It is easy to understand how and why a singleton puppy would or could develop into being a dominant dog. Why not? The singleton puppy never had any littermates around to dissuade this notion. The singleton will always be the only being in his or her universe (other than Mom), unless he or she is fortunate enough to join a foster litter. Sans a foster litter, it is extremely important that Mom be vigilant, patient, and a stern boundary-setter/disciplinarian, as should also any other dogs (teenaged or adult) sharing the singleton’s household. Interaction and how it is done by and with Mom, as well as with any other adults in the household, is extremely important. This interaction teaches the puppy pack-behavior: about dominance (alpha territory), how to play and socialize with other dogs, and how to have ears, tail, and legs bitten in play; and how limits are established—for example, for biting in play and pack pecking-order.
This type of pack behavior/play helps dispel some of the “dominant singleton” potential problems. Littermates as well as adult dogs set these limits and teach the puppy by yelping, and/or growling and play fighting. It is the owner’s job to set limits in these areas as well, by yelping if bitten too hard, and so on. This is the case with any puppy, but is far more important with a singleton. If no other dog(s) and/or people intrude on the singleton’s universe to set limits, the singleton could grow up to be a real terror to live with and a nightmare to train.
What seems to be a universal personality trait for singletons is the fear of being “enclosed.” That can mean being hugged, crated, and/or cornered. This fear makes sense: From the time of conception, the singleton had no other being surrounding them. Littermates would have “crowded” or touched them in the womb. They would have been pushed against or enclosed before and after birth as they nursed and piled together for warmth.
To lessen this fear with Reigna, I used two small, stuffed black-and-tan toy dogs. I would push against Reigna as she nursed, enclose/surround her with more stuffed animals, and push her around. It was the concept of being pushed, crowded, and enclosed that I was trying to simulate.
The biggest problem I had with my first singleton was in training. Once you are the “boss” of your universe, so you shall remain, unless someone or something intrudes. It takes a special owner-trainer to recognize the needs of a singleton in training, to make the proper “intrusion.” I am not speaking of housebreaking-type training or simple obedience. I am speaking of more formal, serious training, like fieldwork or formal training in obedience, rally, agility, tracking, and so on. Gordons can be stubborn anyway, but a singleton will often just quit (have a “tantrum”) and walk away with nose in the air if things are not done their way.
Luckily, training issues were overcome with Reigna. She earned her Amateur Field Championship, was a few points shy of her Dual Championship, and became a real star in obedience and rally. Had I realized her talents earlier, I was told she could have been an OTCH. Our “clicking” happened once I understood how to deal with her particular singleton issues. However, she would work only for me and no one else. I can only guess that happened because I had discovered the key to unlock her desire to work for me (as with any dog—but far more important, and difficult, with a singleton).
Having an overweight singleton can easily happen, being the only pup at the dinner-for-eight milk bar. Monitoring eating is extremely important. Being overweight can cause permanent hip and joint damage as well as creating the potential for being a flat or swimmer pup. This potentially deadly condition happens when small legs cannot get under the overweight puppy body to allow the puppy to get up on leg or even lie on his side. The swimmer appears to be moving around—and indeed is, but not normally. They “swim,” with all limbs “paddling,” but they are not up on leg to start the wobbly movements of trying to walk. They can only lie on their stomach. If caught early, a singleton will be perfectly normal. If not, however, being a swimmer can threaten the proper development of ribs, heart, and lungs if the pup can’t get up on leg to relieve body pressure on the chest and abdominal area. The pup will look totally flat on the dorsal side; this can be visible as early as 4 to 5 days of age. Some vets recommend euthanizing a swimmer, which is certainly not necessary; how to save a swimmer or flat puppy will be the subject of another column.
—C.R.G. (January 2015), Gordon Setter Club of America