German Shepherds aren’t known for their outgoing, I-love-everybody nature. In fact, the breed standard obliges them to have “a distinct personality marked by direct and fearless, but not hostile, expression, self-confidence and a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships.”
But this doesn’t mean your dog has to bark like a maniac at everyone who comes through the door, or worse, bite or threaten to bite.
The secret to success
The secret to having a German Shepherd who is safe around non-threatening strangers is teach him or her what friendly people look like. The message should be, “Everyone is friendly.” That way, if your German Shepherd meets someone who isn’t, he or she will pick up on the person’s intentions right away.
Some dogs, no matter how well socialized, are innately shy or innately suspicious. If your dog has a history of growling, snapping or lunging at strangers, do not attempt behavior modification without the opinion and/or supervision of an animal behavior professional.
Socialization to strangers should begin in puppyhood. Every person your puppy meets should be as kind and as rewarding as possible. This is not a breed that socializes itself. Early puppyhood, from 3 to 12 weeks, is a vital time in a pup’s brain development. While the breeder should have taken care to socialize your puppy until 7 or 8 weeks of age, your job isn’t through. Your puppy needs to meet at least five new friendly people per day, and take at least one trip away from home every day, as well.
If there is a subset of people your puppy seems uncomfortable with (such as young children), expose your puppy to them in a gentle, lighthearted manner. Do not allow others to pick up your puppy by the scruff of its neck, for instance, or flip it onto its back without warning. Have all strangers, children especially, feed your puppy tasty treats (even better if done in exchange for sitting politely)!
The never-ending process
Socialization for German Shepherds doesn’t stop once the puppy is 6 or 7 months. In fact, German Shepherds need regular, diligent exposure to nice and neutral strange people, places and objects until they are close to two years old! This will be a mostly painless process if you are dedicated to teaching your German Shepherd obedience and good manners — he or she can go with you everywhere!
Most German Shepherds (and other herding and guarding breeds) begin to differentiate between “strangers” and “their pack” around 7 to 8 months. This is a vital time to remind your dog that no one they meet in the course of everyday life is dangerous.
Oftentimes, a young dog will start barking at strangers or other dogs, raise its hackles, or moves away when strangers approach, seemingly overnight. If your German Shepherd has only recently started to display such behavior, and is less than a year old, chances are he or she is going through a phase in the maturation process.
Be proactive, not reactive
Even if such behavior is a phase of doggie development, it is still unacceptable to the public at large. Start listening to your young German Shepherd about what he or she is or isn’t comfortable with — and act accordingly.
If your dog seems to dislike bearded men, for instance, do not force him or her to interact with bearded men. Instead, keep your distance in a relaxed manner, and if your dog observes the man without barking or growing, praise and feed a treat. If your dog does bark or growl, you must move farther away until your dog is able to focus on you and be calm. Feed and praise the dog for looking at you, making your distance to the undesirable person closer ONLY AS THE DOG FEELS COMFORTABLE. Any signs of discomfort from the dog should be interpreted as though you are moving too fast.
Typically, a soothing laugh from you and a cookie or two given BEFORE the dog begins to react are enough to calm most young dogs’ nerves. But always, always, listen to your dog’s body language before allowing a stranger to pet the dog.
Dogs who move away from a stranger’s touch are stating in no unclear terms that they do not want to be petted. Forcing the issue could lead to a bite!
Management is key
Teach your dog a solid “go to your crate” command, using clicker training. This simple command is a wonderful way to control your dog’s access to strangers while you are at home. Teaching a down-stay can be equally effective.
Remember, not everybody loves dogs, and for those afraid of them, the sight of a grown German Shepherd can be enough to start some folks’ fear signals flowing. Teach your dog to be respectful and polite with everyone, but be prepared to remove him or her from the scene if necessary. Your friends will thank you for it!
What can you do if your five-year-old German Shepherd has been hurling himself at the door, teeth bared, every time company arrives — for years? Contact an animal behavior consultant qualified in dealing with aggression issues.