Occasionally people will purchase two puppies, sometimes from the same litter or different litters but very close in age. The intention is always good. Most people who get two puppies do so in the hope that they will keep each other company or will bond with two different people in the household. Both of these scenarios may happen, and the two puppies may live harmoniously. However not all people who purchase siblings have happy endings.
There are two major issues that may occur. The firstly is sibling rivalry. This is where there is extreme tension between the two dogs in the household—often leading to regular fights. It is not unusual for the fights to escalate to the point where at least one dog is physically harmed. Sibling rivalry usually starts to occur when the dogs are edging towards sexual maturity—around the eight-month mark. Anecdotally it is more common between two females than between two males or one of each. The initial rift in the dogs’ relationship is usually caused by one specific fight, often over a resource both dogs see as valuable or when they are placed in a high-pressure situation. Unfortunately, once sibling rivalry occurs it can be very difficult to modify and extreme management may have to be put in place for the safety of the dogs.
Some breeders or trainers may also warn prospective puppy owners of ‘littermate syndrome’. Nowadays we don’t tend to use the term as often—as the behaviour noted is not a syndrome. What the owners report is an over-attachment between the two puppies. They may struggle to connect with people or other dogs and as a result their social skills can be somewhat stunted. They can also find it difficult to cope when separated. Sometimes one puppy will develop faster than the other. There is very little research into this area, but many qualified behavioural trainers have encountered the problem:
Another common situation that is rather problematical is when two littermates are raised together. This sort of arrangement is rarely recommended, since very often one of the puppies seems to flourish while the sibling is overshadowed and fails to achieve its potential. Pfaffenberger observed similar difficulties with dogs reared with their mother or sibling (Lindsay, 2000).
The most common reason given for not adopting two pups from the same litter is that they will “bond better” with each other than with you. This intuitively makes sense, in that the pups have already had the closest and most intimate experience with each other, and often during important phases of socialisation. You’re already fighting the fact that you’re an alien (aka, another species) and are inherently confusing to your dog (McConnell, 2014).
Like any behavioural issue, it is better to try to prevent these issues arising than working with them when they are occurring.
If you do have two puppies, don’t panic. Your puppies may live long harmonious lives and develop good social skills. However, there are few things that you can do that will help them.
1. Have plenty of one-on-one time!
Even though your puppies may be great company for each other, it is important that their social needs with people are still met. This can be difficult to do, especially during the Canberra winter—but walking, training and playing with one at a time can ensure that they have plenty of people time.
From the perspective of group training classes if both puppies are in the same class, they can be quite distracting for each other. However, if they have never been separated before and are then separated for classes they may stress or become anxious. This is not something that may become apparent until the dogs start classes.
There will be a time in your puppy’s life when it will need to be separated from its companion and you don’t want either puppy to form anxiety around this. Having regular one-on-one time—without the other dog present—is an important strategy for helping dogs learn to cope.
2. Play problem-solving and confidence-building games
Especially with puppies experiencing over-attachment, sometimes the puppies can rely very much on each other and not build their own confidence. For this reason, you need to be very proactive in developing each puppy’s confidence and problem-solving skills. If they don’t you may find that one or both puppies struggle with fear, especially when separated. Fear can obviously be the basis for other issues including aggression and reactivity. Having two dogs that are reactive walking together can be quite a dangerous situation.
3. Have management strategies in place if you need to separate the puppies.
Baby gates and crates are your friend! Being able to separate the puppies will help you have one-on-one time and manage situations where tension may arise.
4. Be aware of possible triggers
Dogs often find resources—such as human contact and food—highly valuable. Allowing your dogs to eat separately and having access to humans one at a time, you will lessen the likelihood of guarding becoming an issue. Space is also important. Some puppies will love snuggling up together, but some like their own personal space. Don’t force the dogs into places where they can’t move away from each other if they want. If both dogs are social, visitors may be a trigger. The arrival of visitors may incite arousal which may lead to redirection of that arousal on to one another. Such events may give rise to a fight.
5. Remember that they are individuals
Hopefully both puppies will develop their own personalities with their own likes and dislikes. It is ok to leave one puppy at home alone if you are going to an activity you think it may not enjoy. You may find one dog excels at Agility while the other does not. That’s fine, don’t feel like they have to do everything the same … or together. As they age you may notice that they have individual fears. If this is the case and the fears are causing difficulty in your dog’s life it is especially important that you seek professional help (the Club can suggest qualified professionals to you). Although sometimes dogs can build confidence from each other, when one watches another experiencing fear it can also develop fear itself.
6. Teach an ‘end of interaction’ cue
“That’ll do”, “all done” or something similar, is a way of telling your dogs that the interaction has ended. When you have two dogs, this is an important cue as being able to signal this may prevent the dogs becoming pushy for attention. When you are finishing an interaction give the cue then move away and be insistent you are no longer interacting. Initially your dog may push more for interaction but eventually your dog will learn the cue and decide to look elsewhere for entertainment.
I have seen it work! I met a family last year with Cocker Spaniel littermates. Both puppies were confident, social and well-adjusted. Each dog had a different bond with the family and their individual personalities really showed. However, the owners had put in huge amounts of time to ensure that issues did not arise, it was a full family project!
Group training classes will help you better understand your dog and learn how to teach it good manners but sometimes one-on-one professional support at home is imperative to address underlying behavioural issues.
· Lindsay, S, Handbook of applied dog behaviour and training, Volume 1 (2000)
· McConnell P, ‘Adopting littermates … Don’t!’ (Blog post, Sep 2014) at
Image: ID: 1069838795, ZuLlustrator, Shutterstock ©
Jess McNamara-Rice is a Delta Society qualified dog trainer, Club Agility instructor, and owner and operator of A.B.C.D.O.G Dog Training. She previously worked for several years as an RSPCA behavioural trainer. She is a qualified Greenhounds Assessor and holds a Diploma in Advanced Animal Behaviour.