The German Shepherd is one of the most well-known breeds of dog, and is easily recognised with its striking black and tan coat, big alert ears and large body size. It is no surprise that they are a very popular breed of dog, and German Shepherd puppies are always in demand. However, improper training of this intelligent and large breed of dog can result in an irritable and uncontrollable animal instead of a loved family pet. German Shepherds are widely used as police dogs, which is a testament to their extreme intelligence and willingness to learn. If you are new to teaching dogs and want to fast-track your learning, check out this online collection of teaching materials as it is a fantastic starting point. German Shepherds are confident and intelligent dogs. They are considered one of the top three dog breeds in intelligence ratings, and have the potential to learn a great number of things. This is evidenced by their common use as police dogs; they are highly trainable and particularly discriminating.
However, this intelligence can be a weakness. Because they are so clever they can easily become bored or distracted, and can also be clever enough to know what they are being asked to do, but decide not to do it – either they see no reason to obey or do not perceive there to be a good enough reward. Because they are quite picky in this way, they may not respond to someone who is not assertive or consistent enough. Being the “alpha” is highly beneficial in training a German Shepherd, as they will not obey anyone who they feel does not deserve or warrant their loyalty. A calm, firm approach is vital for your Shepherd to see you as a smart and capable leader. If you don’t step up into the role of leader, your dog will start to do it – and alpha behaviour in a large and powerful breed of dog is highly undesirable.
What to Do With a New Puppy
The earliest training that you will probably have to undertake if you have a new German Shepherd puppy is house-training, i.e. teaching your dog to do all its business outside. This can be accomplished quite quickly with a clever and responsive breed like the German Shepherd; however, the main limitation as with all puppies is their body not their brain! While a Shepherd puppy may understand that you want them to go outside, and be keen to please you, a puppy cannot hold it in as long as you might like. Thus, you should be prepared to get up through the night to let them outside, and keep a close eye on them during the day. If possible, have a doggie door installed so that your puppy can always go outside when they need to do their business. That will give them the best possible start for learning that they can never mess inside the house.
Important times to always take them out is shortly after every meal and immediately after they awake, as these are the most likely times that they will want to go to the bathroom. This will also hold over well to their adult life; if they are in the habit of going to the bathroom first thing in the morning and shortly after you feed them, this can be incorporated into your long term schedule. You should always give your German Shepherd puppy a small treat and lots of verbal praise when they complete their business outside to reinforce the behaviour.
If your puppy has an accident indoors, you can show the mess to the puppy so that they understand what you are referring to, tell them “no!” and take them outside. If they then go to the bathroom outside, a treat can be given. This positive reinforcement and gentle reprimanding will soon result in a fully house-trained young dog. Never physically punish a puppy for doing his business indoors as this can delay house-training and with a sensitive and intelligent breed like the German Shepherd, it can result in further behavioural issues along the line. This blog on effective toilet training can help if you need further information.
Teaching basic food manners and commands such as “sit” will come next when dealing with a German Shepherd puppy. A puppy will respond quickly to new information as they learn extremely well when young, and German Shepherds are extremely intelligent and enjoy learning, however a young puppy can only handle so much instruction at a time before he gets exhausted or bored. Try teaching before mealtimes for a little extra motivation – but bear in mind that your puppy will need feeding at least three times a day at first, and it is vital to give him the necessary nutrition for him to learn, so don’t withhold food from him if he doesn’t learn properly.
Teaching with treats is a great way to teach a young German Shepherd, and single pieces of their normal kibble is an effective little treat for basic training. Working on your puppy’s manners at a young age like this ensures that you don’t have an unresponsive or awkward adult dog later: for example, ensuring that your puppy waits for your approval before taking food from his bowl will avoid you having an adult German Shepherd who jumps all over you while you prepare his meals, or snaps at your hands for treats. For more information, check out this short “Polite Puppy” course, which contains lots of information for basic beginning training, specifically related to puppies.
