You arrive at your breeder or the shelter to pick up your new puppy and you find out that there will only be 1 puppy left after you take yours. You feel bad leaving the last one behind. Why not get two? They can grow together, be friends, keep each other occupied and maybe feel more comfortable with the adjustment with their brother or sister there. Though this thought comes from the heart and you may be thinking you’re doing your puppy a favor; you may be doing just the opposite. Why? The phenomenon known as “littermate syndrome” may be the outcome. It is important to note that there is no scientific based research or evidence on "littermate syndrome", it is an anecdotal reference based on trends of behaviour we can sometimes see in littermates as they grow up together.
What Is "Littermate Syndrome"?
The concept of littermate syndrome is based around bringing home two siblings from the same litter or even just two same-aged puppies at the same time (from different litters). What can end up happening is the two puppies become hyper-bonded to each other. They learn to rely on each other more than anyone or anything else. This can interfere with their bond and relationship with their owners and with other dogs. The bond between the siblings can become so extreme that when separated, even just a short distance or time away, can cause extreme stress and anxiety. Signs such as whining, crying, barking, destructive behaviour, inappetance, panting, pacing and/or any other anxiety behaviours arise when separated. They may become fearful of humans or other animals when the other puppy is not present; thus acting like a security blanket for one another. They may lack socialization skills because they are only used to playing with one another, never asked to socialize on their own. They can get used to only one type of play style with one another and when confronted by other dogs with different play styles or temperaments they may not be able to adjust or cope. This is where we may see reactivity, fearfulness or aggression. In some cases and breed types, especially same sex pairs, when reaching adolescence and adulthood we may see aggression arise between one another. Managing same sex aggression within the home is no easy feat and often ends with one dog being re-homed. Littermate syndrome can be a serious behavioural obstacle that is imperative we try to prevent before it arises.
How Is Littermate Syndrome prevented?
What happens if you already have purchased or adopted two puppies. How can we prevent littermate syndrome from happening? Below are some tips to consider to help set both puppies up for success.
· Do as much as possible separately. This includes vet visits, walks, training sessions, playtime, eating etc. This helps each puppy to develop their own confidence and security, not relying on one another.
· Crate separately and away from one another (separate rooms - not side by side crates and not crated in the same crate)
· Proper socialization for each puppy individually. Check out my new puppy guide here for tips on socialization.
· Build a relationship and bond with each puppy individually
· Make separation from one another a positive experience – fun games, durational toys, playtime etc.
· The most obvious way to prevent littermate syndrome – don’t adopt or purchase two puppies at the same time.
How can we FIX littermate syndrome?
Perhaps you are reading this article because you’re already in the thick of it. You have two puppies displaying the classic signs of littermate syndrome. How can we fix it? It’s important to remember that fixing any behavioural problems, even in one dog, can take time. Two dogs, more time (and more work). Everything should be gradual, especially when we are already seeing symptoms. Below are some tips to start the process of correcting the unhealthy relationship between the two puppies:
· If crated together, close to each other or not crated at all, start here. Crate training in individual crates. Start by having them in the same room and visible to one another and slowly transition to further and further apart.
· Once the puppies are accustomed to the crate – start training sessions with one puppy at a time. You can start by doing the sessions near the other puppy’s crate so he/she can watch but gradually you will move to somewhere you aren’t seen. Alternate puppies.
· If you have a second person available, you can do short training sessions together at opposite ends of a room. This teaches each puppy to focus on the handler and not each other.
· Hand feeding each puppy – build value in food and in YOU!
· If previously used to eating together or next to each other, start slowly increasing that distance between the two. Opposite ends of the room and then different rooms. Some puppies with littermate syndrome will not eat without the other puppy present. This will slowly help to create the correct mindset and comfort to eat alone.
· Individually socialize. Take one at a time on walks, to the vet, to the pet store. Leave the other puppy home in a crate. The other puppy can have a durational toy or chew in the crate when left home alone to create a positive experience. Keep in mind it may take the crated puppy time to feel comfortable enough to play with the toys and relax when the other puppy has left.
· Slowly start practicing walking in and out of sight with each other when out for walks (need two people for this). Walk together and then turn and walk in opposite directions etc. You will need to monitor this situation for signs of stress/anxiety.
It’s important to remember that avoidance and prevention is the best plan. If you want to have dogs similar in age, consider getting them 6 months apart. If you already have two puppies, start now to prevent issues. Not all siblings or puppies will have littermate syndrome but getting two puppies at once already has its own set of challenges. It takes an exceptional amount of training, socialization, time and work with just one puppy, let alone two. Responsible breeders, shelters and rescues may caution against bringing two puppies home and may refuse to allow it. The most important thing you can do is your best to advocate for your puppy/dog. Do yourself and your puppy a favor, give him/her the proper focus and training to grow into a well-balanced family companion, and then add another.