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Littermate Syndrome

Why two puppies aren't always better than one

By: Nicole Wilde

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Featured photos Hannamariah/

An older gentleman attended one of my group classes with his two Siberian huskies. The nine-year-old siblings were smart and attentive, but whenever I walked the female a mere five feet away to work on leash skills, the male would panic. He’d cry, shriek, and try frantically to follow. The two had been together all of their lives and had never been separated, even temporarily. As you might imagine, this had caused problems in a variety of situations.

Although it doesn’t happen between all siblings, over-bonding is a commonplace phenomenon and is termed “Littermate Syndrome.” It’s the reason shelters, responsible breeders, trainers, and others caution against adopting siblings. What well-meaning owners often don’t realize is training two puppies at once is not only much harder than focusing on just one, but the pups are very likely to become more bonded with each other than they are with their owner. Siblings can become so dependent on each other that they become a sort of security blanket for each other, sometimes to the point that, when separated, they experience extreme distress. Separating them to take one to vet, for example, can be a traumatic experience.

Another issue is the lack of social skills that can develop when an owner believes that the pair playing only with each other covers their socialization needs. That philosophy is quickly disproved when the pups meet other dogs, especially those of different breeds with different play styles. An even more troublesome problem may occur with littermates of the same gender in the form of aggression toward each other as they enter adolescence and then adulthood—although this is certainly not always the case.

So what can you do to prevent problems if you already have littermates? First and foremost, get them accustomed to independence in a gradual, incremental way. If they sleep together in a crate, get another and start with the crates side by side, moving them farther apart over time. Set up obedience sessions where one person is training one dog while another works with the second dog at a distance. Engaging the pups’ minds in this way will help by giving them something to focus on, making it less likely that they will spiral out of control emotionally. Have the puppies spend time in separate rooms receiving relaxing attention such as massage, and begin to split them up when offering super yummy Kongs or other chew items. This way being separated will become associated with good things. Eventually, the pups should be separated briefly for walks and other outings, so they can build confidence and learn to experience the world on their own.

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Last Updated:

By: Nicole Wilde
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