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Canine Behavior/Littermate Syndrome


Turbo and Lena
Turbo and Lena  
Turbo and Lena 17 weeks
Turbo and Lena 17 week  
QUESTION: Hello....I didn't know about littermate syndrome until recently...I have 2 puppies the same age Turbo (male) mastiff DOB 05-15-2012, Lena (female) DOB 05-14-2012 St. Bernard . We got Turbo when he was 6 weeks old he has graduated from his beginners puppy class, lena we got at 15 weeks and I believe she was kept in a kennel...she wasn't socialized very much and didn't have a name. I have them crated seperately but in the same room. I got another large breed because Turbo is big and wanted an even playmate for him to romp with...they play and wrestle changing positions as whos being submissive from time to time. I do notice little bite marks (no blood) on them around their necks and Turbos ears...we take them on individual walks as well as pack walks together. I have been getting a little concerned as it seems Lena is getting more and more nervous about stuff and runs to Turbo as for protection or support she won't come to me when I call her without now they are about 23 weeks Turbo weighs 83 lbs and Lena weighs about 64 lbs. If I let one out the other one waits by the door for the other one...and if I walk one alone I can hear the other one barking and crying as I am question.... do I need to get rid one of them for their own good (it would probably be Lena) :(
or is there some steps I can take to fix this??? These are from 2 different litters and I did space the time I got them  but they are still the same age...getting ready to get Turbo neutered on Weds.(2 days)...Lena will be spayed in 2 weeks....Thanks so much for your help. We love them both but tonight I saw Lena's anxiety more than I have seen it before and her I need some help and direction with this. thanks again!
Teresa in Ohio

ANSWER: **Thank you for including the pictures. They're adorable and clearly bonded to each other (napping nose-to-nose).

Litter mate syndrome can occur when you bring in actual litter mates, or when you have two puppies in the house at the same time. Most professional trainers/behaviorists will recommend raising one puppy at a time. When the current dog is about a year old and well trained, you can bring in another dog who is the same age, but was raised elsewhere for that first year, or you can then bring in another puppy. Those same professionals will be quick to tell you that bringing two puppies (even several weeks apart in age) into the house at the same time will significantly increase the amount of work you need to do. It's rather exponential instead of simply multiplied. In other words, two puppies is actually 3 times the amount of training and 3-4 times the amount of potential destructive behavior, energy, activity and headache (as much fun as puppies are).

So, what to do if you do have two puppies in the home? It means you have to put in significantly more work. As you're seeing, the dogs are bonding to each other - even over their bond to you. This means you have to work with them even harder to instill a strong bond with you so that you can gain their focus and response even when they are together. You will want to focus on using positive reinforcement training with the dogs as you want to instill a bond and desire to engage with you. Using compulsive/coercive training techniques which require the dog to behave in fear of consequences, will actually compel the dog to avoid you when they are together as together is fun and safe. So you need to make sure you're even more fun and just as safe. (Don't know what kind of training you've done so far, but since this is a public response, felt it important to point this out.)

I would encourage you to put Lena through a puppy class without Turbo (he's already done one) as she needs to build some confidence and learn to stand on her own, without Turbo there to rely on. You need to set aside time to train with each of them individually every single day (the other dog should be in a different room, or at home while you're out). They need to go on many more walks separately than together (perhaps once per week they take a neighborhood walk together, but the other 6 days per week, they walk separately. You need to specifically work on commands such as Focus (turn their eyes to your face), and Come (also called a recall) and build this up from right near you to responding from 30 feet away under heavy distraction (toys, squirrels, etc).

It's critical that they learn these skills separately from each other to a point of solid response, and then you will need to begin working those skills with the dogs together. When together, you may need to tether one so that one can't actually get in the way while you work with the other across the room, and then switch. You will definitely need to go back to the very beginning, most basic training - even perhaps as far back as luring the behaviors - once they're in the same space and then build up their skill level when in each other's presence.

This is why it's 3 times as much training - you have to teach them each individually, and then all over again when together.

