Raising Littermates

Raising Littermates


By Shari Elkins, CPDT-KA and Tellington TTouch Practitioner

Looking to add a new dog or two to your family? Buying or adopting multiple dogs together can have a severe impact on their future behavior. I hear the same story over and over: “It was Christmas Eve and there was this sign reading ‘Two FREE PUPPIES.’ We felt sorry for them so we took them both home.” Not realizing their mistake, ten months later one dog has bitten six people, the other shies away from strangers.

Another story I hear is about siblings sitting side by side in their cage at the pound: “you can’t take one and leave the other, right?” One year later the male growls and snaps at any new person and attacks other dogs yet his sister loves everyone. Well-intentioned people and rescuers often get siblings because they want their dog to have a companion, a playmate, not wanting one to go home alone.

Puppies do learn important social tools from their littermates. They learn to share food, toys and attention. They are taught the rules of play and “how much is too much” by their brothers and sisters. After sixteen weeks the bonds that have developed between them become dangerously hard to break. And why break them? There are two important reasons.

One dog may develop a stable personality while the other never gets a chance to find his. The stronger littermate may always control the weaker, never giving him an opportunity. Or the weaker one finds it easier to follow the leader and never develop on his own. Either way, one always relies on the other to cope with life.

A dog that only learns to cope with life using his sibling as a crutch won’t learn to cope without him. He is not prepared for new sources of stress in life, such as visits to the vet or the park, or a visit from relatives.

The most common result of this lack of individual confidence is, of course, fear. This fear can put a dog into a zombie-like state because he has no coping skills. Remember that his stronger littermate has all of those; the fearful dog was just along for the ride. Instinctually, the fearful dog will either run or fight when faced with a stressful situation. Either way, you wind up with an mal-adjusted, stressed out, behavior problem.

The second and more important reason to break the littermate connection is to replace it with the all-important human one. Dogs are pack animals. Their social relationships are crucial to survival. A domestic dog living in our home and in the world of people must value people in order to co-exist successfully. For a dog to respect and be trained by humans, humans must be seen as a resource. Not only providing food, water and shelter, but emotional companionship. If left to live with his littermate, all the emotional needs will be met by the fellow canine who speaks his own language. There will be no need for a human relationship in his life.

The resulting behavior problems may manifest themselves in various ways. First, you may have a dog with separation issues when away from his bother or sister. Consider the anxiety felt by this dependent dog when the sibling is not present. Second is the truly fearful dog. What happens to the dog that runs from strangers or strange places during family vacation, a move or a death in the family? The third possibility is the pair of siblings who fight over resources, either objects or humans. Finally and worst of all, a dog that is aggressive to humans or dogs. None of these dogs are happy – they are merely surviving. Yet not all survive. The resulting behavior problems can become overwhelming for most owners. Past a certain point, not all cases can be mended. These dogs are often left at shelters only to be killed. They are deemed unadoptable due to their behavior. Others are euthanized directly by their distraught owners.

This scenario is not limited to littermates. Two puppies close in age and raised together can form a littermate-like bond with the same results. True littermates just started their bond and respective positions much earlier. It is only fair to allow each dog a chance to experience, and learn to deal with, life and humans in his own way. They gain knowledge, confidence and a personality of their own.

So maybe you are already in this situation or are some day will be faced with it. Prevention is the key!

  • Do not adopt littermates or puppies close in age.
  • If you HAVE to take them both, re-home one before sixteen weeks or age
  • Rescue groups and shelters need to educate the public and not allow littermate adoptions (some already have policies on this).
  • Separating them within the home may help, but only to some degree. If you try this, do so only with the guidance of a trainer experienced in these problems.
  • I have seen only a few cases of two moderately well adjusted dogs that were raised as littermates. I applaud those who have achieved this, but understand that this is the exception, not the rule.
  • If you have fear or aggression issues with littermates that have already been raised together, get help from a professional trainer; it’s too big to solve on your own.

In memory of beautiful Bo.