Can I train my German Shepherd to protect me?

Personal protection training for your GSD

If you are interested in protection training for your German Shepherd, here’s what you need to know before you start.

Know your GSD’s temperament

If you are purchasing a puppy, question the breeder carefully about protection titles in the pedigree, whether the breeder personally knows any of the dogs holding those titles, or has seen those dogs perform in person.

The best thing to do is contact a few breeders of German Shepherds who do protection work, and get an idea of what they usually have available.

Breeders can also keep you on a waiting list for a younger adult, if you are OK skipping the puppy stage and cost isn’t as much of an issue.

Thinking of protection training your German Shepherd?

If you already have a German Shepherd, and are interested in training your dog for protection work, you can still start your research by looking at your dog’s pedigree for information. Does your dog have many relatives with Schutzhund/IPO or other protection sport titles? If not, having your dog evaluated by a professional dog trainer who is experienced in protection work is a must.

Dog protection training involves bite training and agitation. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  1. Schutzhund, or any kind of protection training requires a dog with a generally friendly, outgoing and stable attitude to avoid teaching or triggering unwanted aggression;
  2. Protection training must be started carefully, to avoid teaching or triggering unwanted aggressive behavior;
  3. All protection training introduces more liability for the dog’s owner.

What’s involved in protection training GSDs   

Before you begin

First, get your dog’s veterinarian’s OK, as well as a professional dog trainer’s opinion on your German Shepherd’s suitability for protection work. Second, sign up for obedience training classes. See our online basic manners course. Or, visit apdt.com to locate a professional dog trainer near you.

Time

Make sure you have time in your schedule to add training to your dog care regimen. A fully trained personal protection German Shepherd Dog can cost upwards of $5,000. The high price tag is the result of hours that have gone into that dog’s training. Unless you are planning to purchase a fully trained adult German Shepherd, plan on putting in the hours needed to create a solid protection partner.

Taking care of your dog

While you should always strive to provide a healthy, comfortable life for your German Shepherd, this is even more important for a dog you expect to remain alert and athletic. A personal protection-trained German Shepherd needs to be free from disease, illness, or parasites. She shouldn’t have poor nutrition or grooming problems that might keep her from protecting you in an emergency.

Liability (a.k.a. understanding people’s expectations of your GSD)      

The general public will expect your protection-trained German Shepherd to be friendly with everyone who wants to pet him. Your dog’s attitude must be friendly enough to handle even the strangest-looking stranger, unless you tell him otherwise.

You will need to make sure that your German Shepherd is appropriately confined. I once witnessed a protection-trained German Shepherd get loose in a neighborhood, and attack a woman in a wheelchair. This situation is not only unacceptable from a public safety standpoint, but could open you up to tremendous liability, if that was your dog.

Dog sports with a personal protection training element

Find qualified help

If you are protection training your German Shepherd, the first step is to find a training club with experienced people to help you. You not only need an experienced trainer — you will need good helpers as well.

What’s a helper? A helper (or decoy) is the guy in the “bite suit” (helpers are often, but not always, men) who is ready to “catch” your dog as your dog learns the proper technique for biting the “bad guy.”

Dave Kroyer gives you the rundown on what a good helper/decoy actually does, and why they’re so important.

Controlling your protection dog

“Drive” is a word protection dog trainers often use to describe a dog’s preferred activity level, and responsiveness to a handler’s cues. The simplest way to explain it is that your German Shepherd needs a lot of exercise and mental stimulation.

Playing fetch and tug are terrific activities for your GSD. (Read how to play tug the right way in Jean Donaldson’s book, “The Culture Clash.”) Also, using a flirt pole/toy combo is great way to exercise your German Shepherd. Any of these games can be used to help teach her self-control. Another helpful activity is clicker training. You can use a clicker to teach your GSD to climb agility obstacles will keep her mind and body in great shape.

Your German Shepherd should have basic obedience training before beginning any personal protection work.

Before hiring a protection dog trainer

Many personal protection dog trainers still use tools designed to hurt your dog, to get the dog to release the helper after a bite. This can include, but is not limited to, shock collars, “stim” collars, electronic collars (e-collars), prong collars, slip collars, and more. Sometimes trainers will tell you that it is impossible to train the dog to release following a bite, without hurting him.

The truth is that such trainers don’t yet know how to train the dog another way. Choose a trainer who is skilled using humane methods to teach a release. This requires work on your part.

Ask questions about how specifically the trainer will teach the dog to “out” after a bite. If the trainer uses any of the tools listed above, ask what happens to the dog if he refuses to let go after the first small shock or leash tug.

Read more about Training Police Dogs and Military Dogs Using Positive Methods, from Whole Dog Journal.

