Friday, February 20, 2015

Double Trouble, or Why You May Not Want Sibling Pups

I want this post to serve as an educational one, and a warning all at once. I like to multi-task. I want to tell you about the dangers of getting two puppies from the same litter.
One of the services I provide for my clients is new dog counseling. We discuss lifestyle, including hours spent out of the home, outdoor activities, number of people living in the home, visitors, other pets, and the list goes on. We discuss whether they want to adopt/rescue or buy from a reputable breeder. Let me say that I'm all about adopting from a shelter or going through a rescue organization, but if someone really wants a specific breed and wants a puppy, I don't see anything wrong with buying from a good breeder. We'll get into this in another post, but I wanted to put it out there- I don't think that opting for a breeder is in itself a bad thing. Plenty of breeders work hard to improve their breed and do extensive background checks on potential owners to ensure the well-being of their pups.
Anyway- I try to figure out a good balance between what people want in a dog, what they can realistically give to the dog, and what the dog will need from them. We then work to get the new pup (or adopted older pup or senior citizen pup) acclimated to the new home, address any behavior issues and start on basic training commands. It's really rewarding to help put the pieces together and see new relationships develop when I do this, I know I'm setting them all up for a great life together.
When folks want to throw a big wrench into it.
By getting two litter mates.
I know it's tempting- they are cute, they are siblings, and they'll keep each other company so it'll be a little easier for the humans, right?
Almost. It's so almost true that I want to believe it. They are adorable, they will probably love living together, but the humans in these cases have a lot more on their plate than they expect.
Ask anyone who has twin children- it's double the work, especially at the beginning. With dogs, it's the same but for slightly different reasons.
Sibling pups can have a handful of issues:

They can bond so well with each other that they all but ignore the people in their family (or any other pets, for that matter). This becomes especially troublesome when you are working on things like recall and leash walking, and your dog really doesn't care what you say. It makes sense that they would bond better with each other- they've already been acquainted for quite some time once you get them so you are fighting an uphill battle to get them to care about you.

Pups who are siblings can sometimes exhibit more bullying tendencies- one to the other, or by them ganging up on another pet. This is based largely on my experience and that of other canine professionals, so it may not be as widespread, but it's out there. It may be that one pup was protected by other litter mates before going to their new home and now the 'bully' pup has the freedom to be a jerk all the time. As siblings who do everything together, bullying of another dog (or even a person) is worse when there are two dogs doing it. 

Genetically, siblings will have a lot in common. This means they will be similarly adorable and will grow to be about the same size. It also means that if there are any genetic health issues or deformities, you'll get it times two. Anything as simple as sensitivities to food, allergies to things like cancer or heart defects are generally shared between litter mates. It could mean double the cost of special food or vet bills and /or double heartache if they both pass away at the same time, or early in life. 

The other thing that is passed on in DNA (to some extent) is temperament. Any behaviors from severe aggression to extreme timidness are sculpted by genetics and the early environment- which is just about identical for canine siblings. Organizations that train guide dogs have discovered that there can be a tendency for one of the pups to develop a more shy or submissive personality and for the other to be more outgoing- any good guide dog group won't send two puppies to a home to be raised together. 

Just because someone gets litter mates, it does not automatically mean any or all of the above issues will ever present themselves, or at least not at a level that it affects daily life. I have known plenty of litter mates who have done great- fantastic through all training, no bullying of anyone and live long healthy lives. The thing is, their humans have been people who were really committed to their dogs. They made (or had) time to commit to working with the dogs a LOT. They also seemed to be dogs who were pretty good temperament-wise anyway, so that's a plus. So, to ensure success with litter mates, and to ensure that they don't take over everything, there are some simple steps to take. 

1. Look at breeds- some breeds will be more difficult in pairs- sight/scent hounds who are siblings can be much more work than say, retrievers. Hounds tend to work more independently of their people and are bred to have what I call "doggie ADHD". They are bred to be on the lookout for things and it is very strongly ingrained in them. Retrievers are similarly bred to know their environment and seek out things, but they are meant to work closely with a person (or people). By trying to find a breed that is more inclined to work closely with a person, your odds of success are higher and your work won't be as hard.

2. If you want to ensure success with two pups from the same litter, the first step is to find a fantastic breeder. It will likely be an uphill battle to get two pups from a good breeder, because they are aware of all the things I have mentioned and want the best for their pups. If you can prove yourself worthy, they'll probably let it happen though. By choosing a great breeder, you can significantly diminish or eliminate the chances of serious health problems or temperament problems, so your job is just a bit easier still.

3. This one is really important, and if I weren't listing chronologically it would be first because this can make or break any dog pair's success in a home with people. The dogs need time away from each other. This means crating separately and spending time with their people individually. This needs to be done just about every day. I'm talking about walks with you and one dog, training on cues with one dog and the other dog being in another room; outings to meet other doggie friends individually. They need to be able to develop socially as individuals to be successful as with people. All obedience training needs to be done with both dogs; each individually and then together so that the behavior can be generalized and proofed. This one is not always easy; I'm not gonna lie. Raising a dog takes time, money, and effort. Raising two dogs takes at least twice that much. 

4. Lower your expectations when they are together. Until you have done many months or years worth of work, the dogs will still be very easily distracted by one another. That's why you need to develop proficiency with one dog before working two (or more) dogs together. 

Any of you out there have sibling pups?

Links & Resources: 

The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior, by Clarence Pfaffenberger  (actually originally published in 1963; presents information on puppy development and offered at the time a brand new perspective on puppy temperament testing. This is how Guide Dogs for the Blind figured it out!)