The problems With Labeling Your Dog


Labels don’t help

And they might hurt…

A recent post in a Facebook group prompted me to write this. Two puppies being raised together were fighting. Based on very little information, a surprising number of people jumped in and proclaimed this to be Littermate Syndrome and prescribed rehoming one of the dogs as the only possible solution.

But here’s the thing...Littermate Syndrome isn’t even a real thing. And dogs aren’t stubborn. And they don’t try to “dominate” humans. I’ll bet we can come up with a long list of words that people use to label their dogs which do very little to help - and often hurt - the case at hand.

For instance, dogs aren’t stubborn. They may be untrained or not motivated (or perhaps something more worrisome like ill and in pain). When we label a dog as stubborn, it’s reasonable to see the dog as the adversary and then it’s justifiable to treat them accordingly. But we know better. Instead, we examine our techniques, up our motivation game, or seek help from someone more qualified. Or at least that’s what we should do.

When we label problems with two young dogs as “having Littermate Syndrome,” we absolve ourselves from the responsibility to fix problems that humans created and can (perhaps) resolve.

Imagine if I went out this weekend and adopted two dozen dogs of various ages, breeds, and behavior problems and brought them into my small house and provided insufficient exercise and training. I’ll bet you can imagine all sorts of problems popping up. I might get resource guarding, same sex aggression, house soiling regression, fear-related aggression, and more. These things might really be expected as outcomes of my ill-advised dog-buying spree. We might give it a name so others can better understand it and avoid making the same mistake. How about: Weekend Dog Collection Syndrome? We’d tell people that all is lost and there’s no way to make this work. Of course, we’d tell people the only solution is to rehome most of the dogs.

And, honestly, that’s not horrible advice. I’m probably not equipped to handle two dozen dogs at all - and certainly not all at once. And, shelters, rescues, and breeders shouldn’t have played a part by providing me with all those dogs all at once.

But what if I told you that I had a large kennel, lots of land with various exercise options, a staff, and tons of experience handling a wide variety of problem dogs at once? (I don’t - but let’s pretend for a minute.) Now do you think I have a chance of helping these dogs? I think maybe. No guarantees of course. But I’d have a fighting chance.

Shelters and rescues around the world do this routinely (albeit temporarily for each individual dog) and I so admire their work.

See the problem isn’t the dogs. The problem is my ability to address their individual needs.

Now, I’m not likely ever going to be in a position to help two dozen dogs by taking them all in at once. And I’m not likely going to be able to responsibly raise two healthy active puppies at the same time either. But not because of any syndrome (which sort of places the responsibility of the problems on the dogs) but because of my own limitations.

I know lots of people who could raise two puppies at once (and some have). Littermate Syndrome isn’t a 50/50 proposition if you’re ready. And when bumps in the road happen (as happens with every puppy, right?) all is not lost and rehoming one of the dogs isn’t the only solution.

No, breeders, rescues, and shelters shouldn’t allow most people to take home two puppies - most of us aren’t prepared (I suspect, though I don’t have statistics for that guess). But if they do, all is not necessarily lost.

We need to do away with labels which put the problem “inside the dog” (as Dr. Susan Friedman) says. Instead, we should focus on our ability to address issues we might expect will pop up when raising two puppies (or two dozen dogs) who have individual needs.

One other thought…

We should stop giving pat answers to people facing issues.

My life has been very busy lately. Sometimes, I’ve been too busy to give good answers in Facebook groups. Watching sweeping statements come in about “Littermate Syndrome” (like, “it will get worse” or “most dogs in this situation end up in a shelter”), I realized that I might be doing a disservice to people by giving incomplete answers. Perhaps we’d be better off not answering at all instead of providing such sweeping statements. I’m going to try to do better.

Tim SteeleComment