The incidence of owners purchasing “Siblings”, either same sex or brother and sister from the same litter or two puppies from different litters and breeds but of similar ages, is now more prevalent than at any other time in living memory.
The old professional dog men and owners knew about the pitfalls and problems that this action would create. Unfortunately, this knowledge now appears to have been lost on today’s dog owners
On the surface, the idea of purchasing siblings appears to be highly commendable. With the busy lifestyles, we now lead, it would seem feasible to take on two pups. They could stimulate each other and keep themselves company, hopefully alleviating any separation anxiety.
They could also imitate the good characteristics of each other and will be able to do everything together. thereby benefiting from that closeness and companionship gleaning untold pleasure from each others company. Sounds fantastic, unfortunately, the reality is far from this ideal, you really get the worst of both worlds in this scenario.
The puppies come to rely on each other and it weakens both of them, often to the extent that they become withdrawn from everything other than themselves. I call it “Littermate Syndrome”. Often one of the dogs will appear bold and the other timid. In reality, the bold one is actually somewhat withdrawn and timid when his littermate is not there to give support.
Unfortunately, it is normally a false boldness, in reality, he has been emboldened by the others siblings weakness. They often bark and yap at other dogs, and may either pretend to attack or actually attack to chase the other dogs away. This is normally fear based. They become so engrossed with each other that all other dogs are seen as a threat to their mutual alliance.
They often bark in the home when left, or even when the owner is still present and someone comes in or to the door. They become super attuned to anything that may be invading their territory. Often just soft sounds can trigger noise and warning barks. Normally it is just one of the dogs that start this behaviour, then the other one joins in acting almost as a mimic.
This unfortunate pair may come to fear all other dogs and unknown people, plus any situation where they are separated from each other. The stress this causes can often then spill over into aggression against each other culminating in fighting, in some cases causing serious injury or even death, known as “Sibling Rivalry” Strangely enough the worst fights are normally between bitches who can fight to the death.
Although nothing is set in stone, generally bringing together dogs with too many similar qualities, ie age, size, sex, temperament, and breed, may spark a conflict. So many related characteristics make it difficult for them to decide who is the alpha or top dog; therefore fights occur because of the similarities.
Often, we can inadvertently cause the conflict; owners can disturb the hierarchical balance by rushing to protect the would-be subordinate from being “bullied” or “picked on”, granting him/her liberties, such as being petted first, which the other dog may consider his due. The lower dog may now feel emboldened enough to challenge the bolder dog. We need to understand that dogs have their own set of social rules, whereas we humans just want democracy,”
What Happens in the Wild?
With wild canids, the young pup’s stay within their pack and play together constantly. That is true of Wolves, Wild dogs, Coyotes, Jackals, Dingoes and most other wild mammals.
Whilst these litter mates are together they learn how to inhibit their bite, how to meet and greet each other and that all important body language is learned from their siblings during this time.
They mainly learn meeting and greeting techniques from their siblings, not the adult animals. During this time, they also learn the rules regarding hierarchy, rank, and position and social interaction. That is why it is so vitally important that young pups go to puppy socialisation classes as young as possible.
Unfortunately, the domestic dog doesn’t have this switch, massive over-bonding can therefore occur. Their inter-relationship becomes so intense that it controls everything they do. They suffer when separated, even for small periods of time. The relationship they have with their owners may also decline and they start to look inwards rather than outwards.
Siblings are also more difficult to train and in many cases will start fighting when the get to the onset of puberty. They rarely reach full maturity as they tend to be mentally and sometimes physically stunted and inhibited by the closeness to each other. I have seen German Shepherds and Utonagans bought as littermates where their ears have never become erect as with normal adults. If it can have that type of physical effect just imagine what is occurring psychologically.
We see this with human twins. Schools now separate them into different classes so they can learn without the constant interaction with their twin. Parents are advised from a young age to stimulate and play with twins separately, helping them to become more rounded adults rather than a symbiotic double act. I have twin brothers and twin grandchildren, so I do have some experience of this phenomenon.
In the wild, this play and interaction all happens between the time they are born and 16 weeks. Then like a light switch being turned off they start to distance themselves from their siblings. Sleeping alone and showing aggression by threatening any sibling that approaches within a two or three-foot radius often shunning extended contact with their brothers and sisters.
This is an inbuilt genetic device to make sure that they absorb into the pack rather than over-bond with their littermates, which would be to the detriment of the pack as a whole hunting and working entity.
The picture above is of two of my granddaughters they are twins. holding sibling pups.
