Five brothers and sisters crowd into a quaint yellow house on a chilly February afternoon for the most unorthodox of family reunions. The festivities seem familiar: A banner decorates the doorway, food is laid out on the dining-room table, and parents struggle to take group pictures.
But there are no hugs exchanged, no cheek-pinching from Grandma. Instead, the guests run around in circles, lick each other’s faces and get personal with their sniffing snouts. This party has gone to the dogs.
“When you first say, ‘I’m having a [reunion] party for my dog,’ people look at you like you’re that crazy dog lady. But when you explain it to them, people think it’s cool,” said Allison Rase, one of five adopters who helped organize this reunion — a first birthday party for her rescued pit bull mix, Lucy, and four of the dog’s siblings.
Pets are often considered a part of the family — but what about their real family? Thanks to social media and dedicated pet-rescue groups, more dog owners are attempting to reconnect their pooches with long-lost litter mates.
While it might sound extreme, adopters say socializing a dog with other four-legged playmates — especially their siblings — can have a positive impact on both animal and owner. For the humans in this equation, the reunions breed trust among protective owners who are concerned about all aspects of their dogs’ lives.
Jenn Fadal, a pet wellness expert from Tampa, Fla., said she’s seeing an uptick in the number of clients reuniting their furry companions with brothers and sisters. How does this happen? Often a rescue organization will help bridge the gap. About nine out of 10 people who get their dog from Secondhand Hounds want to share their contact information with adopters from the same litter, said Rachel Mairose, founder of the Edina-based rescue group. Mairose said she’s happy to play the go-between.
Secondhand Hounds is the reason Lucy’s litter was reunited this month. At the party in north Minneapolis, Harlow, one of Lucy’s sisters, raced into the house, snuck a piece of bread off the counter, then dashed outside to wrestle with Sonny, another sister.
“I love watching them play because I know the story,” said Suzanne Berg, Sonny’s “mom.”
For the owners, the reunion is a true celebration — a happy ending for a litter of puppies that started out in life with many strikes against them.
The pups were almost euthanized at a crowded shelter in Missouri last year after being found, motherless, along a highway. Secondhand Hounds rescued the puppies and placed them in various homes throughout the Twin Cities.
“I’m a momma now,” Berg, 41, said of Sonny.
It’s no secret that many dog owners treat their pets like children. Fadal, the wellness expert, said it’s only natural for dog parents to seek out friends for their “children.” Especially when those playmates are siblings.
“They just picked up where they left off,” Rase, 28, said.
Rase, who lives in St. Louis Park, adopted Lucy — one of three chocolate-brown pups. Normally shy and cautious, Lucy barreled into the back yard when she saw her brothers and sisters.
Like proud parents, the owners pointed out the dogs’ striking similarities and noticeable differences. Lucy and Harlow are uncontrollable lickers; their barks sound identical. Roman and Weston love to cuddle. Weston is the odd one out with his curly tail.
“We are all very different,” said Berg, of Minneapolis. “But we all love our dogs the same.”
That shared love builds trust within a group of near-strangers. Rase used to travel three hours so her fiancé’s mother could watch Lucy. She didn’t trust anyone else. Now the protective parent needs to drive only 20 minutes to drop off Lucy with one of her siblings.
“That’s a crazy thing for me,” she said.
Finding pet friends online
Just as Facebook has allowed Grandma to better connect with her tech-savvy grandchildren, the social network has had an integral role in bringing dog families together.
Several times a year, Eileen Hill helps plan play dates for her black lab, Millie, and two of the dog’s siblings, Teeny and Stanley. It’s like a “Mommy and Me” group, she said.
Initially, Hill connected with the litter’s other black lab owners on Facebook after tagging photos of their dogs. Facebook made it easy to share pictures and reach out to each other on a daily basis.
“We’re crazy dog people,” said Hill, of Lake Elmo.
The women turn to each other for clues on how to fix an upset dog stomach. They support each other on anniversaries of former pet passings. They come together over advocacy issues dealing with animal mistreatment.
“It’s a friendship like no other I’ve ever had,” Hill said.
By her estimation, Fadal said, only a small percentage of pet owners are actively exploring their dog’s family tree. But with rescue groups active on Facebook and other social media, it’s getting easier to track down a dog sibling. Some owners even set up Facebook profiles for their dogs.
“I think it’s going to be this viral thing,” Fadal said.
Facebook helped the group of pit bull-mix adopters organize and plan the reunion in north Minneapolis. Within hours of leaving the party, they were back on Facebook, sharing photos and chatting about their dogs. For Berg, who hosted the reunion at her house, there’s nothing like seeing Sonny playing tug-of-war with her sisters.
“We want the best for them,” she said. “I think her being with her litter mates is the best for her. It’s her family.”
Morgan Mercer is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.