When should I start training my German Shepherd puppy?

“How old does my puppy have to be before I can begin training?”

This is a question I am asked often. The German Shepherd puppy in this video is 10 weeks old; but you don’t even have to wait that long! “Training” starts the day you bring your new dog or puppy home to live with you — GSDs are learning all the time. This is why it is easier to prevent problems and bad habits than to solve them later.

But what most people mean when they ask this question is, “How soon can I expect my German Shepherd puppy to start performing tricks and basic obedience behaviors?” Happily, the answer is the same — immediately. Clicker training is an easy and fun way to accomplish this.

How to teach your dog a rock-solid stay

Your dog’s first reinforceable stays will probably be about 1-billionth of a second long.

Training your German Shepherd to perform a reliable stay is not as difficult as it might seem. You only need two things:

  1. Really yummy treats or some other desirable reinforcer.
  2. Patience.

The easiest way to envision stay training is to think of the “No running in the hall” rule. When you were in school, if you were caught running in the halls, your teacher did not grab you by the collar, physically drag you back to where you started, slam you to the ground and yell “Walk!” (Or at least, I hope not.) The teacher simply looked at you, possibly pointed a finger, and requested in a normal tone that you return to where you started and walk – rather than run – down the hallway.

This is how we instruct our dogs – although, because German Shepherds are experts at nonverbal language, we can simply accompany them back to their original starting position rather than ask them to return.

Here’s the hardest part about teaching the stay exercise: It’s your job to make sure the dog doesn’t get up! This is where we need patience.

There are only two possible scenarios in stay-land.*

Scenario #1:
Dog sits, you ask dog to stay, dog stays, you click and treat, or say “Good” and release.

Scenario #2:
Dog sits, you ask dog to stay, dog gets up — you accompany dog back to the start of the exercise and repeat, hoping for better results. (An alternate version of Scenario #2 exists if you don’t have the dog on leash or in a fenced area, whereby the dog gets up, then proceeds to run away, chase squirrels, cats, birds, trucks, etc., or pee on the neighbor’s trash cans.)

The easiest way to ensure that Scenario #2 never happens is to time your click and treat before the dog gets up. Your dog’s first rewardable stays will probably be about 1-billionth of a second long, because that’s how long your dog will remain sitting after the first few times you say “Stay.”

Gradually extend the length of the stays to whatever amount of time suits you, using the principles outlined above. However, throw in some random stays of shorter duration so your dog doesn’t begin to perceive the “stay” command as an aversive (i.e., “Each time she asks me to stay, I have to sit here for longer and longer periods before getting a treat – forget that, I’m outta here!”)

Extend the distance of the stays gradually, as well. Remember to extend distance the way you want the real-life behavior to look: For example, don’t begin to increase distance by backing away from your dog; begin by turning away. A stay the length of several football fields doesn’t do you much good if you can’t turn away from the dog!

As usual, the click ends the behavior, which means the dog can get up after you click. Eventually you can replace the click with a release word. Toss the treat after you click, to get the dog in standing position for the next stay exercise.

Want a smarter dog? Try target training

An easy way to add to your German Shepherd’s repertoire of tricks or commands is to teach her how to target objects.

Targeting (or “target training”) means your dog pays attention to, and then performs an action based on, a particular stimulus (usually an object such as your hand, or a target stick). A dog putting his paw on an object on command, or bumping your hand with his nose upon request, is targeting. Targeting is a super-quick behavior to teach and has a variety of uses.

“Go to your mat” is one handy result of target training. We first teach the dog to “target” his mat, add the cue “Go to your mat,” and then place in a location of our choosing. Agility trainers use targeting quite often to teach their dogs not to skip contact zones while climbing or dismounting obstacles. Service dog trainers use targeting to teach German Shepherds to open doors, turn lights on and off, and more. Target training is useful in the show ring to teach dogs how to gait and stack.