If they are crated in the same room, I would set the crates up so that they can't see each other, perhaps on opposite sides of a couch. Or I would put them in two separate rooms. They should spend several hours every day separate from each other. You need to spend quality private time with each of them (along with together time, of course). You can multitask and have some of that separate time coincide with your private time (during which there is love/snuggle time as well as training and walking time).

Make sure that you provide them activities to occupy themselves when they are separate. I'm a huge fan of loaded Kong toys and other similar items. You can make a mixture where of the total product, 85% is the dog's regular kibble, 5% is made up of tasty goodies and 10% is some kind of soft binder (see below), mix it all together and then stuff the Kong full. You can prepare several ahead of time and store them in the fridge for a few days, making them easy to just grab when you need. You should use these to give the dogs a portion of their daily calorie needs (we don't want to overfeed even if they are giant breed dogs).

Ian Dunbar (founder of the Association for Pet Dog Trainers, and pioneer of positive reinforcement training) encourages that the dog gets every calorie of their day by way of Kong type toys. This does several things. First, they get these in their crate and so they learn that the crate is a great place to hang out, second, it requires them to work at getting their food which is great mental stimulation and will tire them out a bit (especially if the loaded Kong has been frozen, making it a Kongscicle) leaving them ready for a nap when they're done. And third, it creates an excellent habit of what they should put their mouth on, which makes them a lot less likely to start chewing on the house/furniture because they have learned that the coolest thing to put in their mouth is their Kong toy.

By feeding every meal via Kong in their crate, allows you to then crate one for private time with the other. You can also provide Marrow Bones (which can be loaded much like the Kong), antlers or Bully Sticks to have in their crate for entertainment. Make sure they've experienced and enjoyed these items while you're present and while they're in the same room together so that these items don't come to automatically signal that they're about to be alone.

**Soft Binders for Kong and marrow bone filling include (but not limited to): apple sauce, peanut butter, low fat cream cheese, low fat sour cream, nonfat plain yogurt, liverwurst, high quality wet dog food, baby food (Beechnut preferred, the other main brand has fillers such as corn starch in it), you can even soak the kibbles in a low sodium broth (vegetable, beef or chicken). You can combine more than one option to keep it interesting and/or to cut a higher fat option with something less heavy. Varying the binder options from day to day will also keep the Kong toys interesting. You'll probably find that your dogs have preferences of some options over others.

Ian Dunbar (and others) suggest all puppies be crated whenever they're not supervised for at least the first 2 years of life. While standard sized dogs are full grown at about 12 months (small dogs at around 8-10 months, and giant breeds between 18-24 months), mentally they are still puppies until between 2 and 3 years of age. So, even at full size, they are not settled into adulthood and will still be inclined to cause mischief if left to their own devices. They should have plenty of out-of-crate time every day, and this can be a rotation of an hour in then an hour out, or it can be 2 or 3 hours in followed by 2 or 3 hours out (not more than 4 or 5 hours in the crate at a time). It can even by 6 or 8 hours out of the crate if you're home to properly supervise.
The above link is to a load of short training videos by Dr. Ian Dunbar. You can browse by topic, including crate training, loading chew toys, recalls when out, heeling, etc. They can give you some decent starting points to work on.

You may also find Dr. Sophia Yin's book Perfect Puppy in 7 Days to be very helpful. There are some excellent exercises for impulse control, leash skills, sitting politely for attention and learning to focus on you while out walking which may all prove quite helpful to you. You'll have to do these exercises one dog at a time before you try to work on them with the pups together.

In short, only you can decide if you need to re-home one of these pups. I can't make that decision for you. I can only point out that it will take a great deal of work and commitment to help them grow up together with good, solid training. You have to socialize them to the world separately from each other more than with each other, but they do need practice being out together (and still responsive to you) as well. You need to train them separately from each other more than with each other, but also with each other so they can be responsive to you when they're together. They should have separate vet visits so that they learn to be calm at the vet without each other.

