Helping with Whelping
Imagine veterinary students learning about dog breeding from preservation dog breeders. That is exactly what is happening at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts.
The Tufts-AKC Canine Whelping Program offers veterinary students an immersion learning experience in which breeders provide insights about the many facets of dog breeding. The crux of the program is participating in a whelping after following a pregnancy from pre-breeding health and genetic testing to labor and delivery. Attending a dog show is a requirement to help solidify understanding.
Students at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University who participated in a pilot canine whelping program last year learned from preservation dog breeders about dog breeding. The program included taking part in a whelping experience. From left are Sophia Hanna, Rose Marie Guarnieri, Allie Damren and Isabella Swift.
Second-year veterinary student Isabella Swift, who took the selective (Tufts’ term for an elective) last year when it was introduced as a pilot program, says, “Seeing the care that breeders put into their programs has helped me understand the positive side of breeding. Before this selective, I didn’t even know a veterinarian could specialize in reproductive medicine. It opened my eyes to an entirely new career path.”
An indisputable shortage of veterinarians trained in small-animal reproduction narrows the clinical choices for breeders and, in some cases, minimizes the quality of care for their bitches and puppies.
According to the American College of Theriogenologists, there are 401 board-certified theriogenologists in practice in the U.S. — and not all work in companion-animal theriogenology. These experts, who specialize in reproduction, neonatology and genetic diseases, are critical to breeding programs and the health of current and future generations of dogs.
Cummings veterinary students help resuscitate neonates born by cesarean section as part of the canine whelping program selective. From left are students Allie Damren and Isabella Swift, who are assisting veterinary technician Cindy Mitchell.
“Currently, there is a serious shortage of veterinarians with canine reproduction expertise practicing in New England,” says Stacey Ober, JD, Government Relations Regional Manager, New England, for the AKC. “Veterinary practices report a persistent inability to identify and hire individuals with small-animal theriogenology backgrounds and skills.”
Ober began working to change this.
“Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts is the sole veterinary school in New England,” she says. “We proposed a pilot program that would partner veterinary students with select AKC breeder club members.”
Timing is everything.
Cummings Dean Alastair Cribb, DVM, PhD, FCAHS, the Henry and Lois Foster Professor, was two years into his tenure at the top-notch veterinary school when Ober and Gale Golden, of Marlborough, Massachusetts, an AKC Bronze Breeder of Merit, approached him in fall 2021.
Ober and Golden proposed a breeder outreach program for veterinary students, and Dean Cribb was receptive to the possibility. It was the seed idea that became the Tufts-AKC Canine Whelping Program.
“Dean Cribb asked me to put together a program,” says Golden, program coordinator and a breeder of French Bulldogs under the Morgan Manor prefix. “Along with Stacey and Susan Patterson, a Labrador Retriever and Gordon Setter (Fenwyck) breeder, who became the program advisor, we brainstormed topics that we wanted veterinary students to know about. The dean vetted our ideas with students and faculty, and they were interested.”
Veterinary student Marisela Gonzalez-Cruz helps French Bulldog (Morgan Manor) breeder Gale Golden, program coordinator for the canine whelping program, recover her bitch following a C-section delivery.
A core team began working on the curriculum, selecting dog breeders to be mentors and building collaborations with local kennel clubs. Members of the team included Ober; Golden; Patterson; Mari-Beth O’Neill, AKC vice president of sport services; Meera Gatlin, DVM, MPH, assistant teaching professor at Tufts, and Laurie Maulucci, a Great Dane breeder and AKC delegate representing Windham County Kennel Club.
The core team planned for six or seven breeders who had recently bred or were planning to breed bitches to participate each semester, along with 12 to 14 breeders who would take part in roundtable discussions at the veterinary school. Breeders also would contribute in a Facebook group created for the course.
“We welcomed breeders who were willing to teach and host veterinary students,” Ober says. “We were fortunate to recommend some fabulous breeder mentors. A couple of local veterinarians who actively breed contacted us as well, and this was an amazing addition because they provided well-rounded perspectives for the veterinary students.”
The AKC provided resources for the breeder roundtable discussions and supported students at dog shows. Through the AKC Humane Fund, donations from local kennel clubs enabled stipends to be awarded to veterinary students to help offset transportation costs to breeder kennels, dog shows and field trips. Among the kennel clubs that donated were South Shore, Windham County, South Windsor and Holyoke.
