Sweet Pepper sprang into action right when these pups needed her the most.

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If there was ever a rescue dog that deserved a happy ending, it's Pepper, the foster dog who recently became a surrogate mom to a litter of 10 orphaned puppies whose own mother passed away after giving birth. The adorable foster dog also gave birth earlier this year to a litter of puppies, but sadly, none of her pups would survive. In a bittersweet turn of events, Pepper is finally getting her chance to show off her great mothering skills just when they were needed the most.

The connection was made possible by a group of volunteers from Ruff Start Rescue, a foster-based animal rescue organization based just outside St. Cloud, Minn., who came together to find the dogs and their puppies new homes.

puppies who lost mom adopted by mom who lost puppies
Credit: Courtesy of Lexi Ruhland Johnson

The process has been an emotional one for Lexi Johnson, a former intake manager at Ruff Start who still volunteers her home as a space to foster animals as they wait to find their forever families. Earlier this summer, Johnson welcomed a sweet dog named Poppy into her home as a foster, and quickly realized the dog was pregnant. Johnson tells Daily Paws that she knew taking care of a litter of puppies would be a lot of work, and once she realized the pup was expecting, essentially cleared her family's summer schedule "to figure out how we were going to do this."

After only a few weeks at Johnson's home, Poppy started her long, hard labor on July 7, and birthed the last of 10 puppies early the next morning. Sadly, the cinnamon-colored pooch passed away the next day from complications related to heartworm disease and the 30-hour labor. Johnson shared on Facebook that losing the dog unexpectedly "completely broke her heart"... and also left her with 10 puppies to care for around the clock.

Without their mother, Johnson knew she had to be quick to make sure the newborn puppies got the nutrition and care they needed in her place, and quickly tapped into her support system of Ruff Start staff and volunteers. A friend showed up to help that same day, and the two sprang into action, working tirelessly through the night to keep the new puppies fed and warm. Johnson says it was especially difficult because the newborns were not yet accustomed to nursing, so their bottle feedings took significantly longer than they would have with a mama dog to nurse them herself.

Johnson says those first few feeding sessions took at least 90 minutes each—and the puppies needed to be fed every three hours, around the clock. "The first day was rough... by the time you get 10 done [feeding], you really have to start all over again," she explains in a video posted to Facebook.

"Usually when they have mama, they can just eat whenever they want to, especially at the beginning," she explains in the post. But with bottle feeding, "it's a much different thing when they have to go ahead and eat all of it at one time every couple of hours, versus a little snack whenever they want."

We can only imagine how exhausted she and her fellow helpers must have been, but all their hard work would pay off soon. Three additional foster homes agreed to take on most of the puppies, while Johnson continued to foster three of the little ones herself. Sharing the load with her fellow volunteers made it possible for her to give the tiny pups the round-the-clock care they required. "It was much more manageable for everyone to be able to feed and to be able to sleep," Johnson tells Daily Paws. But there would be another light at the end of the tunnel in store for Johnson in the coming days.

It was nothing short of a miracle when Johnson learned about Pepper, another Ruff Start foster dog who had sadly lost her own litter of puppies earlier this year. Johnson says that while she and the rescue staff didn't know if the dog would have a connection with Poppy's litter, they figured it would be worth it to try introducing Pepper to Poppy's puppies.

They weren't even sure how long Pepper had been without her pups, or whether the dog's milk would be acceptable to Poppy's little ones. But on July 22, two weeks to the day since Poppy's passing (and countless bottle feedings 24 hours a day), Johnson brought Pepper home to meet seven of the puppies who had returned to her house from their foster homes.

She says the connection was immediate. Pepper lay in a kiddie pool as Johnson placed each puppy next to her one by one. She was pleasantly surprised to see the pups were all latched to Pepper in just a couple of minutes. The next day, she rounded up the remaining puppies to meet their new mama, saying that while the babies were all thriving with their humans, "the best place for them is with a mama who can not only give them some good milk, but teach them dog things, behaviors we as humans can't.

Weeks later, the puppies are still with Pepper, and will be up for adoption on the Ruff Start Rescue website within the next few weeks. (Two of these cuties have already been spoken for!)

It's been an emotional roller coaster for Johnson, but she's thankful there's finally a happy ending for the puppies and for their doting surrogate mom, Pepper. "It was so sweet," Johnson says of their first meeting. "I had more and more tears that just kept coming down that night, for a good reason this time."

It's now been five weeks since Poppy passed away, and Johnson still thinks about the sweet dog she opened up her home to in her time of need. "After all, she was the one who brought these 10 adorable babes into the world."

We can only imagine that Poppy would be so grateful to Pepper for stepping in to fill her role and care for her puppies, and to Johnson for making it all happen.