Teaching hand targeting

Targeting your hand is an easy behavior for most dogs to learn. Follow the steps below to get started. You’ll need a clicker, a bunch of small, tasty, easy-to-swallow treats, and a leash (if your dogs needs a reason to stick around).

  1. Remember to always offer your dog a reward after you click, even if you have made an error.
  2. Offer your dog your hand, palm facing the tip of her nose (you can hold your hand in whatever position is most comfortable). Most dogs will sniff or lick your hand out of curiosity. As soon as she touches your hand, click and offer a treat. If your dog does not attempt to touch your hand, put it behind your back for a second or two, then try again. If your dog is having trouble finding your palm, hold it closer to her face. Click only when she reaches and touches your palm with her nose.
  3. Timing is everything! Be sure you are clicking as the dog’s nose touches your hand, not after. Otherwise, she won’t understand which behavior is earning a treat.
  4. Add the word “touch” or “target” just as your dog touches your hand. As your dog becomes more fluent, begin asking your dog to touch your palm, using the command.
  5. Raise and lower the target hand so that your dog has to take several steps to reach it. Have you moved it closer and closer to the ground, and up high so she has to stand up on her hind legs to reach it? Have you moved across the floor and had her follow you, nose to the target, as if her nose was magnetized?
  6. Begin asking your German Shepherd to target other objects with her nose, such as small container lids, pieces of cloth, the end of a stick, etc. You can also vary the length of time the dog must keep her nose on your hand or target object before she gets her click and treat.

Of course, you can teach your dog to target any number of objects, whether portable or not. The most portable object I ever used to teach target training was a sticker, which could then be placed anywhere, including unmovable places like walls!

When to seek help with your dog

German Shepherds are amazing dogs, and typically biddable (making them easy to train) and smart (making them quick to learn). However, this doesn’t mean your dog fits the mold, or even if she does, that you’ll always have a smooth relationship.

Most folks who get a German Shepherd either know of or used to have a dog that was absolutely perfect — never made a mess in the house, didn’t shed, never jumped up, never barked inappropriately, never lunged at people or other dogs, never chewed the furniture, always laid quietly in another room during dinner, always paid its taxes on time, never forgot to bring home the milk, etc.

Not all of us are as blessed. Sometimes, a dog comes into our lives who has perfected a different art: making our existence miserable!

Here are a few signs to indicate that your dog’s behavior may require professional intervention:

Your dog is actively threatening to harm or has harmed a person.
As much as dogs will be dogs, this is the land of people — and sometimes litigious ones. Besides not wanting anyone to be hurt, it’s important to get a handle on your dog’s aggressive behavior, because sometimes an aggressive display (barking, lunging, jumping at a person’s face, etc.) can be misinterpreted. In fact, any “biting incident” involving a dog, even a dog with no prior history of aggression, and even if the bite did not break the skin can be grounds for euthanasia in this country, as the case of Rolo demonstrates.

Your dog has threatened or harmed livestock, cats or other dogs. Again, besides the potential for euthanasia (or worse, if a neighbor or livestock owner has vengeance in mind), these kinds of dog problems aren’t simple to fix. Unless there’s a sibling rivalry issue between two dogs, this type of behavior is likely rooted in predation. Lots of well-meaning folks follow the advice of friends, “trainers,” or relatives, and punish the dog in an attempt to “correct” predatory actions. But predatory behavior is unlikely to be wholly suppressed with positive punishment, no matter how creative. And painful and/or threatening treatment (including yelling and leash-popping) of a dog who dislikes other dogs can exponentially worsen the problem.

You’re feeling helpless about, hopeless about or afraid of your dog’s behavior.
If you’re dog is soiling his crate every day, or tearing up the house, or refusing to budge from the couch or bed when asked, ask yourself whether it might be time to call for professional help. Although animal behavior consultation can be expensive, it is a far smaller price to pay than chancing the dog’s life — which is likely to be the outcome when you decide not only can you not handle the behavior, but life would be easier without the dog. A well-known fact is that dogs are relinquished to shelters for behavior problems more than any other reason. