Sunday, February 13, 2011

Take Two, They’re Small

It was a great compliment to a newly-minted dog handler to be asked by my training mentor to evaluate a litter of puppies to identify the search and rescue prospects.*

The big litter of superficially near-identical black German shepherds was from her own breeding, offspring of two SAR dogs. The buyers were a family from Pennsylvania who already owned two of her dogs, both operational SAR dogs. It was time for them to start bringing along a new pup to eventually succeed their oldest bitch.

After messing with the pups for the better part of a day -- observing the litter interact amongst themselves, taking them out one at a time for some formal puppy tests and informal play and mild stress, watching them move -- I arrived at the same answer that their breeder had. “Either of these two bitch puppies is an excellent prospect. And I can find no reason to prefer one over the other. I think they might be actual identical twins.”

A few days later Martha and Dan, SAR dogs JT and Schatten, and Martha’s two teenage boys arrived in an SUV the size of a city block, to visit for a few days, train, and choose their new puppy.

I liked them. We had a lot of fun navigating the baffling New Hampshire topography behind Annabella’s cabin. It was refreshing to cross-pollinate with handlers from another unit who were not using the interaction as an opportunity to gain local political advantage or attempt a mean-spirited alpha roll on the New Kid.

Martha agreed about the two bitch puppies. She spent three days with them, and could find nothing to favor one pup over the other. So she took them both.

Annabella tried to talk her out of this course of action, but in the end relented. Martha and Dan insisted that each one would train a pup.

Less than a year later, Perfesser Chaos took a new job. We packed up Lilly, two cats, all our crap, and the lives we had started in New England and relocated, Clampett-like, to Pittsburgh. We weren’t close enough to Martha to join her SAR unit, but it was nice having a friend and guide in the general area. Their spacious home, set back in the woods near the Laurel Ridge, was our rural refuge, as Annabella’s Unabomber cabin had once been.

Things were not going as one would hope with the puppies, Lauren and Danielle.†

They were still physically indistinguishable (to me) -- color-coded collars were a necessity. But one puppy (I cannot remember which one, seventeen years later) had taken on the role of leader, the other of follower. It was fortunate that the dichotomy was as strong as it was; that’s probably what spared that family the fun of littermate bitches deciding to kill one another at unpredictable intervals.** The fact of the relationship -- the absolute need that dogs have to define their roles relative to their packmates -- cause the identical puppies’ personalities to diverge much more dramatically than they would have under other circumstances.
I cannot remember a single dog who was raised with her mother to adulthood who could be successfully trained for a Guide Dog. Where two litter mates are raised together in the same home we have had the same results. Puppies raised in homes where there are dogs not related to them have never been affected this way by the association with other dogs ... In the case of two litter mates raised together, one becomes a successful candidate for Guide Dog work and one fails, even if their aptitude tests were equal.
Clarence Pfaffenberger
The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior
Howell Book House, 1964 (p. 125)
Lauren and Danielle presented a classic picture of this kind of squandered potential, except that neither were heading for the success promised by their early puppy profiles. They were co-dependent, whining and pacing incessantly whenever separated from one another, even if one of the other dogs was there. Their obedience and general response to human leadership was sketchy at best. I would not consider them housetrained. They barely paid attention to what their humans wanted. They lacked the aura of intelligence and awareness that JT exuded. And neither puppy was all that committed to working. The noses functioned, but the fire did not blaze.

Indeed, at a year of age, they were still “the puppies.” At two, three years of age, “the puppies.” No real progress towards operational status that I could see, and general arrested development compared to their own older dogs, and other SAR dogs of the same cohort.

One divorce and many life changes later, Martha and Dan split up “the puppies.” Each ex-spouse went away with one good older SAR dog and one unfocused, slightly neurotic, unfulfilled young pet. Neither ever fielded a second SAR partner.

Well what does all that matter to me? you say, I just want dogs as pets.

Two puppies will keep one another company, so I can go to work and not feel guilty. It’s a lot of fun watching them play with one another. And they never have to go through the full trauma of leaving their first family. They’ll be friends all their lives, so we don’t have to identify other dogs with whom they can socialize. Throw in a fenced yard -- no need for time-consuming leash walks.

Oh the temptations.

If I wasn't so aware of the number of hits this post is likely to receive from people looking for validation for a decision to buy two puppies, I'd give you the phone number of the clients who called me two weeks into their two-puppy adventure. They were "smart." They didn't buy littermates (partly because they had a thought of breeding the two German shepherd pups in the future.) They got a big robust bitch puppy and a smaller, more retiring dog puppy who was a week or so younger, from a different breeder. The two pups commenced ignoring every human directive, enticement, and entreaty, while the bigger pup began mercilessly bullying the smaller one.

