Littermate Syndrome – 12 Things I Learned Raising Our Littermate Puppies
Littermate Syndrome; what is it?
Is it just another label pet owners, breeders and professionals use as an excuse for not addressing the real problem eg: ‘it’s not me, it’s you’? This subject is very interesting and opinions vary greatly.
What is most troubling though, is that when reading various forums on this topic, many people conclude that sibling puppies with any degree of a behavior issue is due to Littermate Syndrome and that the owner seeking help needs to rehome or even euthanize one or both of the pups (this even happened to me)! Do these people have all of the facts? So what if Holmes and Watson are fighting… dogs do fight to assert their order in the pack. Is there an aggression problem, or is it simply typical behavior?
In this article, we are going to take a look at Littermate Syndrome, go over tips to avoid Littermate Syndrome, and help you to be informed so you can make the best decision for your pups.
Littermate Syndrome is more than just double the puppy trouble when it comes to raising sibling puppies. According to Dr. Karen Becker “Anecdotal evidence suggests that behavioral issues may arise during key development periods because the two puppies’ deep bond impedes their individual ability to absorb and grasp the nuances of human and canine communication.”
Some of the signs of littermate syndrome include:
— Fear of strangers including people and other dogs
— Fear of the unknown and unfamiliar
— High level of anxiety when separated from their littermate even for a short time
— Failure to learn even the most basic obedience commands
Training two littermates is not just a matter of twice the work, but also the level of difficulty resulting from the puppies constantly distracting each other.
According to Patricia McConnell, applied animal behaviorist and author of several books on canine behavior:
“It’s just hard to get their attention. They are so busy playing with each other … that you become the odd man out.
I suspect this indeed does have to do with social bonding to some extent, but I have seen pups of a duo who clearly adored their humans. Adored them. They just didn’t listen to them.
It seems harder to get their attention, harder to teach them emotional control, and harder to teach them boundaries. I imagine that we humans become more like party poopers that interfere in their fun with their playmates, not to mention that we are more tiring, because they have to learn a foreign language in order to communicate with us.”
Another Potential Problem Among Littermates: Fighting
Sometimes Littermate Syndrome can take the form of non-stop fighting between the dogs.
Bullying and aggression between siblings seems to happen more often than between unrelated dogs, and it can get nasty.
Many well-intentioned dog guardians have terrible tales to tell about the harm caused to one sibling by the other.
Shelters have stories as well of pairs (or one of a pair) being returned because the adoptive owner feared for the well-being of the sibling being bullied.
Unhealthy Emotional Dependence
Nicole Wilde, canine behavior expert and author of “Don’t Leave Me!” believes the separation anxiety between littermates is the result of hyper-attachment, which is also what interferes with the puppies’ ability to be properly socialized.
“People assume that having two same-age pups who play together and interact constantly covers their dog-dog socialization needs,” Wilde told Stallings, “but they in fact don’t learn how other [dogs] play and have no idea about social skills with other puppies, adolescents or adult dogs.
“Perhaps one puppy is a bit of a bully, which his littermate puts up with,” Wilde continued, “but his rude behavior might not be tolerated by a new dog in a new setting.”3
Many canine behavior experts feel it’s best to rehome one of the siblings when a pair is showing early signs of Littermate Syndrome, so that both puppies have the opportunity to grow separately into stable, balanced adults.
Since this can be a difficult time for the original owners, it’s often easier to have prospective new owners meet both puppies and decide which one to take.
Uh oh … I’ve Already Adopted a Pair of Littermates. Help!
It’s important to keep in mind that it isn’t a given that every pair of puppy siblings will develop Littermate Syndrome. In fact, I’m sure there are many people reading here right now who are in complete disagreement with the advice of the experts I’ve cited.
With that said, according to Pat Miller writing for the Whole Dog Journal, there are things you can do to prevent or mitigate Littermate Syndrome if you’ve already brought sibling pups home with you.
The goal is to keep the puppies from developing a counterproductive degree of emotional dependence on one another.
As I stated in my post on tough dog toys, we have littermate puppies. Rodrigo and Sydney are fun, affectionate, well behaved 3-1/2 year old dogs today and they acted as a crash course into dog care for me. I grew up with dogs, but never cared for or trained a dog until we brought our littermates home. It was a lot of work, but we have years of amazing memories with our dogs and they became the inspiration for Keep the Tail Wagging.
I know that there are a lot of littermate families who read this blog and I was curious if we share the same experiences when it comes to raising littermate puppies. There were some things I expected, thanks to people who gave me a heads up. And there were some things that surprised me. Check out my list and let me know what you can relate to?
Activity Level x 100
This one is pretty obvious, but it did catch me off guard. I still remember the first day and night we brought our puppies home. It was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and I took the day off in preparation of having fun with puppies. Hours later, I fell asleep on one of the dog beds.
If they weren’t playing, chewing on something, biting me, or peeing/pooping, they were sleeping.
At first when they slept, it was so cute that I would pick them up and wake them. Then I got a brain and wouldn’t let anyone near them when they fell asleep, because that meant I could eat, watch TV, read, nap, anything other than chasing two puppies around our kitchen.
Thankfully they grew out of that mayhem and today they have a medium activity level that’s easy for the humans to match.
Affection – They Love Each Other
Our dogs are affectionate towards us, but what we didn’t expect was how affectionate they would be to each other. Between 8 weeks and 4 months, they slept in one kennel together (even though we had two).
I was warned about not allowing them to bond only to each other and tried to separate them one night. Rodrigo lost his mind and was clawing at the walls, crying, and trying to see Sydney. It broke my heart and my boyfriend looked at me like I was a monster as I put Rigo into Sydney’s kennel.
What’s funny is that Sydney was fine on her own.
