Q: My German shepherd has been growling at me when I go to put on his harness. He fusses when I put it on, but lately he’s been more of a handful, and I have to struggle to get it on him. I’m worried he might bite me.

Owning a dog, especially a German shepherd, that you’re afraid might bite you is no fun. You are asking the right question — dogs growl to warn us that if we persist in our behavior, they may bite.

Being afraid of your German shepherd is an emergency.

Besides the fear of injury for yourself or family members (or liability, should your dog bite someone else), when you’re afraid to interact with your dog because you might be bitten, your German shepherd is at risk for physical neglect and worsening behavior.

First things first:

  1. Consult your veterinarian. Unless you cannot physically handle your dog to get him or her to the vet, schedule an appointment to have your dog physically examined. Let the vet and vet techs know the reason for your visit, so they can take appropriate precautions when handling your dog. It is not unusual for pain to cause a dog to behave aggressively, and you should rule this out before pursuing any training program or behavior modification.
  2. Enlist a behavior consultant to help you evaluate your dog’s behavior. A Certified Dog Behavior Consultant can help you determine the seriousness of the problem, and recommend appropriate behavior modification. Avoid dog trainers who suggest you punish or correct your dog — this can make aggressive behavior worse.
  3. Train your dog to wear a muzzle. When your dog is used to wearing a muzzle, he or she can be safely restrained for nail trims, baths, or medical procedures.

Your next job is to learn about dog body language. When you know the signs of a dog who is feeling uncomfortable or on the offensive, you can better protect yourself and others against a bite. There are many resources online, and sites such as Dogwise.com and Tawzerdog.com offer videos and instruction on defensive handling and dog bite safety:

The more you know, the better you will be able to determine whether your German shepherd is a threat to yourself or others, and to take steps to remedy the problem. Maybe your dog has been acting especially rowdy lately, or has growled at you over a bone or a special resting place. Perhaps you have trouble getting your GSD back into his crate, or away from the door when people arrive.

Some areas in which German shepherds sometimes need help and training include:

  • Resource guarding: Not allowing a person near a favorite resting place or object.
  • Body handling: Growling or snapping during grooming, nail clipping, brushing, ear cleaning or bathing.
  • Over-excitement: Displaying aggressive behavior during exciting moments, such as when people come to the door.
  • Fighting with another dog: Intentionally pursuing another dog in the house or neighborhood with the intent to do the other dog harm.

Remember: If you are worried about your German shepherd’s behavior, you are not alone. Talk to your veterinarian, and find a trainer or behavior consultant who can help you sort out your dog’s behavior, before it’s too late.

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