What is Littermate Syndrome?
As mentioned in our “Picking a Puppy” article, littermate syndrome is a serious behavioral condition. Littermate syndrome develops when two young dogs end up bonding too tightly with each other. It may sound like an ideal scenario when dogs are such close friends, but major issues can arise down the road. The problem is that their relationship with each other can stop them from creating proper bonds with humans and hinder their social development.
When can Littermate Syndrome Occur?
As the name suggests, littermate syndrome generally develops in two puppies from the same litter. Littermate Syndrome does not occur in every household that brings home littermates and there are a wide range of circumstances that determine if the condition actually occurs. We'll explore how to avoid littermate syndrome or work on it if you are already seeing signs. In addition to two pups from the same litter, this can occur in two puppies from separate litters. You will typically see this if both dogs are below the age of 6 months.
Behavioral Issues Associated with Littermate Syndrome
From a young age, the two puppies have formed a very strong bond, learning and feeding off of each other's emotions. This can lead to behavioral issues in one or both of the dogs as they develop.
What are Common Symptoms of Littermate Syndrome?
- Fear of people and other dogs.
- Extreme separation anxiety:
- Crate Issues
- Issues when encountering new situations when alone
- Leash Reactivity.
- High frequency of fights.
How Soon will You See Signs of Littermate Syndrome?
These behavioral issues aren’t often experienced right after you get your puppies, but as both dogs reach mental maturity, they tend to intensify greatly. Littermate syndrome often causes aggression in breeds that are not prone to aggressive behaviors. For example, we rarely see aggression in Labradors, but when two Labrador littermates are raised together there is a much higher potential for aggression and or fear.
Littermate syndrome can be managed, but it is a lot of work. An owner should know that preventing littermate syndrome doesn’t just double their workload, but rather triples it. They’ll have to train with each dog individually, and then together. Remember that littermate syndrome is not a dog simply acting out. Littermate syndrome causes dogs to not go through their normal developmental process and takes a huge amount of work to overcome once it is present. At that point you aren’t simply asking a dog not to be bad, you are trying to socialize them long after their “socialization window” has closed. It is hard work!
Is it OK to get 2 dogs from the same litter?
The easiest way to prevent littermate syndrome is to only take one puppy at a time. We know that it is always tempting to take two because they are just so darn cute together. But no matter how cute they are the safer route will always be to just take one. If you want a second dog, we suggest waiting 6 months after getting your first pup before getting another puppy. This way the first dog will have already been socialized properly and then you can do that work with your new puppy.
My Breeder/Rescue Told Me It Would Be Okay!
We hear the statement that a rescue or breeder told pet parents that getting two pups together was not only okay but was a good idea. In the case of breeders that recommend getting two pups together they will often state; "I've sold two dogs together and never had a problem". While it might be true that a rescue or breeder has not previously had an issue, it doesn't prevent it in the future.
If you think of the motivations of the people in either the rescue or the breeder, they are trying to get you to take home dogs. So having you bring home two is in their best interest. This is why many do not warn owners of the potential dangers of littermate syndrome. Just because they don't warn you, doesn't mean that it isn't a real thing. Once again, we would strongly encourage that you only get one dog at a time, getting a second a year or two later.
Will Littermate Syndrome Occur with all Sibling Dogs?
The short answer is NO. We do see it commonly enough to encourage people not to take on the risk that exists when taking two dogs at once. One thing you can look out for if taking two dogs together is one of the pups being overly shy. This will increase the likelihood of symptoms occurring greatly. If neither dog is overly shy, it doesn't mean that you are in the clear. We recommend you should still follow the steps below for working through littermate syndrome.
Is Littermate Syndrome Common in Certain Breeds
We have seen littermate syndrome occur across all breeds. With that, we can say that no specific breed is safe from the risks associated with taking two dogs together. However, some breeds do seem to be more susceptible to having littermate syndrome affect them. Breeds we would look out for:
We have seen higher cases of littermate syndrome in these breeds. Some of that might be the overall popularity of the breed, causing there to be more of a chance of littermates being taken together. The more littermates that are taken together, the higher chance you have of some of them having the issue. There is also the potential for characteristics of these breeds to make littermate syndrome more likely to occur.
Is Littermate Syndrome Real?
Based on what we have laid our thus far in this article, I'm sure that you can tell that we think Littermate Syndrome is a real thing and not just a myth. For many people the first time they hear about the idea of littermates affecting their dog is because they have a dog that is having some type of behavioral issue.
It is important to not simply blame littermate syndrome for the problem. Instead start working to resolve the behavioral issues while also focusing on many of the factors that could have been intensified by having two pups together.
Working through Littermate Syndrome
If you already have two puppies and you are intent on keeping them together then you will need a great action plan! An experienced trainer with Suburban K9 can help you, we would recommend In-Home Training Sessions as the first step in making a plan.
The main things you’ll want to achieve is confidence in the dogs when they are separated from each other and good behavior when together. Believe it or not, the most important work occurs when the dogs are separated. To some people, this sounds backwards because they want the dogs to be good around each other, but proper socialization is the most important part! Here are some things to work on:
While some dog owners don't see the need to teach their pup to go into a crate, we will strongly encourage it for all dogs. For dogs showing signs of littermate syndrome, utilizing the crate is a great way to start addressing the issue. Check out our article If You Should Crate Your Dog for more information and suggestions on the best crates!