When they called me, this couple who had successfully raised three children had not slept in a fortnight. I felt as if I'd come to help the parents of quadruplets who were both suffering from post-partum depression.

I was able to help quite a bit with puppy management, training, general stress levels. This was a couple who really wanted to do right by their dogs, had high expectations of them, and had found themselves completely unprepared for the onslaught.

I’m down to one Indiana Plague Puppy; Donna went home this morning. They are about 13 weeks old now, several weeks older than the optimum age for going to their permanent homes. Puppy care just got harder.

Four puppies was herding a troupe of striped-assed baboons. Two puppies are half as many as four -- half as much poop, half as much cuddling, half as much training, half as many little ferrets diving for the door or scattering like cockroaches when I needed to contain them.

Two puppies is not, however, twice as many as one. I haven’t yet suffered through a sleepless night of foresaken wailing. I could gate the two of them in the puppy-resistant kitchen for long periods and they entertained one another. I called the puppies, and if one was inclined to come to me, the other almost invariably followed. If I corrected a pup for mouthing me while she was in a ripping frame of mind, she just turned to her sister and piled on -- redirection always available..

In short, raising two puppies rather than one makes it easy and apparently consequence-free to neglect them both. It is the canine developmental equivalent of parking the toddler in front of Gilligan’s Island with a bag of gummi worms and a loaded diaper.

He’s not just less likely to get into Stanford in the long-term; he’s significantly more likely to treat you to phone calls from the school principal and later, the police chief. Or, better yet, to be living in the basement eating your Hot Pockets when he's 35.

I departed from the easy path in several ways. I separated the pups for some period of time every day, taking them each out for leash walks that were, from the standpoint of exercising puppies, entirely gratuitous. They ate from separate bowls, spent time in separate crates, had separate lap-times. But mostly, they were “the puppies.” Neither had launched out of her natal pack and into a new life in a human family.

There are things they ideally should have started learning at seven weeks -- the age at which they found themselves in the dog pound, riddled with cooties, and still a week from coming into foster care where we could begin to address their vetting and start matching them with potential adopters.

It’s neither wise nor productive to unleash two uncivilized puppies -- much less four of them -- into a non-puppy-proofed area of the house. While you are rescuing a shoe from one varmint, another one is behind the TV eating power cord. Whisk one outside when she circles and sniffs, and her brother is makes a deposit to greet you at the door on the way back in. So they lived in the kitchen and did not learn to leave my stuff alone and ask to go out.

One puppy sat sweetly for a treat or attention, another jumped on her head and started gnawing as the human reached down. Each learned that sitting sweetly for what she wants is asking for an ambush -- much better to keep leaping on my legs like a wild heathen.

Shout NO as a pup engages in suicidal or criminal misconduct, and his sister who was innocently playing with a new toy is hit with discipline shrapnel. Uh oh, maybe I shouldn’t play with my toy. Or, maybe this “No” thing is overhyped, and I can ignore it.

One puppy runs from the giant rattling monster garbage bin that is chasing her down the driveway, and her sister concludes that it must be terribly dangerous, and follows in retreat. The fact that the grown-up dogs and the human aren’t a bit worried about this thing doesn’t get through the collective puppy panic.

As a result, the last two girlpuppies were, as of 6 a.m., pig-ignorant barbarians compared to any single pup we have raised. The latest we have ever had littermates together was eleven weeks. At thirteen weeks, the girls were on the verge of overripe; when they had the rips, they were about as tame and approachable as these:

Which, frankly, they closely resembled in more ways than I care to contemplate.

The developmental window for primary socialization and learning has not closed. They will be just fine. And they are still miles ahead of our group-raised ONB puppies, some of whom were with their littermates to the age of eight or nine months.

One or two more weeks of litter-living, though, and these pups would be courting real developmental challenges.

Starting today I am sucking it up and raising one puppy properly, as if she was my own, until she goes to her permanent home. The adult dogs -- trained, civilized,‡ full members of a human family with all the privileges and duties attendant thereof -- act as uniform assets in the pup’s upbringing. They teach her things that can be best, or only, learned from another dog, and they reinforce the policies and procedures of the human household. But the real work will be down to me and PC. Little Susie is Canis lupus familiaris, not plain ol’ C. lupus. She needs to look to human beings for her physical needs, play, direction, leadership, an explanation of her world. As her foster humans, it's our duty to prepare her to keep doing that all her life.

And Miss Susie is already doing this; there is a dramatic change in her compared to last night. I liked her before; now I really enjoy her puppy company.

Here's some free unsolicited advice:

Never buy or adopt two puppies the same age to raise together. Especially littermates. Especially same-sex littermates.

Do. Not.