Resources to get a protection-trained German Shepherd

Web sites

Posidog.org
Fenzidogtrainingacademy.com
PSAk9.org

Books

Der Schutzhund – The Protection Dog, Helmut Raiser
K9 Aggression Control: Teaching the “Out”, Stephen A. Mackenzie
K9 Schutzhund Training, Resi Gerritsen and Ruud Haak
Purely Positive Dog Training, Sheila Booth
Schutzhund Obedience – Training in Drive, Sheila Booth
Dog Sports Skills Series, 1-4, Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones

Choosing toys for your German Shepherd

Most German Shepherds take their play seriously — so it’s up to us to find toys that satisfy this powerful play drive, are safe, and last more than 20 seconds once the dog starts using them!

My German Shepherds love fetch above all games, so toys that feed this frenzy are the ones I gravitate toward. Soft latex or plush toys aren’t suitable for most adult shepherds (although some German Shepherds, females especially, enjoy carrying around a fleecy toy like it’s a puppy). Stuffed animals, particularly those with squeakers, tend to be disemboweled after only minutes of playing fetch, and latex ones are torn apart even faster.

Besides fetch, a game of tug with me or another dog makes my German Shepherds’ list of all-time fun activities, so knotted rope bones, strong rubber tug toys or large plastic bones are in the toy box.

My first criteria when choosing a toy is “Will it last more than five minutes?” If the answer is yes, then the toy likely passes the safety test, as well (no word on dog toys recalled from China). The second is, “Will my dog play with it?” Toy-treat combinations, such as products made from rawhide, might be enjoyed, but unless I use them for hide ‘n’ seek, only the dogs’ jaws will be exercised! Outside of treats shaped like toys, German Shepherds are usually happy to make a toy from anything, but it’s important to start teaching your German Shepherd early in puppy hood which objects are his and which objects belong to you.

Here are four of my favorite German Shepherd toys:


If ever a toy was designed specifically for German Shepherd Dogs, the Kong Company has made it happen. The Extreme Black Kong toy is made for hard chewers and can withstand more abuse than its red counterpart. If you have one of those rare German Shepherds who does not enjoy chasing or chewing the Kong, stuff it full of canned food and freeze — Voila! A doggie Popsicle!


The Jawz disc by Hyperflite is an extremely durable disc that flies just like a regular one. My large male German Shepherd will destroy a regular plastic disc in one 20-minute play session. Although puppies and young dogs should not jump to catch discs until their growth plates have closed, you can begin teaching German Shepherds of any age how to grab short tosses and snatch rollers off the ground.


The Buster Cube is one of my go-tos for occupying busy German Shepherd Dogs on rainy days. Like the Kong, you can fill it with treats (or kibble — I feed my dogs their meals this way), and it stands up to harsh treatment. The hard plastic outside is great for a dog who loves to pound toys with his paws, and stands up well to harsh treatment.


Jute tug toys are a must for big dogs who like to play tug. I particularly like the double-handled version of this toy, which gives the person a better grip. Be sure to follow the rules for tug when playing this game with your GSD!

When can I stop training my German Shepherd?

You’re helping your German Shepherd learn a few new behaviors, and you’re starting to think of ways to reward your dog for polite behavior. This is great! It means the more new cues and tricks your GSD learns, the more freedom you have to enjoy each other’s company, instead of constantly battling for the responses you each want.

But what about those times you’re not in “training mode”? When can you just be done training?

I’ll answer this question in two parts. First, every interaction you have with your German Shepherd is, in fact, training. Although we can and should set aside a little time each day to work with our dogs, it’s impossible to be with your dog and not be training. Either you are training your dog, or your dog is training you!

Second, this means it’s up to you to maintain your German Shepherd’s training. You can do this by learning to anticipate your dog’s response to a variety of situations. That way, you can plan your response to your German Shepherd’s behavior.

Let’s say you’re about to walk your trained German Shepherd past another house. The house has a dog barking behind a fence. First, anticipate your dog’s response: Will he pull on the lead to get closer to the other dog? Will he bark? Now, plan your response: You could change your walking route, thereby avoiding the other dog; you could cross the street well before you reach that spot and feed your dog as you walk past, to build your dog’s confidence; or you could play a game of tug with your dog as you walk by that spot.

Any of these might be good responses, depending on your dog’s typical reaction in that situation. You can probably think of more solutions to this problem that allow you to anticipate and respond to your dog’s reaction before a reaction occurs. As your dog becomes more comfortable following your lead in even distracting situations, you are ready to lessen your reliance on a plan and replace it with the new habit!

A perfect example of this concept is teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash. Before your next walk with your dog, you can anticipate that your dog will pull. You haven’t trained him not to pull yet! Your plan will be to use a head halter, no-pull harness or similar tool to prevent pulling on everyday walks. We use these tools to manage our dog’s behavior and protect our hard work training our GSDs, in between training sessions.