In many cases where these sibling puppies have come to totally rely on each other then frustrations can play a part in causing underlying animosity. This manifests itself in aggression as they approach both physical and social maturity. Fights and squabbles may regularly break out culminating in what appears to be all out war, where they cannot stand the sight of each other. It is normally at this time when all else has failed that I am called in.
Dogs see us as resources, we either become a resource controller or the dogs control the resources, once they control the resources you have trouble. See the Alpha Myth on my website. How siblings see the relationship between them and their owners as a resource and they will fight over the attention and resources you give them. It is always sparked by one dog seeing or believing the other dog is getting more resources. These dogs will rarely fight each other when no one is there.
If you have to neuter whatever you do you must not spay or castrate both dogs. Read my article on neutering, it is not as simple or clear-cut as people imagine.
Never neuter both dogs especially if these dogs are male. If you are going to castrate, it must always be the less dominant of the pair that is done.
If you castrate both, you are taking away important actions and options for the future. If the fights are about dominance, position, and rank then neutering both leaves them at the very same level as they were before neutering. However with professional advice, neutering the less dominant allows a distinct gap between the dogs level of position and rank in their hierarchy
With females, it is even more complex. Neutering can increase the level of aggression rather than diminish it. taking away vital calming hormones such as Oestrogen and Progesterone can fuel the level of aggression to the point that they could fight to the death. If you need to break up a fight, squirt the dogs with water, throw a blanket over them or make a noise aversion therapy sound to break the circle of aggression by distracting them.
Never attempt to break up a dog fight by grabbing the dogs by their collar or getting in between them. Grabbing dogs whilst they are fighting can result in “redirected aggression,” where a dog bites you because he thinks you are part of the conflict. Sometimes the problem can be resolved if instead of protecting the underdog the owner supports the hierarchy ie the top dog.
Firstly determine who is the more dominant, reinforce that position by feeding, greeting, playing or letting the top dog out first. Usually, this will help, but not always. “The problem with that approach is that it’s often difficult to tell who should be the alpha dog, it is also difficult for owners to play favourites with their dogs.
To my mind you have two choices with siblings from the same litter or two young pups from different breeds, Whilst I believe the first solution is the most practicable, which is to re-home one of them, I am also aware it is the hardest and most difficult for the owners. If not they will always be damaged by their almost total reliance on each other.
If you decide to choose this alternative, you can home one of the dogs with another family member or a trusted friend. You will see dramatic improvements to the personalities of both pups. These changes occur almost immediately. Be aware that the longer you delay the harder it will be to part with one of your pups. It is a difficult and agonising decision for someone to make. However, in the long run, it is in yours and ultimately both your dog’s best interest.
Your second choice is to create two individual dogs, with two separate identities and personalities, without the total reliance on each other that normally happens in these situations. To do this you will need to work twice as hard because all the things you did together you will now need to do totally apart.
Things you must do
Everything must now be done independently to allow for the Siblings to have any chance of becoming separate entities instead of the reduced sum of the whole.
Walk them separately
Feed them separately
Train them separately
Crate them separately
Play with them separately
Literally, everything you do should be separate. That includes Puppy and Training classes if possible, take them to a trainer that understands the inherent difficulties of raising two puppies together. Take them on separate nights if that is available, hopefully to the same trainer. They can play together but only at strict designated times and for a period of no more than 15 minutes each designated playtime.
This regime will not be for life, as the pups will after a period of about 12 to 14 months have formed their own personalities and temperaments; at this age, they will have become confident of their own individual abilities. Not as in most cases total inter-dependence on each other when they are raised, trained, and fed together.
Without the total reliance on their sibling for constant support, they will grow and blossom into much rounder and less aggressive and fearful individuals. I cannot stress how important it is to separate the siblings until they are older. It will produce two individuals rather than an impaired two parts of the whole.
It is worth stating that it is not only siblings that have these problems. If you raise two young pups from different litters or even breeds, you can have similar problems. I always recommend my clients to wait till their puppy is 14 months old before purchasing another puppy. This allows you to concentrate all your efforts on that individual, with a fair wind and good early socialisation, it will take on some of the good traits of the older more experienced dog.
I think what truly annoys me are the breeders that sell siblings knowing that it will cause behavioural problems. In some cases, they actually use emotional blackmail to push two pups on the unsuspecting buyer, For instance, “what a shame you can’t take two as I may have problems as he’s so small/white/little/runt etc and I’ll probably have to have him put down in the end“.
I have no respect for a breeder that uses these tactics or that sell litter-mates to one owner. If they are experienced and not a first-time breeder then they are well aware of the pitfalls of these actions, and that the dogs will suffer for the rest of their lives.