By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
Many dog behaviorists, trainers and shelters discourage adopting littermate puppies because evidence suggests that behavioral problems may arise during key development periods. The two puppies’ deep bond may impede their ability to comprehend the nuances of human and canine communication, leading to hindered social skills and increased fearfulness, referred to as “littermate syndrome”.
Because fear is the default reaction to odd or unfamiliar stimuli in puppies, a muddled understanding of the world around the two littermates may lead to impaired coping mechanisms later on. Many factors influence behavior and not all siblings raised together will exhibit signs: Littermate syndrome is a risk, not a foregone conclusion.
Early Indicators of Littermate Syndrome
Signs include fearfulness of unfamiliar people, dogs and other novel stimuli (neophobia); intense anxiety when separated even briefly; and difficulty learning basic obedience skills. In some cases the two dogs fight incessantly. Over lunch recently, veterinarian and dog behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar and I discussed raising sibling dogs.
The tie that binds
Cohabitating siblings may become so emotionally dependent on each other that even short separations provoke extreme distress. Behavior specialist and author Nicole Wilde recalls a case in which two nine-year-old sibling Huskies attended her group class. “They were so bonded to each other that I literally could not take one and walk a few feet away to practice loose leash skills because the other would scream.”
Owners committed to raising a pair should ensure the puppies spend significant portions of every day apart so that each learns how to be alone—a key lesson in any well thought-out puppy program. This means feeding, walking and training separately, with individual crates in different parts of the home. Even trips to puppy socials and the vet should be separate so that both learn to incorporate these episodes into their psyches without being overly dependent on their littermate.
Exceptions to littermate syndrome...and hope
While the majority of comments to my blog corroborate struggles in raising siblings—including the ongoing aggression and fighting often seen between same-gendered littermates—others write of well-adjusted cohabitating pairs. A common thread seems to be that littermates are more likely to thrive when introduced into a household with an older dog, who perhaps acts as an arbiter and stabilizing influence.
Increased awareness of littermate syndrome
Recognition of the risks appears to be spreading, with many breeders and shelters declining to place siblings together. Shelley Smith, adoption center manager at Pets Unlimited in San Francisco [now the San Francisco SPCA], said her shelter stopped placing siblings together after a particularly disturbing case.
“A dachshund mix named Thelma was returned to the shelter because her sibling repeatedly attacked her and she had multiple injuries by the time the heartbroken family returned her to us. Thankfully we were able to re-home Thelma, but it’s almost certain the fighting and anxiety could have been avoided had the two littermates not been placed together. We now separate siblings and inform adopters about the rationale for our policy.”
[An update of this post was published in the Winter 2014 issue of Bark Magazine.]