If your bitch is about to give birth, don't panic! Dogs are much better equipped to deal with it all than we are. Make sure she is comfortable, watch from a sensitive distance, and only intervene if something goes seriously wrong - which it's unlikely to.
But needless to say, there are a few things you should know to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.
It's always a good idea to have your vet's out-of-hours number, as birth often occurs at night. And make sure you have all the essentials to hand, just in case - nail scissors, a clean dry towel and an extra basket, so if the litter is a large one, there will be plenty of room for the newborn puppies.
How do you know that the puppies are on their way?
In the final week of pregnancy, begin taking your dog's temperature, rectally, twice a day. The first noticeable sign of labour is a drop in mum's temperature from 38.5º C to 37º C (though normal body temperature can vary slightly from bitch to bitch). This usually occurs 12 to 24 hours before birth.
In the final stages, pregnant bitches will go off their food, may possibly vomit, and will probably scrabble at their bedding to prepare the nest for the imminent arrival of the puppies. Contractions are another obvious sign, during which she will tense and then relax as they pass. You can also expect mum to become very restless and unsettled and even begin to pant and shiver.
The final sign is a discharge from the vagina. This will often start out clear, change to a pale green and then to a dark green. This dark green means the placenta has become detached and the puppies are imminent. If your bitch has not had any puppies within an hour of this discharge, contact your vet for assistance.
Puppies are usually born within 20 minutes of each other, but it's normal for bitches to 'take a rest' partway through delivery and they may not strain at all for up to two hours between pups. And if you see your dog straining hard, appearing unsettled and restless for over an hour, or taking longer than a four-hour break, consult your vet.
Expect some puppies (probably half of them) to be born tail first. This is not abnormal for dogs. Mum will deal with them, licking each puppy to ensure the sac is cleaned from the face so they can breathe easily, and biting through the umbilical cord.
If your bitch is giving birth for the first time, she may need a little extra help and reassurance, so be ready to offer some soothing words. Occasionally, the mother will be in the middle of delivering the next puppy when the last needs help. If this occurs, remove the membrane the puppy is in, take a piece of heavy thread and tie a knot approximately one inch from where the cord attaches to the body. Then tie another knot a little further from the first and use clean scissors to cut the cord between the knots. Quickly dry the puppy against the grain of the hair, using a clean cloth (facecloths work well because they're big enough to cover the puppy but won't get in your way). Finally, vigorous rubbing with a warm cloth will dry and warm the pup and also stimulate it to take its first breath. Crying clears all the fluid from the puppy's airway. If you have a suction bulb, you can gently use it in each nostril.
If labour lasts a long time, the mother may need to go to the toilet before or in between deliveries. Make sure you watch carefully in case she starts giving birth to the next pup at the same time.
After the entire labour is over, get the mother something to eat and drink, and help her go outside (although that might be difficult). Remove and replace the soiled nest covers, then give the new family some time alone.
However, if mum doesn't seem to be very interested in taking care of her puppies, particularly if this disinterest extends for more than an hour, you may need to take over - and consult your vet immediately. In occasional cases hand-rearing may be necessary, as a result of parental neglect or a mother's inability to produce milk.