Mammalian offspring require parental care, at least in the form of nursing during their early development. While mothers need to invest considerable time and energy in ensuring the survival of their current offspring, they also need to optimize their investment in one batch of offspring in order to ensure future reproduction and hence lifetime reproductive success. Free-ranging dogs live in small social groups, mate promiscuously and lack the cooperative breeding biology of other group-living canids. They face high early-life mortality, which in turn reduces fitness benefits of the mother from a batch of pups. We carried out a field-based study on free-ranging dogs in India to understand the nature of maternal care. Our analysis reveals that mothers reduce investment in energy-intensive active care and increase passive care as the pups grow older, thereby keeping overall levels of care more or less constant over pup age. Using the patterns of mother-pup interactions, we define the different phases of maternal care behaviour.