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The ASPCA and Adopting Littermates


Recently, I received the comment that Littermate Syndrome is real, it has been studied by scientists, and that our experience is just luck. I wasn’t sure how to respond so I went to my new standby “thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience; I will give your comment some serious consideration.”

So this is me considering.

Is Littermate Syndrome Real?

I think so. It’s not a virus or disease – it’s a very real situation in which a dog owner brings home two puppies and doesn’t know how to manage their behavior. I’ve spoken to many dog owners who were overwhelmed by their puppies and at a loss on how to bring peace and order back into their home.

What each dog owner had in common was they weren’t working regularly with a dog trainer. A 6 week puppy course isn’t enough for some dogs.

Has Littermate Syndrome Been Studied by Scientists?

I don’t know. I could Google this to see if I can find studies, but I don’t put a lot of stock in the scientific evidence we can find online. It’s also been “proven” that raw feeding is dangerous for the dogs and their humans. *eye roll*

I do know that many dog trainers have witnessed the downside to adopting littermates, which is why many are against this practice. People fall in love with puppies, can’t choose, and decide to bring 2 (or more) home. A couple months after we brought home Rodrigo and Sydney, we learned that an adoption of one of their siblings fell through – we were seriously considering bringing home a 3rd puppy.  For about 15 minutes.

Did We Get Lucky With Our Littermates?

I don’t think so. When we adopted Rodrigo and Sydney, we got an earful from many people about why this was a terrible idea and why it was a great idea. Some of the advice was very direct (kind of mean), but it was still valid and valuable advice and it shaped the home our dogs are raised in – one in which dog training is paramount.

Rodrigo and Sydney were working with a dog trainer before they were 3 months old. One of the first tests we had was if they could stand being separated. Sydney was fine; Rodrigo would flip out if he was 10’ or more away from his sister. He grew out of this when they reached 5 months.

Scout and Zoey developed independence from each other earlier, but today, Zoey is very attached to her entire pack and doesn’t like to be separated from anyone.

The ASPCA’s Stance on Adopting Out Littermates

I spoke with Pamela Barlow, an ASPCA Behavior Consultant, about littermates and she shared many things that I have shared with you (but more eloquently).

The ASCPA has no trouble adopting out littermates to a family, but they want to know a few things first:

1) how many hands are in the house? – having J as a partner makes life so much easier; when I take Sydney and Rodrigo on a pack walk with friends, J is playing with Scout and Zoey. When one of us is working late, the other takes the lead with the dogs. Our partnership makes raising littermates effortless.

2) how often are the hands free? – because we have full time jobs, raising 4 dogs has its challenges, but our jobs allow us the flexibility we need to be good dog owners. If one of us worked 60 hours per week or if we brought home 2 more dog, we’d have a difficult time.

Pamela reminds us that littermates aren’t carbon copies of each other; they’re 2 individuals with different personalities and different needs and we need to be able to understand our dogs and meet their varying needs.

  • Rodrigo is outgoing and wants to be leader of the pack. He has a strong prey and chew drive and he loves cuddling.
  • Sydney is great one on one with dogs, but not comfortable in a pack that isn’t her own. She isn’t a fan of small dogs or children. She’s also velcroed to my side most days.
  • Scout has a strong prey drive, but he’s sensitive and sweet. He respects the pack order and he’s a Daddy’s Boy although he kisses me good night and good morning every day.
  • Zoey loves everyone. She’s the most vocal of the pack, wants to be the center of attention, and will only leave us alone when she’s soaked up as much attention as possible.

Four very different dogs and the personality differences drive how, when and where they eat, what toys we bring home, and where we’ll take them for walks.

Our job is to keep them happy, healthy and safe, to raise well behaved dogs, and we need to teach them to be confident without each other.

But What About the Fighting?

One question I get a lot is about littermate fighting. Rodrigo and Sydney did have fights and rough play; Scout and Zoey don’t fight, but they play roughly. Many new dog owners can’t tell the difference between fight and play, so I asked Pamela to help me out in explaining the difference.

Pamela advises us to monitor our dogs…

  • How stiff is the dog when he’s growling, barking and making other noises? If he’s very stiff – this is fighting. If he’s loose like a noodle – this is play.
  • A little growl here and there is okay; Rodrigo and Sydney correct the puppies all the time. Even Zoey has corrected Scout when he’s sniffing around her bully stick or duck feat.
  • Persistent growling combined with the other dog not getting the message may be the precursor to a fight and requires our attention and intervention. This sometimes happens between Scout and Sydney as he tests the boundaries (he’s now a teenager).

Still not sure if it’s a dog fight or play?

Try holding back the aggressor. If the other dog jumps right up and is ready to play some more, then you’re dealing with play. Puppies are honing their pack hunting skills when they play. Zoey and Scout pin each other all the time, we only intervene to take them outside, because the furniture is being moved around with their play.

I still think adopting littermates is an amazing experience, but it’s not for everyone and if someone isn’t willing to work with a dog trainer, then it may be very difficult. Yeah, we’ve been lucky; we were lucky to encounter 3 amazing dog trainers who could help us create a happy home for our dogs.

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