If you've ever seen a mama dog with her puppies, you'll probably see that she's naturally good with them. Mother Nature has prepared female dogs to be moms, so there's no need for training before a litter arrives. Of course, there are exceptions—times when Mom doesn't know what to do or just isn't interested in doing it. Her litter might require some help from a human.
Maternal instinct is in part due to the hormone oxytocin, which kicks in after a dog gives birth. The hormone causes a mother to accept her babies and makes her want to protect them. Oxytocin is the hormone of love and jealousy, according to Modern Dog Magazine—which could explain why a new mom is not only loving but also ultra-protective of her newborns.
A mama dog who's in good health—and has an intact mothering instinct—should be able to take care of her puppies without human intervention. She'll feed them, clean them and encourage them to go to the bathroom by licking their butts regularly. She'll also spend a lot of time with them at first, keeping them warm and safe until they open their eyes and learn to explore the world on their own. Unless mom is sick or doesn't have enough milk, human intervention is not necessary at all.
Young moms are sometimes incapable of caring for their puppies properly. This could be because their bodies don't produce enough oxytocin or because they are not mature enough to understand what to do or how. This is especially common in stray dogs, who might have their first litter when they're just months old. Oxytocin might also be lacking in moms who have to go through a C-section rather than having a natural birth.
Rejecting a Puppy
So if most female dogs have a natural mothering instinct, why would they reject a puppy? You can blame Mother Nature for this. In the wild, only the strong survive. Although dogs have been domesticated for a long time, that knowledge remains alive within them. So if a mama dog is rejecting just one puppy out of a litter, chances are there's something wrong with that puppy—maybe a deformity or a serious illness that makes it unlikely he'll survive into adulthood. Since Mom has other puppies to care for, she will reject the runt who has little chance of survival so she can concentrate on taking care of the rest. When this happens, only human intervention—including bottle-feeding and a visit to the vet—can save the puppy.
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