Dog Behavior Modification: Littermate Fighting
Just don’t do it. Please just don’t do it.
It’s not that it’s always impossible. And a lot of people will tell you they do it. Breeders, especially the one’s just in it for a buck, will tell you no problem. But it’s certainly not for everyone. And sometimes it can go really, really wrong.
If you google “littermate syndrome” you will get a variety of articles on the subject. Most of them speak about the dogs being too bonded to be independent and confident without the other. They will tell you how hard it is to do and that you need to bring your A-game. They will tell you to work with them and play with them 1:1 as well as a pair.
The reason I tell you not to do it — aggression. I’ve seen it first hand too many times. I will not ever recommend to a client adopting litter mates.
Sure they start out as cute adorable playmates. Many times no issues at all happen. Sometimes it takes years for problems to arise. And sometimes the issues become so intense and dangerous there is no point of return.
Mickey and Baxter were adorable little Jack Russell Terriers. The family bought one for each young boy. They tried to do everything right. They started with puppy lessons. Even included the nanny in the training for consistency. They learned obedience. And everything was good for about 6 months. And then it wasn’t.
The dogs got into a brawl over something they found in the yard. Not even a toy, food, or person.
The family couldn’t get them back together. They fought between crates, through the glass door, and walking down the street on leash.
They came to me for board and train. And for a week, things were good. They played, they worked, they lived together. And then one day, they blew-up again, right before my eyes. One of them seriously injured. Again.
From that day, no matter what we tried, they couldn’t be back together. One was clearly the aggressor and the other clearly willing to stand up for himself. But literally they would fight the air from across the room if they got visual sight of the other. We had 2 degrees of separation at all times, trying to address behavior.
I recommended rehoming one of them. But which little boy would be heart broken.
The family opted for a second opinion and paid for another month of board and train with a new trainer. Same result. And they did end up rehoming one of the dogs. They had no choice. It was too dangerous.
Red and Rascal came together for “foster” training in November. They were part of a litter of dogs seized by Animal Control. They loved each other, until they didn’t.
They arrived around 10 weeks of age. And as they matured, problems ensued.
Red has a very high prey drive and a quick arousal arc. (We will talk about that in another post) He started getting really frustrated with his brother over nonsense. When he got frustrated he got angry ad over-adrenalized. During play, if the play got fast, vocal, and rousing, he would escalate superfast. He’d go over threshold and want to start big trouble, and his brother wouldn’t back down. So there were many days Rascal and Poppy would play off leash and all out, and Red had to observe only from a leash, to work on impulse control. Energy is a big trigger for him.
They would still be friends and even snuggle bugs when things quieted down and the day was unwinding. But I wouldn’t dare leave them alone unsupervised or unattended. I needed to see arousal start so I could interrupt it.
Red’s play style is very different with Poppy than it had been with Rascal. They play together very well and to date have not had any dramatic issues. Play is big and rowdy, but he manages self-control, takes breaks, play-bows, and does all the right things when playing with her.
But he is not capable of playing with his brother. We tried more than many occasions to bring them together and often visual stimuli alone would be a trigger. So if you can’t be calm just hanging out, you can’t be trusted to play.
Rascal moved to a new foster and is doing super well.
Enter Jay. Another sibling, who came for obedience training. I was anxious to see how Red would respond to another male sibling. Was it just Rascal or was it something more…
The day he arrived both we’re highly aroused and we elected not to allow them to greet on arrival. My intent was to take a few days. But, a few hours later, after both amped themselves up barking, they wanted to fight between their crates. Still wonder why I tell you take introductions very slowly? You can’t undo first introductions. (See Pack Introductions)
We did a lot of foundational work. Lots of time together. Leashed socialization, hanging out on place. Tethers. Muzzle conditioning. All the things we need to try and get them to coexist. Not because they were going to live together, but really trying to solve it if we could.
We can’t. They are simply not compatible. And I don’t know why. To keep trying seems counterproductive to me. So we kept them separated until Jay got adopted last week.
Alone they are amazing. With Poppy they are terrific. They are both even good with my dachshunds. Red is attempting to play with some of the other dogs here through the fence, and can hang out with all of them on place and tethered in the play yard. Little White fluffies, not so much.
We’re still working with Red on controlling his arousal and prey drive. It’s pretty intense — but we’ll talk about that in another post.
What is it with littermates? The begin as friends and companions. What makes it go south? I wish I knew. I wish I could solve it. But there are countless other trainers I know and follow who tell will tell you the same thing.
Don’t get littermates. Even if you find the best breeder on the planet, don’t get littermates. Wait for another litter. Do you foundational training with the first before adding the second. Train often and train well to have structure, discipline, clear expectations and balance in your home.