to be extremely difficult.

At two months, the pups were starting to show pointing ability. This didn't help much with our selection process, because all of them were demonstrating about the same ability.

We gave them temporary names. Blondie was a little lighter color. Tippy was born with tiny white tips on some of her toes. It became obvious that Tippy had decided that she was going to be selected to stay with us. A hunting buddy, Adrian Nix, wanted one of the boys, and named him Blaze.

At six months old, we still had two, Blondie and Tippy. Blondie was maybe a little better in hunting ability, but Tippy was more advanced in obedience. Bob and I took Tippy and Holly to Georgia for a quail hunt. Tippy pointed and held steady on her first covey find. Holly really seemed jealous but honored her daughter's point.

This trip really solidified Tippy's hunting ability. I went with Holly and a puppy. I came home with two fine bird dogs.

At IS months all of the pups were doing well. The pups that went to hunters all became good gun dogs. At this point, three of them went to North Dakota pheasant hunting with six of us hunters and five other dogs. Everyone was pleasantly surprised at how well the young dogs hunted.

In the years to follow, Tippy stayed with us and has become almost as good as her mom. Three of the pups were chosen in separate years to be featured on puppy calendars, and one was chosen to be featured in the March 2016 issue of GUN DOG.

In 2015, Holly began to decline. She was turning grey around her muzzle and she didn't see, hear or think as well as she used to. Her stamina declined. Her nose was just as good as ever, though, and a friend took to saying, "Old dogs rule; get old Super Nose out" when we were hunting.

As much as I hated it, 2016 was going to be the last year that Holly could hunt significantly, but retirement was not in the picture for her. One day, two or three weeks after our last hunt together, she ate well, had her normal evening visit with us on the couch and went to bed, seeming fine. The next morning she was dead.

There was no sign of a struggle; she died peacefully in her sleep. She lived a good life and died a good death. We try to remember her with great joy and thankfulness for our time with her rather than sorrow for her passing.


1. Having Paul as a mentor helped me immensely. I will forever be grateful to him

2. I should have moved Holly to the whelping box as soon as we knew she was pregnant. It worked out OK, but it could have been a disaster

3. Research and preparation took a lot more time than I expected.

4. Early training and working with the puppies also took a lot more time than I expected. The puppies paid much more attention to each other than to me I had to work with each pup individually.

5. It cost more than I expected. Lacking a reputation as a breeder we found that people were not willing to pay a premium price even though the pups were expected. The puppies paid much more attention to each other than to me. I had had a good dog run, we did little better than break even.

6. Placing the puppies in good homes was more difficult than I thought it would be This again was probaly due to my lacking a reputation as a breeder. An earlier start on this might have helped.

7. All puppies like to chew, especially when they are teething, but some puppies will of metal, and even other materials that one wouldn't ordinarily consider poison or harmful can cause serious problem or even be fatal. Careful and constant observation is required.

8. All things considered, we were and are blessed by this experience.

We try to remember her with great joy and thankfulness for our time with her rather than sorrow for her passing.

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Author:Smathers, Bill
Publication:Gun Dog
Date:Feb 15, 2018
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