Here's some more:

If you are a breeder, or place puppies for adoption, never sell or adopt two same-age puppies to one home.

Never. Ever.††

You don't see that "never" here very often. Here's how important I think this is: It is more unwise to buy two well-bred puppies from a breeder who raises them skillfully and lovingly, and bring those puppies up together in the same household, than it is to buy a puppy from the deli case at Petland.

A breeder worth her salt knows this. She won't sell you a set. She most certainly won't offer, suggest, market, discount or hard-sell pups in pairs. Wanna test the balance between a breeder's behavioral savvy and her walletitis? Ask her to sell you two at once. If she says O-tay, walk away clean.


* In retrospect, this may have been one of Annabella’s characteristically opaque Zen master lessons about what she thought I had actually done right with my first SAR dog, a truth that I later discerned about myself: I’m a fair to-middling-trainer. What I am good at is selecting puppy prospects who can withstand ham-fisted management, beginner’s mistakes, bad training methodologies, rotten timing, and the whole litany of handler incoherence -- pups who are nearly idiot-proof.

† Martha had a husband named Dan, a son named Dan -- why not just go with it again? Yell out “Dan!” and see how many beings answered.

** Two bitches in the same household who have each decided that the other needs to Go Away Permanently are among the least-favorite projects that face any dog trainer. When those two bitches are littermates whose owners earnestly believe they should loooove one another because they are sisters -- chewing up and swallowing a box of lightbulbs with a Betadine chaser ranks higher on the list of things to do today.

‡ And Sophia. Sigh. She is as God made her.

†† Of course not. Pack hounds. Buy whole litters of 'em and keep 'em in the kennel. It's all good. Carry on. I'm talking about pets, and working dogs that are not pack-hunting hounds.

Also, does not apply to cats. Kitten pairs work well, especially for owners who need them to be contented indoor latchkey kitties.


  1. And now looking at this -- however many problems we have had with Maddy, I am now grateful that Helen didn't return home with Libby and (most likely) Paris, a puppy from another dam. Wow, that would have been a mess in an entirely different direction.

  2. I'll be bookmarking this for the next time someone asks me if two pups would be a good idea. As you say, it never is in a pet situation.

  3. Maybe. There was a fair age difference there -- five weeks?

    Paris was a damned nice puppy, and the one that I had suggested for Helen. (Hey, I just connected that -- Paris, Helen. Huh.)

    Coincidentally, she was almost all black, marked just like Susie. I had a sense that she would be overlooked because of a lack of flash, and she was -- adopted fairly late in the game for such a desirable puppy.

    But then, I was told, one puppy.

    The challenge of adopting two ONB dogs -- any two ONB dogs -- probably more than trumps the sibling / two puppy issue.

  4. I am printing this and keeping copies with me. People keep asking me to sign off on their decision to adopt two puppies. I give a well-reasoned argument against...they adopt both anyway; six months later they want me to either take one off their hands or come make the puppies into good citizens.

    Or, in one case, brag to me about the uncontrolled heathens their dogs have become. (This household now has a one week old human infant who, in my opinion, is in grave danger from the canines in residence)

    One couple who took on two puppies this summer has worked hard to create normal, happy, hardworking pets. This couple started with my trainer recommendation and they have taken every. single. suggestion. Their dogs are lovely but the couple spends a lot of time telling people to NOT adopt two puppies at the same time. They have worked their asses off and they fully realize that this is a lifetime project.

    I keep telling this couple that they are so rare they are mythical.

  5. Hear, hear.
    If you don't heed this advice, you shall pay hefty fines all the life long.


  6. I've been asked for 'pairs' more times than I can count. Barb, my old breeding partner, thought it was a swell idea. I thought it was a recipe for disaster.

    Now, I tell them 'getting through puppyhood with ONE Frenchie is hard enough. Come back and talk to me in a year or so'. Some do. Most wait for a good three or four years - the smart ones call and ask "Got any older dogs who need new homes?".

  7. Pepper was with her sister and brother from birth to 5 months when we adopted her. We counted it out and in her life, we were the 8th place she had lived (birth in W VA, dog pound in W Va, pulled for transport with layover in MD, then 4 different foster homes in rescue in Southeastern PA, then us as her permanent home).

    I am so glad I put my foot down and said we had to do one-on-one training with a recommended professional, rather than try to do it from a book, whose advice we followed to the letter.

    I didn't know squat about socialization windows and the more I learn, the more I'm happily surprised that after nearly 9 years, Pepper a) seems bonded to us and b) didn't seem to have any training issues beyond expected "I'm a teenage herding dog."

    I think we dodged a bullet, but getting professional, competent training probably helped us do that dodge.


