Good Dog

Sibling Rivalry

The yin and yang of a pair of littermates turns out to be just the right mix of crazy

Photo: John Cuneo

A couple of years ago, my husband and I lost two of our three dogs within months of each other and swore that we needed a lot of time to pass. Zeno, a Bulgarian shepherd, had filled the yard with his large body and deep baritone bark. He was always on patrol and threatened by nothing; snakes and possums and raccoons were all commonplace catches. If coyotes yipped, his loud response silenced them. And yet, he could also catch a songbird in his big soft mouth and then gently place it down where he could study its terrified little body until one of us distracted him while the other lifted the relieved bird to a safe spot. Rufus, a red border collie and probably the most soulful and intelligent dog either of us has ever known—and we’ve both known quite a few—was nearly human, his eyes seeming to read our thoughts, his loyalty unflinching. 

There would never be another Rufus; his loss was overwhelming. And there definitely would never be another Zeno, a guy who might have been a dangerous hit man had he not been raised by devoted, working-to-please border collies. We agreed that we could never replace them, and still, within days it seems we started talking about dogs, something that filled me with guilt, the widow with a fridge full of casseroles already logging on to But it would be too hard to have another border collie on the heels of Rufus. And Zeno? Already critters were creeping in closer and closer to the henhouse. So what about Bernese mountain dogs—a similar size to Zeno and known to be sweet and loving? Big barks, but what they really want is to sit as close to you as possible while you drink hot cocoa and pretend you’re in the Alps.

Tom went while I was away and found Lena. He sent me a photo of the whole litter, adorable Bernese pups, Lena front and center and leaning into the camera, and then there was this little one that looked like a panda with a big white head and one blue eye. The breeders thought they had a home for him, but before leaving, Tom couldn’t help but put his name on the list as backup should it fall through. Lena came home and got used to things, quickly making friends with Frankie. Frankie is a labradoodle, who is fine as long as she’s in charge and no one goes near her bowl or sits in what she thinks is her chair or her bed or touches any of her toys. Lena physically outgrew her in a couple of weeks but remained submissive and still is. They were a great pair, but we kept thinking about the little odd guy with one blue eye, Luke. That was his litter name. He was Luke and Lena was Leia, though sadly the Force was not with him; he seemed more Chewie—a different species from a peaceful planet. 

It wasn’t long before we got the backup call. Tom went and got Luke and we changed his name to Blue, and if there was ever a dog deserving of that well-used name, it was this guy. His sad droopy Saint Bernard eyes require drops, and on top of that he is completely deaf. He was born without good muscle control—what is often called a swimmer pup—and his legs would slide out from his body, leaving him sprawled like a little bear rug and then struggling to get back up. He was a big clumsy ball of white fur, enormous slue-footed front paws, and tightly bound back legs that didn’t bend. We regularly bicycled his floppy limbs while Lena and Frankie zoomed and ran circles all around him. Frankie seemed to know instinctively to go easy on him, sometimes looking at me as if to ask: What’s going on with him? If he ever felt left out or shunned, it didn’t show. He outgrew everyone quickly and developed his own gait—a full-fledged giant bunny hop that these days is very fast. We tend to think that he might not exist as he currently does without the care and attention of his sister. She runs and wakes him when something exciting is going on; they eat side by side, sleep head to head. 

When they were spayed and neutered, I splurged and bought the comfy blow-up cones only to have him pop hers and her pop his within the first ten minutes. Then it was back to the old heavy plastic kill-your-shins-and-break-lampscones, and though it took them longer to spring each other, they could do it. We went through seven cones, nine if you count the inflatable ones.

Though I have not witnessed these two all through the night, I can only imagine they have their own routines. Blue often goes to bed filthy—his big white face covered in dirt, head haloed in a cloud of dust like Pigpen from Peanuts—only to greet us in the morning with a clean face and a big happy smile. It’s as if he gets sent out to the dry cleaner every night, but we suspect it is the work of his sister to groom him before bed. In exchange, he follows and does whatever she does all day long.

Their devotion to each other is sweet, but having both can also be a challenge. They love to lean in close, sometimes as if they can’t get close enough. When they double up for a lean, that’s 220 pounds, which if you’re not expecting it is certainly enough to knock you over, which they think is a game. My experience is that once down, it might take a little time to get back up, and most definitely clothes need to be changed. I have now read many articles about Littermate Syndrome and the overattachment the dogs often have, everything done in stereo. Lena and Blue are a textbook case. 

Lena’s athletic body allows her to run and do things Blue can’t always achieve—though he happily hops right along behind her as long as he can. If they were human, we might say that she has outgrown him and needs some relief from her responsibilities. Lately, Tom has started taking her on little field trips. She loves to ride in his truck, and though Blue wanted to go the first time, he now seems content to watch her leave and spends the time dozing near the driveway while he waits for her return. Then, on her arrival, they joyfully greet each other as if it’s been days. Her daily outings are the equivalent of the teenage daughter getting her own phone and being connected to a life beyond the mother ship. And though people meeting him for the first time think he’s elderly—more Obi-Wan Kenobi than Luke—he definitely functions as the devoted younger sibling. While she’s off running and sightseeing, he is chasing the falling leaves, hopping and biting at imaginary flies, and rubbing against our legs with the hope we might lift him up for a hug. Being hugged is his favorite thing of all.  

Our getting them might have been a little impulsive. And now we know that many would have warned us against getting littermates. But we’ve decided their joyful affection is worth it. It’s double the pounds, double the work, the food, the barks, and the enormous paw prints, but we’re glad we did it. And when they come barreling up to greet us—all 220 pounds—the Force is definitely with us all.