It's doable, but it takes a lot more work than just one puppy. You need to assess your home life, your daily schedule, what kind of help you have in this process (is it just you or are there others living in the house or local to you that can help with some of this training), how much actual time you have in your daily life and how much emotional time you can put into this process. If you believe you can invest the time and effort required, then you can help these two grow up happy and confident independent of each other as well as well behaved together. But if you don't have the time or availability to give both dogs as much time/attention as each needs, then you are doing a disservice to both dogs by keeping them together. At that point, you would be putting the dog's needs ahead of your own to re-home one dog. Perhaps with a friend/family member or neighbor so they can continue to have play dates. Perhaps only temporarily for a the next 12-18 months so they can learn to be independent of each other (while still seeing each other anywhere from once per week to a couple hours per day).

Only you can make this final decision. I wish you the best of luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Wow....I am a little overwhelmed now with the responsibility I have to these dogs....I just had Turbo neutered and so he was missing from Lena for the day yesturday and she wouldn't eat but only a couple morsals from each of her 3 meals and she usually eats 9 cups a day....she was so sad and lonely...I took her for walks and spent some time with her and even tried to play a game to feed her but no I was worried and facing the reality that I am hurting Lena. Today turbo is home and Lena has resumed eating but still lonely because they aren't allowed to romp and play as usual...Turbo isn't happy about that part either....Lena is scheduled for her spay in 2 weeks. I have already started working real hard to spend individual time with Lena and turbo seperately....this is a good opportunity to start and continue as they will be seperate from each other while each of them heal. Lena just cries when she is in the yard by herself as she is used to having turbo by her side....we plan to bring them together in the livingroom for family/pack time in the evening so we can monitor their interaction. As sad as it is if I see that I am unable to handle the challenge of individual training apart from each other and also dedicate time to train them together as well....I will re-home Lena...brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it as we love her but I don't want her not to be all that she can be...a whole and happy dog. I have already started watching the video link you gave me..... Thank You for taking the time to write and help me...I appreciate it soo much!

I know it can feel overwhelming. I didn't mean to make it scary, but I also don't want to sugar-coat it for you. You don't have to completely change their entire routine in a single day. You can wean them into a new routine that will help them in the long run.

I'm not surprised that Lena was a bit despondent that her friend was gone for a day. It's very normal to see the dog who is stuck at home feel left out and become even a little depressed (lethargic, lacking appetite and interest in playing) in the first day or so. Since it was only one day, we have no idea if Lena would have bounced back in a day or two. I wouldn't read too much into it given it was a single day.

If you want to give this a try - to keep both dogs - I would encourage you to start with meal times. They should eat in their crates. For the first few meals, the crates can remain where they are, and then every 4th meal or so, move the crates another foot or two apart until the crates are actually in different rooms. Simply having their mealtimes be separate like this is a big step toward helping them be a bit more independent.

And keep in mind that training individually doesn't have to be an hour at a time with each dog. In fact, it shouldn't be so long. You'll get frustrated and begin to resent the dogs for taking so much time and they'll get bored. I much prefer short training bursts of just a few minutes. So, if they're having their mid-day break from each other (nap in their crates with a loaded Kong to occupy them until they fall asleep), as one wakes up you can take that dog out and do 3 - 5 minutes of training with that dog, then return that dog to their crate with a Bully Stick while you take the other dog out for 3 - 5 minutes of training, then return that dog to their crate with a Bully Stick. Then, perhaps 30 minutes after both dogs have been back in their crate, then they come out for some together time. If nap time lasts say, 90 minutes, and there's 10-15 minutes of training for both dogs (including potty break) followed by an additional 30 minutes of quiet time in their crate, then that's 2 - 2 1/2 hours of time during the middle of the day that the pups are not together. Just doing that will go a long way toward helping them learn to be independent of each other.

At walk time, if there are two of you available, perhaps leave the house together, but then go off and walk in separate directions and meet back at the house at the end. This way both dogs are out at the same time, nobody feels left out and both are occupied by the sights/smells around them, before they realize it they've taken a whole walk without the other dog!