Make the Crate a Happy Place
You can use treats to lure them into the crates and help them understand that it is a safe happy place. Blankets inside the crate can make the pup feel comfy and at home. The first couple of times getting the dog into the crate don't even worry about closing the door. Once you can close the door, follow the steps below to work your pup closer to independence from their sibling.
- When you crate the dogs, make sure that you utilize an individual crate for each dog and never crate them together.
- You can start off with the dogs in crates right next to each other to ease any separation anxiety that already exists.
- Once the dogs are doing well, you should slowly start moving the crates to opposite sides of the room.
- A great step before moving your pup to another room is to use a room divider between the crates. This allows for them to be close by not see each other as easily.
- Next, move them to different areas of the house.
- Working on this will help the dogs start to feel independent; this is a major goal in concurring the behavioral issues the littermate syndrome causes.
Obedience training is essential when raising any dog. There are a couple of important things to focus on when dealing with dog's who have or may develop littermate syndrome.
- Obedience train each dog without the other dog around. The goal is to ensure that each dog forms a strong individual bond with the owner.
- If attending obedience classes, we recommend that you enroll each puppy in a different class.
Working with the dogs individually on obedience commands will help you as an owner form a connection with the dog. This connection may not be possible if the other dog is present at the class. If both dogs are in the same class, they will focus their attention on what the other is doing. By separating the two dogs they will learn to focus on other things, such as learning commands and forming the crucial bond with you.
Outings and Socialization
- Plan outings with each dog individually. Take the dogs to parks, pet stores, or any public place on their own!
- The goal is to individually socialize each dog to new experiences while they are relying on the owner and not the other dog.
- You will want to individually expose each dog to anything that they might see when they are adults. This includes; strollers, bikes, shopping carts, cars, trains, people with different characteristics (beards, glasses, hoodies, different skin colors, etc) and various types of dogs.
- The more things, people and experiences that the dogs can experience apart, the more successful you will be in eliminating their co-dependence. For more ideas on how you can socialize your puppy, check out How to Socialize Your Puppy.
Outings and socialization are key to overcoming littermate syndrome. When you combine these aspects of socialization with crate training and obedience you are well on your way to resolving or preventing issues from occurring. Proper socialization is singlehandedly the most important stage in dealing with littermates. Get your dogs to meet as many people as possible at a young age. Start out with individual outings for both dogs and work your way up to both dogs together. You want to ensure they can handle things both together and on their own.
Continuing Forward Toward Solving Littermate Syndrome
You aren't done quite yet! After we have started socializing and training each dog separately, we phase in some joint obedience sessions and socialization outings. Here are some ideas of things to work on:
Take a walk and split up
After beginning your walk, take the dogs off in opposite directions and see how they react. If they do not do well and are stressed, make sure to flag the behavior and create a training plan to fix it. If you have done everything mentioned in the article above and still struggle here, a professional trainer from Suburban K9 can help you come up with a plan to keep you moving forward.
Train Obedience Commands
Start with the dogs within sight of each other and practice moving in and out of sight.
Work on Socialization
Make sure the dogs can properly meet new dogs and people when they are together. As mentioned above the littermates tend to feed off of each other's energy. So when meeting a new person or dog, any excitement or fear will be amplified by having the other littermate present.
Even when you begin to see improvements with the dogs together, continue separate training sessions as well. We want to ensure they do not slip back into co-dependence.
What if Behavioral Issues from Littermate Syndrome Have Already Appeared?
We covered what behavioral issues might occur due to littermate syndrome and how to work with your dogs to help ensure that they don't. But what if you have already started to have problems? The good news is that the advice above can be used even when your pups have started to have behavioral issues. Depending on how long the issues have been present, it simply might mean that you have more work to do to overcome them.
Littermate Syndrome and Separation Anxiety
Separation Anxiety is generally the first issue that owners of littermates end up encountering. This usually occurs when first trying to crate your pups or one of them has to go to the vet without the other. In addition to the steps above about crating your pup we have an entire article about Dealing with Separation Anxiety. We discuss crate training. Additionally, we cover routine, exercise, and how obedience training can have a major impact on curing separation anxiety.
Dealing with Separation Anxiety covers products that people routinely utilize for help with separation anxiety. Here are some that our clients have told us have helped them with their dogs:
Fear of People and Other Dogs in Littermates
Are your dogs displaying signs of fear This is the next behavioral issue that people tend to see; fear around people or other dogs. This could start by them hiding under the couch when you have guests over. As mentioned above. Socialization is the most important way to fix this before it becomes a bigger issue. See our article on Socializing a Puppy for even more help with socialization.
Living Happily with your Dogs!
With hard work, littermate syndrome can be prevented or remedied, but it is important to start early and keep working until your dog's reach their age of maturity. Suburban K9's In-Home Training option called the One Year Plan would be best to ensure the continued support of an experienced trainer.
Remember that dog ownership is a lifetime commitment, and we should always be finding ways to work with our pups and keep them active and happy! If you took the steps to overcome littermate syndrome successfully you and your pups can enjoy hikes and trips to the local cafe in peace. Also, remember that avoidance of littermate syndrome is always the best plan. Having two dogs of a similar age is great, just get them roughly six months apart and make life easier on you and them!
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