“Our objectives were to help students understand the value of conducting breeding soundness exams and reproductive health evaluations and to become familiar with gestational changes, stages of labor, whelping and postpartum priorities,” says Dr. Gatlin, who oversaw the selective as the course director.
“We wanted students to develop a relationship with at least one breeder and to practice communication skills with veterinarians, breeder clients and peers. Through the selective, we hoped they would identify career opportunities in canine theriogenology and the incorporation of theriogenology considerations in general practice.”
Before the Tufts-AKC Canine Whelping Program, Cummings offered students 11 hours of classroom education in canine theriogenology. Clinical opportunities included observing and assisting in cesarean sections during soft-tissue surgery rotations at Foster Hospital for Small Animals and Lerner Spay Neuter Clinic.
The Canine Whelping Program brought a deeper understanding of dog breeding. The one-credit hour selective, which was introduced in fall 2022, is open to second-year veterinary students in the fall semester and to first- and second-year students in the spring semester. Thus far, seven students have gone through the program, which is now offered on an ongoing basis.
Doberman Pinscher (Allettare) breeder Angela Ferrari of Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, participated in roundtable discussions and the group’s Facebook page, where she posted pictures and information about raising a litter whelped in June. She also hosted a cardiac clinic at the Framingham District Kennel Club Dog Show in November 2022 at Marlborough, Massachusetts.
“The cardiologist, Dr. Ivan Sosa Samper, performed echocardiogram evaluations on 30 dogs of several breeds,” Ferrari says. “A handful of students observed and got a glimpse of breed-specific health testing. They also attended the dog show.
“Some of the students asked questions about health tests and why you would breed a dog that does not pass every test. I had a good example. In Dobermans, dilated cardiomyopathy is a big health problem. There are only two genetic tests, though they believe there could be 30 markers. The genetic tests and Holter monitoring help guide you, but in this breed, you can’t rule out a dog just because he is positive for the markers. These tests are tools in our toolbox.”
Doberman Pinscher breeder Angela Ferrari, who breeds under the Allettare prefix, participated in roundtable discussions and provided input in a Facebook group created for the selective. Although her bitch whelped her litter of puppies in June after the spring semester, Ferrari shared pictures of the puppies on Facebook chronicling their development. Above: Newborn puppies. Below: Tube-feeding on day three.
Echocardiogram and Holter monitor evaluations are required tests for Doberman Pinschers to receive health clearances due to dilated cardiomyopathy having a lifetime risk of 50 percent in the breed. The irreversible heart-muscle disorder leads to congestive heart failure, though some dogs die suddenly before developing heart failure. The two genetic variants that have been identified are linked to the disease, but Dobermans can develop the disease without either one, and some dogs with one or both gene variants never develop the disease.
Reflecting on taking the selective, veterinary student Swift says, “It was enlightening to see how closely breeders and veterinarians can work together to not only improve the health of dog breeds but also to pool together a huge amount of experience and expertise. This program had a huge effect on my perspective about dog breeders. Seeing the care that breeders put into their programs and choosing homes well-suited to each individual puppy helped me see the positive side of breeding.”
Veterinary students who take part in the Tufts-AKC Canine Whelping Program are required to attend a dog show. Pictured at the Springfield Kennel Club Dog Show in April 2023 are, from left, Dr. Thomas M. Davies, chair of the board of directors of the American Kennel Club; students Allie Damren and Noah Dwyer, and Laurie Maulucci, a member of the core team who developed the program, Great Dane breeder and an AKC delegate representing Windham County Kennel Club.
Dean Cribb, who allowed Tufts to be a trailblazer with its Canine Whelping Program, says, “It is so important that our students understand dog breeding and normal reproductive processes. This program provides a hands-on way for them to gain exposure to build a foundation of knowledge in this area.”
Course director Dr. Gatlin agrees. “I’ve been delighted at the success of this selective, and I really feel we’ve made an impression on these students about what it means to breed purposefully bred dogs,” she says. “Reproduction can be a sensitive topic, and there is often a perceived divide between veterinarians and canine breeder clients. The biggest takeaway is the appreciation for the value of a good relationship between veterinarians and canine breeders.”
Meanwhile, the AKC is hoping the program will be a model for other schools.
“We have provided the sample curriculum to other veterinary schools that expressed interest and will continue to work toward having similar opportunities available at other schools in the future,” says O’Neill, whose job includes veterinary outreach programs.
From a seed idea to a veterinary-school selective, the Tufts-AKC Canine Whelping Program is, indeed, a big step forward for breeders and veterinarians alike.