  8. I thought Susie looked a little like Paris. She was one of the best pups there. She got adopted and returned by someone who wasn't ready for a puppy, that is why it seemed so late. But she went to a good home with kids and a good dog mentor. I keep hoping to bump into them... they live near me.

  9. Wow - I'd never heard any of this! Heather, you never fail to entertain and educate me.


  10. THANK YOU!
    our shelter doesn't deny adoptions often (educate rather than restrict) but adopting 2 pups at once is one of those reasons- basically because of the social retardation the pups will experience (plus the finances, but we can't judge people on that)
    nothing's more fun than getting in two adult dogs to the shelter that have lived together their entire lives
    however, explaining this to customers is always a challenge. i'm bookmarking this for future reference, as i liked how you explained some things

  11. I don't remember the exact conversations we had at that time -- I brought it up last night with Helen, and both of us were having trouble recalling it -- but it was a subtle mix of my own fears about having to house train two puppies at once (which I see justifiably extend to other issues) times a sales job to Helen from Kyt and Jaye about a certain Barky Dog.

    In any event, things have worked out Pretty Okay.

  12. Plus -- I still don't get the prejudice against mostly-black dogs. Allus thought Paris was a real looker.

  13. Very well said. I'll be keeping this column on hand for back-up the next time I'm asked, then ignored because I did not provide the answer they wanted to hear.

  14. This does help explain why my fantastic BC mix was dropped off in the middle of BFE with her sister at seven months old. Neither were house trained, but clearly used to being in a house; both smart as whips, but not trained to do a damn thing. Not even the very basics. I'm very glad they were split up, and it didn't seem to me that my bitch was looking for anyone, much less a sister. Now we have a live stock guardian puppy, and when she and the BC get together and play, there's very little listening to me going on.

  15. I've raised littermates together a couple of times - not intentionally. And totally through serendipity, with no intelligence of my own involved, it happened both times that they were split up from abou 3 months of age to about 7 months of age. I see now that I waas lucky. I was very interested in that quote by Pfaffenberg, because - even with the separation - in both cases I got one dog who was a leader and one who was a follower. Another time I accidentally ended up with two puppies of about the same age, raised them in the same household, and at age 2 they decided they hated each other. I never had that happen with the littermates. In all 3 cases they were same-sex pairs - not sure if that matters or not. Interesting post.

  16. What a fabulous post - I'll be sharing with adopters as well.

    We've never allowed two puppies to go together the few occasions we've had puppies through the rescue - we generally avoid them due to all the WORK - and I'm not afraid to admit it. I would soooo rather rehab a dog with "issues" than train a puppy.

    For some reason after getting a puppy in January of 2009 we decided to get a second in August of that same year.

    Even this, I would not recommend. You certainly won't catch me doing it again. The two get along fine, but they will never be what we consider "friends". Whereas they both have a fabulous relationship with our oldest bitch.

    It's really quite remarkable, the dynamics that emerged - it's a noticeably different situation than any we've experienced before, and we've always housed a "pack". Somehow though, these two both going through puppy and teenage stages sometimes simultaneously really affected their relationship. I wouldn't ever trade any of our dogs - but I certainly won't be repeating the mistake in this lifetime.

    Our youngest will be two in June, so I expect the relationship to change over time. However we're taking every step to ensure that it improves rather than degrades.

    Thank you for sharing this experience.

  17. I have just come in from a horrendous private training appointment (initial consult) and sat down to catch my breath, and catch up on blog posts.

    Read this: <>

    Why, however did you know how I spent the majority of my afternoon? Off to pour the Betadine into a smaller glass...

  18. Littermates: I did that just once! I was talked into it by a friend. After a few months I got nothing but complaints about the bitch puppy. So I took her back. All the traits that her prespective owner could not handle turned out to be more than desireable---the bitch became my best brood bitch and the antecedent of a line of good working Parson Russell terriers with drive, nose, persistence and brains.

  19. Kittens in pairs. One puppy at a time. I lived by this rule and was very happy, until I (correctly) judged that I could be even happier skipping the puppy stage, and adopting an adult dog.

    It's a mystery to me why it isn't obvious to people that two puppies together will be, at best, about four times as much work and exhaustion and frustration, and a quarter the pleasure.

  20. Thank you for this post- I just forwarded to my friend who is considering adopting two pit mixes from a rescue. Hopefully this will convince her that she should NOT take both brothers home.


  21. Thank you for a most sensible and humorous post. I work in a shelter and in private rescue and know the "we want both babies, one for each of our children" sentiment very well. Just handing over a copy of your post is a much better reaction that me shrieking "no" into the abyss or banging my head against a wall. Only ONE naughty foster pup at a time in this house. lol Jez

  22. Read this just in time. Thanks.


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