I’m worried: Is my German Shepherd going to bite me?

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.

Q&A: My German Shepherd runs past me when I call

Q: I’m trying to problem solve one of my German Shepherd’s behaviors. It happens at least once and occasionally twice when we are doing off-leash walking. I will call her from a far distance and she will get so revved up in the process of racing towards me that she will zoom past me, turn around and zoom back towards where she came from, zoom towards me again, and eventually be sniffing around near me, or sitting right in front of me. I’m worried that she’ll be hit by a car, or run into another danger, in the time it takes her to get to me.

A: I would build massive value for targeting (your hand, a particular target stick, sitting in front position), then use that as your recall when you suspect she’s in a racing mood. I’d also try to avoid calling her when she’s in zoomies, just turn and walk in the opposite direction and then quietly praise and feed your most high-value treats when she does catch up to you, and tell her to “Go run” again. This will reduce her desire to fly by, as well as put the zoomies on cue.

So — don’t call during high-octane situations, build up an emergency recall for emergencies (which may or may not include targeting, but Leslie Nelson’s DVD “Really Reliable Recall” is the best explanation of how to teach this) and use a targeted recall with a running release as a reward when she seems excited.

You could also start to keep notes of how many off-leash recalls result in the zoomies (location, immediate previous activity, etc). That’s about the only sure way to tell if your training is working and to predict when/where/how she’ll perform the behavior correctly.

Or, easier (and more like what I’d do) is to assume she will go into zoomies 100 percent of the time and work backwards from there. Set the bar low — don’t attempt recalls from 10 feet away, try them at 4, 6, then 8 feet, using a long line where needed to keep her from bolting.

What to do when your puppy bites

Puppies use their mouths for many reasons. Teething, exploration, taste, play, and chewing are just a few. Plus, your puppy needs to learn bite inhibition so he or she can regulate those powerful GSD jaws as an adult dog. So what do you do when those needle-sharp baby German Shepherd teeth are tearing up your clothes or skin?

First, let’s cover a few DON’Ts:

  • Don’t hold your puppy’s mouth shut. Besides possibly hurting your puppy and causing him to retaliate with a hard bite, think about what puppies do when they play — they mouth each other! If you start interacting with your puppy when he puts his mouth on you, he will be likely to try that strategy again the next time he wants your attention.
  • Don’t smack or hit your puppy (on the face, or anywhere else). Besides hurting your puppy, hitting teaches him to be wary or afraid of human hands — definitely not an association we want our adult German Shepherds to have!
  • Don’t shout NO! or Stop! If this worked, it would have worked the first time, and forevermore! Instead, shouting at your puppy teaches him to be afraid of you or to ignore you (or maybe both).

Here are some strategies to try if you find your puppy is biting too hard:

  • Decide what “too hard” is. Remember, your puppy NEEDS to bite. Biting with puppy teeth is how your pup learns how to be gentle with his or her mouth. You want your puppy to bite you! However, you get to decide how hard is too hard. My rule of thumb is if the bite leaves a red mark, that is too hard. If your puppy bites too hard, say “Ouch!” in an unpleasant tone, and stop playing with your pup for a moment. IMPORTANT: You should never allow your puppy to mouth or bite babies and children. Kids aren’t capable of appropriately telling a puppy how hard is too hard, and biting can easily become a game, or could hurt the child. Have kids play with the puppy with toys or feed your GSD puppy treats for being calm.
  • Use toys. Use a tug or fluffy toy to encourage your pup to bite a toy instead of your hands and clothes. Remember to trade your puppy the toy for a treat each time you want him to give it up, so he learns to give you the toy quickly and easily!
  • Teach a desired behavior. Teach your puppy to chase a treat up and down the stairs, or to walk nicely on leash, or to fetch something, instead of biting.
  • Create some downtime. Using a leash, tether, crate or other barrier is a good way to help your puppy calm down when he or she is to excited to play appropriately. If the “Ouch!” technique isn’t working, or your puppy is disinterested in toys and only wants to bite you or your clothing, it’s time to shift to a calmer activity. Use the teaching calmness technique as above, or put your puppy on a leash, temporary tether, or crate with a stuffed Kong or other tasty chew toy. Try playing again in a little while, after a potty break!

