Littermate Syndrome. What Is It? And What Can You Do If Your Canine Siblings Have It

Littermate Syndrome can occur between canine littermates or puppies who are not biologically related but are the same age and brought into a home together at the same time. Over time, the puppies develop such a strong, unhealthy attachment to one another that impedes their ability to bond correctly with their people or other pets. As a result, they never reach their full potential and usually exhibit poor behavior toward one another that can last throughout their lifetime.

Being in the trenches of the canine rescue world since 2005, at times I'd wonder why the rescue I worked with, before Woody's Place, refrained from taking on two dogs who had lived together their whole lives, besides the obvious reasons, of course....double the food, double the vet bills, double everything. But even if all expenditures were covered, the rescue would still shy away from the request to take littermates collectively, even if they were older dogs.


Well, after taking in Jensen and Jared (in 2019), two nine-year-old German Shepherds who have lived together since they were nine weeks old, I get it now. Before them, I had no experience with Littermate Syndrome or how hard it could be to spin the negative that comes with it into a positive. But I'm persistent if anything. :)



Jensen and Jared have Littermate Syndrome. It was evident from the moment they got off of transport, but I didn't know it at the time. Jensen was attacking Jared for absolutely no apparent reason, and Jared was super insecure and very needy, to the point where he allowed Jensen to attack him because he was dependent on Jensen.


Initially, nothing could stop them from behaving poorly. Jensen continued to attack, and Jared readily accepted it like there was nothing wrong with Jensen's actions. We would intervene, but they were so focused on one another that it was as if we weren't even there. The bottom line was Jensen was the boss, and Jared was "needy baby, greedy baby," perpetually crying and forcing himself on Jensen even though Jensen was horrible to Jared. Both were a hot mess!


But we were determined to make it work with Jensen and Jared here at the sanctuary without splitting them up for the remainder of their lives, so I read all I could about Littermate Syndrome and how to diminish the challenging issues that come with it. Fortunately, for Jensen and Jared (and for us), we've managed to at least take the Littermate Syndrome issues down a few notches over the past 1 ½ years they’ve been with us, which has been a blessing even if their relationship is still not perfect.


Here are the steps we took to reduce the Littermate Syndrome behavior issues we saw in the boys. 1) Shortly after Jensen and Jared arrived, they were separated but not out of each other's eyesight. We had Jensen and Jared in the same area but separated by a baby gate. Jensen still tried to attack Jared, but of course, he wasn't successful through the gate and eventually gave up. It took a little over a month to remove the gate, with both dogs remaining unharmed.


2) During the course of the baby gate separation, Jensen and Jared were not walked together or could not play out in the yard together unsupervised. Additionally, we did not allow them to have meals near one another or sleep side by side. Each dog was walked with other sanctuary dogs and had free time individually with the other dogs to build new bonds and learn how to function independently from one other.


3) We learned from their previous owner that the boys were together ALL THE TIME, never being separated throughout their whole lives. They even ate out of the same food bowl, which explained why Jensen was so fat, and Jared was underweight. Jensen, being alpha, got most of the food, while poor insecure Jared did without. Of course, there was no way would we continue that unhealthy practice here at the sanctuary. On the very first day, they got their own food bowls, beds, and toys. Here at the sanctuary, Jensen and Jared are treated as individuals and not a package deal. 4) And finally, when Jensen and Jared consistently demonstrated, to the best of their ability, behavior considered to be appropriate, they were rewarded. For instance, when Jensen could be around Jared without biting him simply because Jared was near, Jensen was rewarded with pieces of cheese, turkey, or some other high-value treat. And when Jared reached the point where he wasn't constantly shoving himself on Jensen, then he would be rewarded.


And I'm happy to say that with consistency and patience, we've got the boys to a point where the negative behaviors brought about by Littermate Syndrome are now manageable, not completely gone, but manageable.


As you can see in the video, Jensen and Jared still prefer to be next to one another even when ample space is available, and we allow it, so long as they don't start to regress in the progress we've made.



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