German Shepherds are notorious for telling everyone in a group training class what they think, typically by barking — loudly — at people and other dogs.
If you’ve been in this situation, then you know how embarrassing or frightening it can be, especially when the other dog owners give you dirty or fearful looks and the trainer implies (or outright tells you) your dog is “aggressive.”
Photo by Raveller
Is Your Dog Aggressive?
First, let’s break this down a bit. Lots and lots of dogs are “reactive” on leash. “Reactive” is dog trainers’ lingo for a dog that barks, growls or lunges in response to exciting stimuli — people, other dogs, cats, squirrels, and the like. Often these “reactive” dogs are perfectly fine off-leash with people and other dogs.
Dogs use aggressive displays, such as barking, lunging and growling, to let us know they are uncomfortable with the situation at hand. Clearly, these displays are unacceptable in modern-day society, and if we don’t react appropriately, our dogs can transition from threatening displays to actual bites. However, in most cases, the dogs are content to announce their presence, so to speak, and we must teach them to be calm in the face of exciting or fear-inducing stimuli.
NOTE: Be wary of a trainer who tells you your dog is aggressive and then proceeds to show you how to physically punish the dog to control the aggressive behavior. With a dog who is merely reactive, this will create even more problems. With a truly aggressive dog, physical corrections are likely to lead to someone being bitten!
A dog who poses a prominent danger to people or other dogs typically responds differently than an insecure or reactive dog. These dogs might:
- Appear to be on the “offensive” rather than “defensive” — ears forward, mouth and whiskers forward, standing on their “tiptoes” with tails raised;
- Give hard, unwavering stares to the object of their aggression and are not easily dissuaded;
- Wait until the “last minute” to lunge or attempt an attack;
- Have caused another dog to receive veterinary attention as the result of a fight, or have broken skin on a human;
- Become excited and agitated (can be silent or with high-pitched crying) at the sight of strangers, children, smaller dogs and/or cats.
If your dog displays any of these signs, he or she is NOT safe to have in class and should continue private lessons with an animal behavior consultant experienced in dealing with aggressive behavior issues.
Strategies for Dealing With Barking in Class
First, is there a way for you to physically leave the training area with your dog (another room, down the hall, outside the door, etc.) each and every time your dog starts to bark? Doing so will give your dog the opportunity to calm down instead of continuing to be excited by the sight of other dogs.
Second, most dogs enjoy working with you and getting treats, so if all the fun (fun = seeing the other dogs, getting treats and your attention) stops when he barks, he’ll have to pick another strategy. In other words, it becomes HIS responsibility to stay quiet, not yours to correct the barking.
Third, position your body so you are in front of your dog during class, blocking his view of and access to the other dogs. Do NOT let him sniff or interact with the other dogs without your or the instructor’s permission; and get comfortable asking classmates to keep their dogs from making eye contact with yours. Eye contact is the first precursor to staring, which leads to barking. And of course, you’ll be doing everything in your power to keep your dog focused on you.
If you are thinking you will get very little obedience training done and lots of time out in the hallway with these methods, you are correct! But this is valuable training for your dog.
Ask the instructor if you can repeat the class as many times as it takes to make this work (and if he’s a smart dog, which most German Shepherds are, it shouldn’t take a terribly long time).
So, it looks like this: Dog barks, you immediately start pretending he doesn’t exist and go back the hall/into other room/out of the building. Once he is quiet, can focus on you and perform a sit (or other simple behavior), he comes back inside. Barking = process repeats. If you manage to get inside and have more than two seconds of quiet, reward HEAVILY and keep him busy! Chances are this means you’re not doing what the rest of the class is doing, but that’s OK!
This method works outdoors as well, provided you can get your dog out of sight of whatever it is he finds so enthralling until he settles down.
See “There’s Money In Dogs… Well, Sort Of,” for similar ideas.