Reward Based Training
A German Shepherd will respond particularly well to positive reinforcement. Very few dogs learn well when they are only reprimanded after a mistake or undesirable behaviour, and the Shepherd is no exception. Always teach your dog by reinforcing the behaviour you want to see, rather than punishing him when he does not get it right. Treats are the most commonly used rewards for basic training, but care should be taken when undertaking lots of training with a new puppy or even with an adult dog, as it is easy to accidentally overfeed your dog without meaning to. You can buy special low-calorie treats for training that will not impact your dog’s nutrition plan too much, or you can reduce your dog’s normal food at dinner time to compensate for the additional feeding during the training periods.
One extremely useful reward-based training method is clicker training, which links the reward of the food item with a specific sound made by a special clicker device, clicking with the mouth, or by snapping the fingers. A clicker device is most consistent and produces a loud sound quickly, so it is best to use one of these rather than making the sound manually. Associating the sound of the click with the delivery of a treat eventually results in the dog understanding that the click is a positive encouragement. It also allows the trainer to delay the giving of a treat until the task is complete; they can train long tricks that have several parts, or tasks that have the dog further away from the trainer, and use the click as positive reinforcement and then hand over the physical reward when the dog returns.
It is important to always give a treat when you click, to maintain the association between the sound and the reward. This is especially true when training German Shepherds, as they are so quick and so clever that they will easily notice when they do not receive the expected treat. This unfairness will stick with them and they will become less responsive, potentially even playing up and intentionally disobeying when they feel they have been ‘cheated’ out of a reward that they feel they earned. You can learn more with this online course on clicker training, which further explains how dogs learn and features four lectures on the principles of clicker training, which you can take and apply to your own relationship with your dog.
Care should be taken when training a German Shepherd, because they are an extremely powerful breed and often enjoy rough-and-tumble play. They should be discouraged from aggressive or boisterous play as puppies, before potentially dangerous or otherwise unsafe behaviour becomes habitual for them. While mouthing or nipping, jumping up and barging into people can be considered funny or cute when a puppy is doing it, being bitten by a fully grown German Shepherd is no laughing matter and a full sized German Shepherd dog is easily large enough to knock down and injure a child or even an adult. Training your puppy well from an early age to control any dangerous behaviour will result in a well-adjusted dog who does not accidentally injure anyone due to their size and exuberance.
It should also be noted that German Shepherd dogs have a natural guarding instinct and while this can be capitalised upon to raise them into good guardians for your family or home, it may also result in them being aggressive towards strangers, visitors to the home, other animals in the park and so on. Early socialisation of a German Shepherd puppy is absolutely vital, otherwise they can become particularly aggressive in unhealthy ways. They must be taught to understand and handle social situations, visitors and other animals in a safe and constructive way before they grow and become set in their ways.
Distracting situations such as trips to the park can be overwhelming for a younger dog or a dog who is not fully socialised, and their recall and obedience will be sorely tested when they are surrounded by new sights, sounds and smells. You need to make sure you are in complete control of your German Shepherd puppy before exposing him to this kind of environment. An unpredictable dog is a dangerous dog, and unfortunately the German Shepherd is an imposing and somewhat scary-looking breed of animal, so if your dog gets loose in the park or barks and jumps at people or other animals, he will not be well received. Take great care to invest the necessary time and effort in socialising him properly – otherwise you will be doing him a disservice.
Not only is it unfair to your dog to not give him the time and encouragement to learn how to be social, it is going to make your own life more difficult. German Shepherds are strong dogs and if you cannot control yours on a normal lead and collar, you will have to invest in a body harness and possibly a muzzle to be able to walk him safely. Early and consistent socialisation is a far better investment! Learn more about walking your dog safely and effectively with this course on Polite Leash Walking, which contains twelve lectures to help you teach your dog to walk calmly on a loose-leash and not pull you around.
Something to bear in mind when training your German Shepherd is that they bond very closely with their family, and so they may suffer from separation anxiety when they are left, perhaps because they feel responsible for protecting the family and cannot do that when you are not present! Dogs with separation anxiety may bark or whine, scratch at the walls or doors or even pee in the room where they are left. Correctly managing this is crucial. Forming a close bond with your German Shepherd as a puppy and instilling in them a loyalty to you as their “pack leader” is a good thing overall, but can also result in problems when you then want to leave them – for example, to go to work or to the shops. This is only natural really, when you look at it from this point of view, but it’s certainly not ideal.
