I had never heard the term “Littermate syndrome” before I ended up with two sisters from the same litter. If you have read some of my earlier blog posts, you may know that Dozer was my very first frenchie. I fell in love immediately! So much so that I wanted a little girl frenchie. While searching for my little girl, I found two sisters. I fell in love with this little blue fawn girl (Molly) while my husband fell in love with her sister (Harley). We ended up deciding to bring Molly home with us. She was ten weeks old and we absolutely adored her from the moment we picked her up. Not too long later, Harley found a home of her own. Fast forward four months and the person who took Harley ended up bringing her back. When we found out she was brought back, we felt it was meant to be so we brought her home to us. All three of our babies got along great and we loved having the sisters together. Fast forward another five months and, what seemed like out of no where, the girls got into a fight. It was quick, it was bloody, and it was scary. We didn’t know it at the time, but they were also both getting ready to go into heat. After the fight, we watched them closely. For a few days, they seemed tense around each other and it took some work to get them to love each other again. But they did!
After the girls got into their fight, I started researching and low and behold there is a such thing as sibling rivalry in dogs, it’s called “Littermate Syndrome”. One aspect of this syndrome makes training dogs more difficult during the younger stages of their life. I am grateful I didn’t experience this part of the syndrome. I believe that I did not experience this phase because during the time this phase would occur we were only raising Molly and someone else was raising Harley. We also seem to have skipped the “hyper-attachment” part of litter mate syndrome. With hyper-attachment, the siblings get very attached to one another and therefore get very anxious and fearful when not around the other. The only aspect of littermate syndrome we seemed to experience was the third and final aspect which is “Inter-Dog Aggression”.
Inter-Dog Aggression can be between two unknown dogs or between dogs that know each other well, such as siblings. When inter-dog aggression is between siblings, especially same sex siblings from the same litter, the siblings become very aggressive towards each other. Aggression occurs for a variety of reasons including dominance and fear/anxiety. Aggression can also manifest itself in a variety of ways such as staring, mounting, blocking items or food, standing over each other, growling, and of course fighting. It is extremely important to reinforce non-aggressive behaviors when dogs are exhibiting potential aggressive behaviors. Be aware that you could inadvertently reinforce the aggressive behaviors by yelling, being inconsistent, and by other means. Be very aware of your own actions and especially of how you respond when your dogs are showing signs of aggression.
Littermate syndrome, like any other behavioral issue, is not always cut and dry. There are varying degrees of littermate syndrome and just because you have adopted litter mates, does not always guarantee they will display these behavioral issues. Take my situation as an example. Yes, Molly and Harley fought badly and gave us a pretty good scare. However, it is not an ongoing problem and ninety percent of the time they absolutely love each other. The fact that the girls were separated for a few months during their life surely plays a role in them showing less of the problems associated with littermate syndrome.
So, what can I do about it?
First, behavioral modifications play a huge role in turning the situation around. If you read my last blog post, you will remember B.F. Skinner’s method of operant conditioning and that positive reinforcement is crucial to modifying behavior. When a dog fight occurs, tensions are high all around but there are steps you can take to ease the tension. If an actual fight happens in your house, you will need to separate the dogs for at least a couple hours. The amount of time will depend on the severity of the fight. If one or both of the dogs were hurt, they will be more agitated and will need to be separated for a longer period of time. Read their body language and when they seem completely settled, you can attempt to reintroduce them. However, once you do decide to let them around each other again, watch them like a hawk. If they are getting along, give them plenty of praise and attention. Pet them, tell them good dog, and even give them treats. As with any other behavioral modification using positive reinforcement, make a big deal out of it. On the other hand, if they show even the slightest hint of aggressive behavior, separate them immediately. Another fight will only add to the problem you already have. Second, it is very important to have a social hierarchy established in your home. It is crucial that you are the alpha and they know you are the alpha. It is just as important that you figure out your dogs social hierarchy. You are the alpha, but who is the alpha dog? Some of the behaviors that an alpha dog may display are being the first one in and out of doorways, mounting other dogs, and nudging other dogs out of their way. Some of the behaviors that submissive dogs will display are laying on their backs, following other dogs, giving up their toys to other dogs, and looking away from other dogs. Whatever their place is within the pack, it is important you honor that place. How do you do that? You will honor the alpha’s position by walking them first, giving them toys first, and feeding them first. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, with dogs consistency and routine are key. Dogs are most comfortable when they know their place in the pack and can count on a consistent routine.
In addition to behavioral modifications and establishing a solid social hierarchy, make sure the siblings have their alone time. Walk them separately, feed them separately, and give them special alone time. They should have time together as well as their time separated. I personally take my frenchies to parks to walk together. However, at home, I walk them separately and I feed them separately. Dozer, Molly, and Harley all love car rides so sometimes they all go together and sometimes I take them separately. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure they have that alone time in addition to their time together and make sure you maintain consistency.
The inter-dog aggression aspect of Littermate Syndrome can be scary and hard to overcome. However, with the appropriate guidance from you, your pups can overcome it and live in peace and harmony.
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