I got a call at 7 in the morning from a new dog owner, she got a pair of littermates from a labradoodle breeder at 8 ½ weeks old and she is in tears. They are only 8 months old, but she is at her wits end. Her puppies have already begun to show the severe symptoms of littermate syndrome. They have started fighting to the point she has to take one of them to a 24 hour vet to get stitched up, but if she tries to keep them separated they panic, scream and are heart breakingly desperate to get back with one another.
It’s not very often that you find something that trainers, vets, shelter workers and reputable breeders all agree on, but the canine industry is becoming progressively more aware of the dangers of taking two puppies. So much so this has even been given it’s own name… Littermate Syndrome. I think littermate syndrome can be a somewhat misleading term, because it can lead people to believe that only puppies from the same litter will suffer from this syndrome.
What are the symptoms of littermate syndrome?
It is difficult for them to form a bond with a human and the human is often the odd man out in the relationship. What’s wrong with that you ask? Well one of the things that makes dogs so lovable is that they are socially motivated to hang out with their people. It prevents them from being motivated to please you.
Dogs often suffer from severe separation anxiety from their littermate. Even if separated from a short time 2-3 minutes the dogs may scream and even self harm to get to the other dog. They have such a strong bond with their littermate that nothing else matters. They often are unable to recover the other dog passes early in life.
There have been studies that show a hindered social development with people and dogs in littermate pairs raised together. It is guessed that this is probably due to their dependency on one another and their inability to bond with things outside of their littermate. They are unable to truly be socialized and each dog only becomes ½ way socialized.
Littermates raised together are often unable to learn basic skills like manners or obedience. Think of all the nuisance behaviors like barking at other dogs, pulling on leash, door bolting, basic skills that most puppies master before 7 months old. Now pair that with not being able to teach sit, down or stay; because your dog is fixated on it’s littermate.
-Littermates often have a love hate relationship, while they are super bonded they often escalate with one another due to their hindered social development. While some littermates never display this, more often than not this is the norm. Oftentimes this results in dangerous and aggressive behaviors between the littermates in the home.
-Dogs with littermate syndrome have been shown to focus on training and their handler as poorly as a dog who has been completely isolated during their first 6 months of life. You would isolate your puppy, so don’t hinder their development with another puppy.
Can it be prevented?
Theoretically yes, but in practice it’s nearly impossible. In my 15 years of training animals I have only seen this effectively avoided in one situation. In this case she knew of littermate syndrome before purchasing the two puppies from an overfilled rescue and she tried to only adopt one, but the rescue insisted it would be easier to take two and wouldn’t do the adoption any other way.
So, how did she prevent it? She signed them up for two totally separate training classes on different nights of the week, kenneled them in separate rooms, took them on separate walks, did 20 minutes of training apart for each dog daily, and only gave them 1 -1 ½ hours of playtime together daily. Can you imagine? Adding triple the work of puppy raising to your daily schedule with the kids, job and other responsibilities you already have?
In recent months I have seen two pairs of littermates adopted… lab mixes and goldendoodles. I was sad to see this, but the shelter workers spent hours explaining the proper way to raise them, risks of littermate syndrome, and the work that would be involved. The adopters where absolutely convinced they were ready. One couldn’t bear to break up the puppies the other had two kids and wanted a puppy for each explaining that they would have their needs met. At 6 months the doodle family already has two puppies with irreputable behavioral problems and has rehomed one. The Labrador mixes owners also ran into similar issues around 8 months they are currently deciding if they can handle keeping both. However, even with rehoming both dogs will never fully recover, even if they are able to make progress.
TAKING TWO IS A HUGE GAMBLE and ultimately the puppies may pay the price.
Opps… I had no idea and I already got littermates what do I do?
Here are five rules to implement before they are six months to help them lead successful lives.
- Training time in the house separated and on adventures separated. Take them both on separate field trips at least once a week where you spend time showing them the world just you and them, without the littermate influence. Same thing do at least 20 minutes of training daily with the littermates in separate rooms, so they learn how to communicate with humans.
- Bonding time you and them 1 hour a day should be spent with the dogs one on one without the sibling present. This should include playtime with activities like fetch, tug, tag or hide and seek.
- Daily walks at least 1 mile OR 30 minutes separate. This allows them to learn walking rules, and learn how to cope with the world on their own. Also good for bonding.
- Never allow them to share a kennel together, keep them separate at night and while you are away. This prevents the separation anxiety and the dog-dog aggression.
- Don’t get discouraged, if you need to hire a walker to give them individual walks or send them to daycare on different days to give yourself a break.
Two puppies is 100 % triple the work, but we know that your already in love with your littermates and that you CAN rise to the occasion of raising them.