Littermate Syndrome

Getting two dogs at the same time seems like a great idea. Dogs are social animals, and a dog who will be alone all day can easily turn to destructive behavior or become anxious. Two puppies can entertain each other and keep each other company. So, what’s the problem with bringing home two puppies at once?

Professional trainers like myself recommend against getting bringing home two puppies. While this sounds like a good plan in theory, in practice it often causes quite a bit of heartache and trouble.

In addition to the problems one might expect with bringing home siblings such as double food and vet costs and double the potty training work, we need to focus on how the puppies will develop. Puppies’ brains continue developing until they hit sexual maturity (and even a bit beyond that), and there’s some convincing research out there that bringing two puppies home at the same time prevents one of the puppies from reaching his or her full potential.

Luckily for us, this topic has been researched extensively by someone who knows all about creating behaviorally sound puppies: guide dog organizations. One of the biggest problems that guide dog organizations run into is that puppy raisers are hard to come by. Puppy raisers are families who agree to raise future guide dog puppies, socializing them and teaching them basic obedience. This isn’t an easy job, and the emotional impact of giving up their puppies after a year of bonding and hard work means that many families are reluctant to repeat the experience.

In order to maximize the use of their volunteer puppy raisers, one guide dog organization decided to try an experiment. Willing homes were given not one, but two puppies to raise, thereby doubling the number of puppies the guide dog organization could work with. Puppies born to these organizations are tested before being placed and are tracked throughout their growth and development. What the organization found was startling. Placing two puppies in the same household always caused one puppy to become temperamentally unsuitable for work, even when both puppies started off as perfect candidates.

When two puppies are placed together, they learn to rely on each other. One of the puppies always becomes shy, even when both puppies started off as bold and outgoing. This is a huge problem, since it means that the shy puppy never reaches his or her potential. In fact, this was such a major issue that the guide dog experiment was quickly halted, and to this day guide dog organizations only place one puppy at a time in puppy raisers’ homes, even when the homes are highly experienced.

In addition to one puppy becoming shy, there are other behavioral implications for two puppies who are adopted at the same time. Oftentimes even the “bold” puppy turns out to be quite nervous and uncertain when separated from his or her littermate. Furthermore, the puppies frequently become incredibly co-dependent, exhibiting heartbreaking anxiety when separated from one another. They often fail to bond to their human family as strongly as they otherwise would, or sometimes at all. At social maturity, these puppies may begin fighting with one another, sometimes quite severely.

Even puppies who are not related can exhibit littermate syndrome when placed together. Professional trainers recommend against getting two puppies within six months of one another, because the risks are just too high. This doesn’t even take into consideration the other practical considerations, such as the increased costs of vet care, food, supplies, and training; the extra work of training and caring for two dogs; or the time requirements of two active puppies.

Can littermate syndrome be prevented? Theoretically, yes, however it’s so difficult as to be nearly impossible in practice. Remember, even experienced guide dog puppy raisers aren’t expected to be able to prevent this issue from developing. At a bare minimum, the two puppies would need to be crated and cared for separately, including separate walks, training classes, and playtime with their owners. The puppies need to have more one-on-one time with their new owners than they have with each other, effectively doubling the work and negating any of the possible benefits (i.e. companionship) that they were adopted together for in the first place.

The bottom line is that puppies do best when brought home separately. If you want multiple dogs, consider purchasing or adopting adult dogs who are already done developing instead.