Teach your German Shepherd a great recall

Do you dream of having a dog who comes running the second you call? There are several ways to teach your German Shepherd a great recall cue. Below are the rules you must follow to have a German Shepherd who joyfully returns when you call:

Rule 1: Only use your recall word while you’re teaching it (and later, when you’re 99 percent certain your dog will come to you). Using your recall phrase over and over while your dog fails to respond only teaches him that the recall word or phrase is to be ignored.

Rule 2: Don’t call your German Shepherd for stuff he doesn’t like. This includes things like baths, nail trims, being put in the crate, the end of play with another dog, or leaving the dog park! If you have to, go and get your pup. You can also run away, clap or make kissing noises. If you use your recall word and your dog comes, but then you respond with something he doesn’t like, he’ll avoid you when you call. To teach your German Shepherd a great recall, have a plan before calling your dog. If you’re not sure your dog will come to you, use a different recall word, clap your hands, smooch, or run backwards.

Rule 3: Do make a big deal any time your dog comes to you on her own, even if you didn’t call her. To teach your German Shepherd a great recall, we need to build a strong association between leaving the interesting stuff, and coming to us. We want our dogs always to think of coming to us over a variety of distractions, so be sure to reward your dog somehow (with food like liver freeze-dried dog treats, a favorite toy or lots of praise) if he “checks in” with you, on-leash or off. (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)

Rule 4: Carry lots of your dog’s favorite treats when teaching the recall. You will need something that packs a punch, like canned cat food or chicken, when practicing off-leash or in new environments. We want our dogs to learn that there is nothing in the environment more exciting than we are — and this might mean leaving your dog on-lead in the woods for several weeks while you feed her sardines for coming when called. Get a long line (like Signature K9 Biothane Long Line, 33-Feet x 3/8-Inch, Black) to practice recalls at a distance, and always use treats your German Shepherd loves. (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)

Rule 5: You can swap treats for play with a favorite toy. If your German shepherd loves to play fetch or tug, you can use those as rewards for coming when called. The trick is to wait until your dog gets to you, then start a surprise game by pulling the hidden ball or tug toy out of your pocket. Toys are often easier to carry on walks, as well.

Teach your GSD to lay down

Being able to put your German Shepherd into a down-stay is incredibly useful.

I like to teach what’s called a “fold-back” down, where the dog folds his hind legs and drops his front legs into a down, from a standing position. If you’re competing, your dog can get into this position quickly from motion, and you don’t risk him creeping forward. If not, it’s a great way to get a fast down out-of-motion for emergency stops.

Take a look at how I teach GSD puppies to do a fold-back down:

And here’s a look at a finished fold-back down:

Tips for teaching ‘down-stay’

Stay beside, not in front of your dog while working on “down.”

Keep the treat on your dog’s nose, and let him lick at it until his elbows hit the ground. If his rear pops up in the air, remove your hand from his nose and try again.

Feed two or more treats once your pup lies down, to keep him from popping up again.

If your dog is having difficulty lying down on slick wood or concrete, try teaching the down indoors on carpet or grass first.

Follow the rules for regular stays to extend the amount of time your dog stays down.



Teach your GSD with lure-reward training

Want to teach your German Shepherd a new trick? The easiest way to get started teaching a dog a new behavior is to use lure-reward training.

You’ll need your dog and a big handful of tasty treats to get started. Start training in a quiet location, away from people and other animals.

Step 1: Use food near your dog’s nose to guide your dog into position (like sit or down, or spin) and feed. Your dog may need to lick or nibble the food while you guide. You can also start luring your dog just part of the way (as in spin or down), and feeding. Then gradually begin to ask the dog to do more before you feed the treat.

Step 2: Once your is following the food into position consistently, put the treat in your other hand. Use your empty hand to guide the dog into position, then reward from your other hand.  This way your German Shepherd will discover she doesn’t have to see a treat to do the behavior.

Step 3: Now that your dog happily follows your empty hand into position, add a word (like “Sit” or “Down”). Say the word as you lure your dog with your empty hand, and feed as soon as your dog complies. Repeat this process over a few days, in different locations.

Step 4: Now you’re ready to say the word and pause slightly before you use your hand signal. See if your dog does the behavior. If she doesn’t, help her by doing your empty hand motion. Feed as soon as she performs the behavior. Be sure to say the word only once!

Step 5: With enough repetitions, your dog will do the behavior when you say the word, but before you use your hand signal. Be sure to heavily praise your German Shepherd and feed extra treats at this stage. Eventually, you can fade the motion as you say the word by making your movements smaller and smaller. Practice the behavior again starting at Step 1, in as many new places as possible.

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