Attachment to Humans
I did expect that our dogs would become attached to us, but what I didn’t expect was that they would gravitate more towards me.
I believe that dogs have a pack mentality; not because I believe they’re wolves, but because it seems that they have a hierarchy and they respect authority.
In our home, my boyfriend is the pack leader. I’m second in command. With him, their recall is 100%, with me, it’s about 95%.
What does surprise me is that our dogs spend most of their time with me. Granted, I do most of the dog care, but I just thought they’d want to be with the pack leader more often.
You wouldn’t believe the backlash we received (mostly me, because I’m a blogger) about adopting littermate puppies. An Oregon dog trainer told me that I would end up having them euthanized. Our former veterinarian let us know up front that he thought we made a mistake (he didn’t even know us).
I was becoming discouraged until we met our dog trainer. Funny story, the Oregon dog trainer referred her to us – stranger world. Our trainer prepared us for what we could expect and helped us learn how to read and communicate with our dogs.
Cost of Raising Littermates
It’s one more dog, what’s the big deal? Vaccination, spay and neuter surgery, and supplies aside, I was NOT prepared by how much more having two puppies would cost, because I didn’t take into account the destructive nature of a puppy and his partner in crime.
We went through too many dog collars, before we gave up; we still have teeth marks on some pieces of furniture, and they got a kick out of playing in their water dish (terrible for hardwood floors – so we moved it).
I had to get over my love of shoes; now I appreciate slippers and thick socks.
We couldn’t take our littermates to puppy class and I’m curious to know if anyone else had this experience. Rodrigo and Sydney hated being separated by more than 10 feet when they were puppies so we worked with a private trainer who gave us an awesome deal and we learned a lot.
As the puppies grew, their confidence grew with them, and now I can leave the house with one and not the other, but I rarely do this.
If I had to do it over again, we would have trained our puppies separately so we could count on their undivided attention, and help them deal with being apart. This also goes for walking and socializing them.
Our dogs are mix breed and I don’t how much their mixture has to do with their appetite. They both love food. We feed our dogs a raw food diet and meal time is a happy time in our house.
Sydney, who is Blue Heeler / Labrador mix, is VERY food motivated. So much so that she had a weight problem a year ago that we have under control today.
Our dogs have never been food aggressive, but they do have these little quirks…
— Sydney won’t eat next to Rodrigo
— Rodrigo finishes eating first and then waits for Sydney to finish so he can lick her dish
— They don’t seem to care who eats first, they kind of trade off every couple of days with no issues
Fear and Anxiety
Sydney isn’t a fan of most dogs. She seems to get along best with puppies and senior dogs. Otherwise, she wants to be left alone. Rodrigo, on the other hand, has always loved other dogs and people. He’s very outgoing (although he can be a butt). What I find interesting is that he has a lot of fears that he doesn’t share with Sydney…
— baby gates
— vacuum cleaner
The other night he was playing with a balloon and having a grand time until I took it away. I had a feeling that when he popped it, it would be another fear to add to his list.
With Rodrigo’s growing list, it still blows me away that he went head to head with a coyote once; and will run to guard me whenever they come across our property.
We were warned that our littermates would fight all the time. There were some battles over toys, bully sticks, and other things when they were around 4-5 months old, but it didn’t happen often and they haven’t been in a scuffle since that period.
Rodrigo, on the other hand, will get into fights with other dogs and we’ve had to take the dog park off our list of places to go.
There are three issues that lead to a fight at the dog park…
— Rodrigo gets a hold of another dog’s toy and guards it with his life.
— Rodrigo wants to great all the humans and their dogs start staking their territory.
— Rodrigo mounts dogs to let them know he’s top dog; they disagree.
So we have play date at home. As long as toys and bones aren’t included in the play date, Rodrigo and our guest dogs have a great time. Sydney hangs out with me.
They still play together just like they did as puppies.
Leader of the Pack
The humans are the pack leaders, but I think in a house with more than one dog, there’s going to be a hierarchy and at first it seemed that Sydney was going to take that role, but when our dogs reached 6 months of age, Rodrigo was clearing in the lead. What I love is that he protects Sydney. When the dog park was on limits, it was cute when Rodrigo would herd dogs away from Sydney and play with them elsewhere.
Our littermates spent their first 5 weeks with their mom. Something I learned from the book Think Like Your Dog (by Dianna Young and Robert Mottram) is that those first weeks contribute to the development of our dogs’ personalities. Their mom was rescued from a property with over 100 dogs; they lived outside and were fed carcasses from a rendering plant. In the winter, many of them froze.
Although our puppies were born after she was rescued, she raised them with a fear based mindset that may have lead to many of Rodrigo’s random fears and Sydney’s discomfort with other dogs. This is just a theory of mine, but it’s interesting to contemplate.
I didn’t know that a female could carry a litter sired by more than one father.
Our littermate’s mom was an Australian Cattle Dog (possibly mixed); Rodrigo is mixed with Border Collie and Sydney is mixed with Labrador Retriever.
I’m sure there’s more in there too, but those are the dominant breeds.
The Bottom Line:
As I mentioned earlier, Littermate Syndrome isn’t a guaranteed end all be all for every pair of puppy siblings. While genetics can play a role, as has been said on here before, IT IS ALL ABOUT YOU. The knowledge and commitment you as the dogs’ owner have matters the most.
However, the general advice given by professionals is: “don’t do it. Instead, adopt a puppy who is most likely to fit into your lifestyle, and then focus on training and socializing your pup to insure she is comfortable in her environment and when she encounters other dogs and people.”
We have two amazing dogs. The only thing they have in common are their background, their eyes, and their humans (us). Otherwise, they are as unique as can be and I think that was the biggest shocker of all and I love it.
What have you learned about your littermates (or your dog) that was a surprise?