For dogs, like many other species, early experiences are critical for normal social development. The time for true socialization during which puppies will learn lessons that directly affect lifelong behavior—lasts from weeks 3 to 12. That's why it is pretty well known that puppies have the best chance for normal social development if they are allowed to be with their littermates for 7-8 weeks at least.
Due to this knowledge, it is not encouraged for puppies to be separated from their littermates or at least to not have the opportunity to get to socialize with them for the first few weeks.
One Puppy Litter
However, singleton puppies do happen, and they tend to have issues. If you ever meet a dog named Solo, Uno, or Only, the first question I consider asking is whether the dog was the only puppy in its litter, because if so, there is a suite of problems that may exist.
Of course, you can be wrong about these names. I once wrote about a dog named Solo who had some serious behavior issues, and I thought at first he must have been a singleton. However, in researching the story, I learned that the dog came from a litter of several puppies and was named after the Solo River in Indonesia where fossils of Homo erectus were first found.
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In a typical litter of three to twelve puppies, there is constant physical contact. The puppies crawl all over each other, and they are used to the warmth, the contact, the interruptions, and the movement that result from being in a pile of dogs. Unlike with Littermate Syndrome, the behavior problems of singletons are a result of them being along with little feedback and correction.
Behavior Problems with Singletons
Littermates are a puppy’s first teachers, one of several reasons that it’s beneficial for puppies to stay with their litter for about two months. As the young dogs play, they use their mouths to tug or gnaw on their siblings’ ears, tails, paws and loose skin. If one puppy mouths another too hard, the puppy who got hurt will yelp, stop playing and move away. This teaches puppies that hard bites, even if not intended to cause pain, result in an interruption in play. Singleton puppies and those taken from their litter before the age of five or six weeks often lack proper bite inhibition. Puppies need their littermates’ feedback to learn to control the pressure they exert with their mouths.
The problems that singleton puppies are prone to having are the result of not being raised in this standard puppy environment. Along with lack of bite inhibition, typical problems in singletons are being unable to get out of trouble calmly and graciously, an inability to diffuse social tension, inability to handle frustration, lack of social cues and skills, lack of impulse control, and touch sensitivity.
Raising a Singleton Puppy
If you find out that your dog is a singleton puppy early—anytime before the puppy heads to its new home particularly, there are things that can be done. Be sure to work on teaching bite inhibition early and often, and handle the puppy a lot to avoid issues with touch sensitivity. Any gentle, regular handling is likely to help. Push the puppy off the nipple once or twice a feeding to get the puppy used to interruptions and handling the resulting frustration. Have the puppy spend time with other puppies of the same age as much and as early as possible. If at all possible, consider raising the singleton puppy with another litter.
Getting to spend a lot of time with another litter lets a singleton puppy have a more typical or normal experience as a young puppy. The play time that puppies spend with each other goes a long way towards teaching puppies many of their social skills, including bite inhibition, frustration tolerance, impulse control, self control, and the ability to be flexible in all sorts of social interactions. The adorable play between puppies, which is so enjoyable to watch, is anything but light-hearted frivolous behavior—it provides puppies the foundation for normal, healthy social behavior as adults in many contexts and is a critical part of a puppy’s development and education.
I met a two-year-old singleton Irish Water Spaniel. He was full of himself, had no frustration tolerance, little self control and almost no impulse control. His issues with frustration and control led to leash aggression with other dogs. His owner, who had actually bred him, was able to turn his behavior around, but it was a huge project.
The next litter from the same female was also a solo puppy who turned out fine and totally normal, except for being a bit large for the breed, which is not unusual for singleton puppies. The owner did everything right with her second singleton puppy. She raised this puppy with a Lab litter that was only a few days different in age than the solo puppy, and did everything else I advised. She did end up spaying the breeding female after the second singleton as there was too high a risk of it happening again.
This second singleton puppy, benefiting from all the owner did to help her, was in no way behaviorally challenged like most singletons puppies are. The singleton turned out completely normal from a behavioral perspective, despite an unusual beginning and this is an amazing accomplishment.
So, if you find yourself with a singleton pup, get started right away! Work on teaching bite inhibition with your singleton early on, handle the puppy often to discourage touch sensitivity, help the puppy experience interruptions and frustration and most importantly encourage the puppy spend time with other puppies of the same age as much and as early as possible in those first 12 weeks.