However, some methods that seem to improve the behaviour actually makes it worse. Making a fuss of your German Shepherd when you return home actually rewards their anxiety and increases their stress next time you leave. You feel sorry for them when they are “sad” that you have left them, so you pay extra attention and maybe even lavish treats on them to make them feel better, but this only results in your German Shepherd learning that barking and whining when you leave gets him special treatment when you return. Remember how clever your dog is! While it may seem cruel, leaving your dog alone to work through his stress and entertain himself with his toys or lie down for a nap can actually be a better plan. Do not fuss or pander to him when you have to leave, make a minimum of fuss and just leave; return with the same lack of fanfare and only acknowledge your dog when he is calm and patient. If your dog becomes agitated by a certain cue (such as you putting on your shoes) then break the cycle of stress by doing the trigger action but not actually leaving.
This all stems back to obedience and discipline, which must be learnt from a very young age. A German Shepherd puppy should be confident and calm when you are there, and when you are not there. Training him to accept your leadership and really internalise your training will minimise the chances that he becomes panicky or stressed when he has no guidance from you (i.e. when you are absent) – habit will kick in and he will carry out the behaviour that you expect even when you are absent, and knowing that he has done it will be its own reward for him. He will grow into a well-adjusted and calm adult dog. More tips and tricks on separation anxiety can be found in this blog on Puppy Separation Anxiety.
Next Steps in Training
Your German Shepherd may enjoy advanced training, such as learning tricks, because of the natural intelligence and eagerness of the breed. Interacting with your dog in this way can provide a great outlet for his energy. Mental stimulation is just as fulfilling for a clever dog as long walks or a good run is, and a bored dog can become disruptive or unruly. Teaching your dog tricks is something that you can do at home with no investment in equipment or training space; you can learn together in your house, garden or at the park. Start with basic tricks, such as balancing a treat on your dog’s nose and having him wait until you say he can have it.
You can then make progress in any direction that you choose – you can go for “party tricks” that will entertain you, your friends and your family, or more functional tricks to benefit you around the house, such as advanced retrieval. As always, exercise caution when teaching your dog things that might seem cute or entertaining as a puppy but actually result in unwanted future behaviours. This course in beginner tricks contains instructions for 8 fun tricks to work through with your dog, with 24 video lectures to help you and your dog get the hang of each trick quickly and efficiently.
Another outlet for your dog’s creative and intelligent side is agility or flyball training, both of which the average German Shepherd dog takes well to. If you or your dog are not so interested in learning tricks, and prefer to be more active, finding a local agility course on which you can practice could be a great way for you both to burn off steam and bond together. Many kennel clubs or similar breed groups have affiliated agility clubs which you can take your dog along to, providing you have already done the necessary obedience groundwork to ensure that your dog can behave himself in a busy environment surrounded by other dogs, noises and movement.
If you want to be less active yourself, but still get your dog moving around in an active way, flyball might be the better option. In flyball, teams of dogs race each other across a line of hurdles, to then catch a ball sprung from a box, and then back to their owner. There are four dogs to a team and they run in relay. This is a fantastic way of getting your dog a lot of exercise and allowing him to burn off steam, and also tests his ability to follow commands in an exciting situation. As with agility classes and groups, flyball sessions are advanced and should only be attended when you are sure that your dog can handle himself around other dogs. It will be a strong test of your prior training, as you can only win at flyball if the whole team of dogs finish without any errors – although beginners are given some leeway, it is a team sport and mistakes let everyone down.
In summation, training your German Shepherd is, at its most basic, no different than training any other dog – it is necessary for all dogs and this applies to German Shepherds too. However, bearing in mind the specific personality traits and needs of the German Shepherd will produce much faster and much greater results, and so you should always try to tailor your training to suit your dog. Always keep at the forefront of your mind that your German Shepherd is particularly clever and has a good memory, and that things you do will affect him in both the short and the long term. Avoid any actions that reinforce negative behaviours, provide plenty of stimulation and exercise, and remain consistent in rewarding and encouraging positive behaviours and overall you should have a happy, healthy Shepherd.
This online course in advanced Clicker Training contains instructions for over 25 tricks that you and your dog can try out together, if you want to start making progress with your German Shepherd today.