67 responses to “Littermate Syndrome

  1. I brought home two puppies, same breeder but not litter mates, almost two years ago. One is a first generation Goldendoodle, one parent a golden retriever and the other a poodle. Her name is Rue and is considered a medium sized GD, weighing 42 pounds. The other is a second generation GD, one parent was a GD and the other a poodle, so I consider her to be 3/4 poodle and 1/4 g retriever. Her name is Prim and she is a mini GD, weighing 20 pounds. Bringing them home together made the initial adjustment of them being away from their litter mates a breeze. They were very easily crate trained and spent the first several months sharing a crate. Only when Prim, the little one, started growling at Rue in the night if Rue moved, did I start putting them in separate crates for night time sleep. We also have a 3 1/2 year old pit bull, Cali. All three are fed at the same time, with their bowls being placed in different parts of the kitchen. Cali and Rue eat their food very quickly. Prim likes to guard hers and she will growl equally at Cali or Rue if she feels they are getting too close to her bowl. Most of the time all three are walked together but we do try to take individual walks to work on better leash walking. Prim and Rue attended obedience class together without any issues. I have felt that any growling that Prim does stems more from her being a greater percentage of poodle and her disposition is more poodle-like. Cali and Rue play-wrestle a lot and Rue and Prim play-wrestle. Cali and Prim do not interact as much. The point of my comment is that I do not believe my dogs suffer from littermate syndrome and I would not discourage anyone from getting two puppies at the same time. We thoroughly enjoy all three of our dogs and their individual personalities.


  2. I recently had a horrible situation arise with a client where a fight lead to the death of one of her dogs – litter mates adopted from rescue at 8wks. They were 8 years old at the time of this particular fight with a history of 5 years of peace in the home (there were mild scuffles up until the age of 3). (I’ll note that my services were for totally uncomplicated barking at the door, the deadly fight was likely triggered by a move in with family)

    I’ve also had littermate dogs in group classes who can’t even be across the room for one another without screaming bloody murder. They basically can’t exist on their own

    The risk – of either unhealthy attachment or severe fights – is absolutely not worth it, and I don’t allow litter mates living together in the same puppy class (they must go to separate classes). I’ll be sure to include this article in my list of resources. Thanks for writing it.

    Can you perhaps point me to the research done on litter mates? I wasn’t aware that there was any!

  3. We have two siblings, brother and sister collie/spaniel crosses. When we first approached a puppy behaviour class I received a very rude email reply from the person who ran it which amounted to the fact that she thought we ought be to put down for getting two at once or, at the very least, put one of them down as you ‘can never train two dogs’. Apart from being furious with the woman that made me even convinced that I was going to be successful. We went to three different classes to train us and them, we made sure we treated them equally, we trained them separately and together…nothing was rocket science it just made sense like you would treat human twins. Seven years later we have a fabulous pair of dogs. They love us, we love them, they love each other. Everything which the research article seems to say is not possible. Luckily I have worked in research most of my life so I know that for every piece of canine research which says one thing, you can find another which says the total opposite. I am glad we got our two at once and would not hesitate to do so again.

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  5. We also have 2 Shihtzu brothers who are 10months old,they get on very well and although we don’t separate them very often we will be trying to walk them occasionally on their own so they take more notice of us rather than just play with one another.I have read so many things saying you should never buy siblings but what I don’t understand is what’s the difference of getting a dog 6-12 months later but then letting them do “everything” together and not being separated!

  6. I raise livestock guardian dogs full time and have never had the issues you talk about. In fact, I sell more sibling pairs to people who go on to be great dogs, with minimal issues. I have also published articles on running sibling pairs of guardian dogs on stock in national magazines. If anyone would like to hear the other side of this coin, feel free to contact me. I think you’ll be quite pleasantly surprised to find out that this ‘Syndrome’ probably only happens with very inexperienced dog owners who don’t know what their dogs are trying to tell them……

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  8. You might be interested in the research done in Portland, ME The testing was originally done on puppies for the benefit of human infants. However, the interesting results also benefits puppy owners. The brain waves of the puppy dog undergo a switch, exactly on the 49th day (week 7, day one), and the waves change to adult dog mode, – in other words, that brain wave pattern remains the same from then on. While they will continually learn new things – their personalities and intelligence quotient is measurable and best measured on that first day of the switch. I have had my litters tested on that day and can get an accurate account of the puppy and subsequently guide it towards the corresponding suitable human family type and environment which inturn increases the success of the experience for both the owner(s) and the dog. I encourage people to look into this research and testing.

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