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Littermate Syndrome - The Struggle is Real

littermate syndrome

Littermate syndrome -- when I first heard the term, I thought it sounded ridiculous; possibly made up. But I’m quickly learning that it’s all too real as is evident by our latest bugg behaviour.

What is littermate syndrome?

It’s a term used to describe a collection of behavioural issues that tend to occur when canine siblings (littermates) live together beyond the typical first 8-12 weeks. Puppies who remain together beyond the first two or three months of life, can develop “littermate syndrome.”

Also known as littermate aggression or sibling aggression, dogs with littermate syndrome often display these (unwanted) behaviours:

  • Fear: of strangers, things, places and/or noises
  • Anxiety: when separated from the other sibling.
  • Withdrawn: one dog may become quite shy
  • Codependency: lack of independence (won’t eat, sleep or play alone)
  • Defiance: difficulty with basic training, lack of respect for the human leader of the pack

Other signs your pups might be experiencing littermate syndrome include:

  • Excessive crying
  • Whining
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Aggression toward each other

And that’s where we’re at … aggression toward each other, excessive crying and whining.

It seemed like a good idea at the time!

We thought bringing home two puppies would be great. They’d play with each other and keep each other entertained (taking a little bit of the pressure off of us). And they do play together. They do entertain each other. 

On the flip side, however, they also antagonize each other, fight with each other, and are constantly distracted by each other. That makes basic training more difficult. When one dog is more focused on the other dog than they are on you, then pack leader, training can become painstakingly frustrating. 

Plus, each puppy learns from and copies the other’s behaviour. So when one puppy starts to act up, the other, previously well-behaved puppy, joins in.

For example, sometimes we’ll set out on a perfectly lovely walk when one puppy will suddenly decide it’s time to play tug of war with the leash. The other puppy immediately joins in and now we have two out of control puppies tugging, growling and fitfully attacking each other. Good times.

Had I been walking one puppy at a time, this never would have happened. I know this to be true, because I’ve started walking Chance and Roxy individually and the experience is, well, delightful! When walking without their sibling, each dog is brilliantly behaved. 

Can puppies overcome littermate syndrome?

Yes. But you have to put in the work. Here’s what we’re working on these days to help eliminate the negative behaviours associated with littermate syndrome:

Separation

It’s important that each dog learn to be independent. We’ve started to separate them … slowly. I added a barrier gate inside each crate so they no longer sleep together, and they no longer share crate time together. They’re forced to be on their own.

Yes, it’s just a wire fence between them, but that’s the “slow” part. They can still see, hear and smell each other, but they can’t touch each other or play together. 

It’s been nearly two weeks now, and they’re accepting the separation quite well. That means it’s time for the next step, which is to put them in separate crates altogether, several feet apart from each other. That’s happening this weekend.

Once they accept that, we’ll continue to move the crates further apart until they are in different rooms. 

One-on-one time

We’re working on giving each puppy not only one-on-one time with mom and dad, but we’re also teaching them to do the basics on their own, like eating, playing and training.

Each pup needs to learn that it isn’t always your turn to go out, or to eat or to play. And that’s OK because his or her turn will come. The goal here is to halt the jealousy between them. 

We’ve also signed them up for individual obedience training classes. Stay tuned for an update on our first class in coming weeks!

Gentle playtime together

I learned very quickly that there are certain activities that lead to an all out brawl between the pups. Tug of war is the primary culprit. While it’s certainly one of their favourite games, and it burns a ton of energy (which I love), it also seems to work them both into a frenzy. And it ends in a nasty fight that I have to break up. 

We don’t do that anymore ;-) Now when it’s playtime together (which is important, too), we do things that keep them separated, but engaged in the same activity. Fetch is a good example -- I’ll get three or four balls on the go so they’re each running back and forth without fighting over one ball. 

Brain games are great, too. I’ll hide a bunch of treats around the house and tell them to “find the treat!” My tone of voice gets them excited and once I’ve shown them the first one or two, the hunt is on. Again, they’re participating in the same activity, but they’re not fighting over one object.

Can you prevent littermate syndrome?

Yes. Don’t bring home two puppies from the same litter. Just kidding! That’s not helpful advice. 

If you treat each puppy as an individual from day one, you can teach them to be confident and independent. If you socialize your puppies with other people and other animals, you can prevent them from relying solely on each other.

Give them plenty of individual time that includes exercise, play and cuddles. You want your sibling puppies to love each other and enjoy each other. You don’t want your sibling puppies to rely solely on each other. 

Check back with us next to see how Chance and Roxy are doing with their newfound independence! 

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