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Table of Contents

  • Do I Want a Purebred German Shepherd Puppy?
  • Pet Store Puppies
  • What the pet stores tell you
  • Finding a reputable pet store
  • Adopting from a pet store
  • How To Find A Responsible German Shepherd Breeder
  • Questions you should ask a German Shepherd breeder
  • Where to find breeders
  • What’s involved in breeding German Shepherds?
  • The German Shepherd breed standard
  • Hip screening for GSDs
  • Adopting A German Shepherd From A Shelter Or Rescue
  • Where do the dogs in rescue come from?
  • What should you ask the German Shepherd rescue?
  • Shelter adoptions
  • Additional resources
  • Appendix: What does a good puppy contract include?
Table of Contents

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Q&A: How to find a German Shepherd puppy

Q: I am very interested in finding a great big beautiful and healthy GSD, but I keep reading that a good breeder is hard to come by and others say I should just get a rescue dog. I don’t really want a rescue dog. I read that it’s hard to come by rescue puppies, and they’re usually already juveniles or older when they’re adopted. How do I get a nice German Shepherd puppy?

A: You’re not wrong, it is really tough to find a nice puppy without doing a fair bit of research. I recommend joining some of the German Shepherd email lists (check Yahoo Groups) and forums (such as GermanShepherds.com), as well as searching for German Shepherd or working dog Facebook groups, and get involved there. Not only do breeders hang out and advertise nice litters with pedigrees, parents’ photos, and titles, but their puppy buyers do as well — so you can get a fairly comprehensive picture of what the breeder is producing, just by talking to other GSD enthusiasts.

And of course, nothing beats the experience of attending a trial and watching the dogs at work. Look for IPO, Schutzhund, Ringsport and Mondio competitions to attend (you’ll probably have to use Google to find a regional club). Those can be a few — or several! — hours’ drive, but it’s worth it to see the dogs in action and asking their handlers where they’re from.

Best of luck!

Teach your GSD to stay

Want to train your German Shepherd to stay? Start with a really short amount of time, such as 2-3 seconds, and reward your pup with a treat for holding still while he or she is in the stay position. Release your dog with a word and toss a treat, so he or she gets up. Repeat 5-6 times, and end the session.

During training sessions, slowly build up to a longer period of time (such as 5-10 seconds), without changing anything else — don’t move around, don’t increase your distance from your dog, etc. Remember to release your dog with a release word or phrase (“Let’s go!”) when the stay is over! Once your dog is reliably holding a 30-second stay, add a little distance or body movement — pick only one — with the same gradual build-up to the next challenge.

Let’s break down stay training:

Never ask your German shepherd to stay for a longer period of time than he/she can. If your dog wants to break a stay after 2 seconds, feed a treat and release after 1 second. Your job as the trainer is to make the dog think it’s fun to wait for a treat!

Go nuts with the treats. One treat each second the dog stays is a good starting duration! We want the dog to think that staying put was the best idea she’s ever had. Of course you will start to slow the rate you give treats, as your dog learns to stay put.

If your dog breaks a stay, ask yourself how long she stayed, and what else was happening in the area. Did she stay for 10 seconds, but not 15? Or did she get up when the neighborhood cat came by? You have to release your dog before you think she will get up. If you feel tempted to say “stay” to your dog again, go back and feed her.

The more distance  between you and your dog during a stay, the more treats she should get when you return. A fun game to play is “Four steps away equals four treats, one step equals one treat,” and so on. Your dog will start to hope you go farther away, so she gets more treats!

Instead of backing away from your dog to make the stay harder, start by turning your back. In a real-life situation, we would turn and walk away.

My preference is to always return to my GSD before I release him, rather than calling my dog to me from a stay. I don’t want my dog wondering when he can get up and come find me — I want him thinking about how many treats he’ll get when I get back!

If your dog breaks a stay, you have increased the difficulty too much, or too quickly, or both. Go back to the last place your dog had success, and work from there.

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