In my home I have two dogs now. One is just a year old, the other will be 5 in Dec. They are attached at the hip and both get whimpery if I leave the house with just one. When I do leave one behind, I confine the dog who stays home to the kitchen - where the doggie door is so they can get outside. I give that dog a Bully Stick and a couple ice cubes (they both LOVE!!!!! ice cubes). I toss a fistful of treats on the floor so they have something to scavenge. Then I go out with the other dog. They don't love being alone, but they survive and all the treats are gone. Sometimes the ice has melted, but the Bully Stick is always completely gone and the treats are gone which tells me that while that dog would rather be with us, they are not so broken up that they won't eat....

As for training and working it into our daily life, one thing I will often do is make meal time a training opportunity. I take one dog into a room that is blocked off. They never have unsupervised access to this space. So I take one dog in and use their regular kibble for training treats and put them through their paces or play a game with them. Tonight, my little 10-lb terrier mix got to play at agility with a small hurdle that I created and a tunnel made out of couch cushions and a mat to stop/stay on. Then we did a few of his tricks. My 35-lb chow/pit mix loves Nose Work, so for his meal, I set up hides, using his kibble as the thing to search for. I set up a bunch of decoy containers and one box with a handful of kibble in it, then bring him in the room and let him search for his food. Once he finds it, I tell him "out" and put him on the other side of the babygate while I reset, move the hide with the food and the decoys around and then let him back in to search all over again. He loves this game! Of course, we took an intro to Nose Work class in order to teach him (and me) how to go about this game, but it's a great way to provide a little mental stimulation and private game time with me while feeding him. Each of these training/feeding times took less than 10 minutes (less than 20 minutes total to feed both dogs). In your case, since you have giant breed pups that are eating 8-9 cups of food per day, I'd use perhaps just 1/2 - 1 cup of food for training, giving 3 - 5 kibbles to reward each behavior done, and then let the dog just eat the rest of the food that's for that meal (but in this separate space with you - without their sibling).

And, no. I don't do this kind of training every single day. My schedule doesn't always permit it, and to be perfectly honest, I'm too lazy to do it every day. But if you aim for 4-6 times per week (just one meal in each day), then even if it only happens 2 or 3 times per week, you're doing a pretty good job. Of course, you can do this for every single meal - they'd LOVE you for it, but who has that much time on their hands, really?

As for training together, some of what I do is ask for Sit before the food bowls go down, then ask them to focus on me and hold my gaze patiently until I tell them "OK" and let them eat their food. You can do this with them on opposite sides of the room from each other and build up to them eating near each other. But I would look at that as a goal. For now, I think it's more important to have them eat in their crates separate from each other just to build that confidence of being independent.

It can be doable. It may just require a little creative thinking to figure out how to best make these concepts fit into your personal daily routine so that it's just part of your day, and not overwhelming your day. Of course, if you do find it to be just too much, then there is no shame in recognizing that you can't offer one of your dogs all he/she needs to be the best dog possible. Putting the dog's needs ahead of your own is the noblist thing a pet parent can do. But as I said in my first response, only you can make that decision. It's easy for me to rattle off the things that need to be done, or say, "Oh, it's easy. Just do A, B and C." But the reality can work out differently than a written answer. Give it a shot. See how it goes. You don't have to make a decision right away. Try it. Practice it, wean into it. Reassess in a few weeks....

I wish you the very best of luck. Please feel free to contact me again to update me on how they're doing and what you decide to do.  

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Jody Epstein, MS, CPDT-KA


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 8 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members and many other issues. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been a professional obedience trainer for 9 years, and specializing in behavior modification for 8 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I own my own dog training and behavior modification business called Nutz About Mutz.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications ; ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

I have a masters degree (MS) in Animals and Public Policy, with a minor in Animal Behavior, from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. I also have 3 years of graduate education in Animal Behavior and Learning from UM-Missoula and UL-Lafayette. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences, workshops and seminars. Beginning in March, 2017, I will be the Behavior & Training Manager at Second Chance Center for Animals in Flagstaff, AZ.

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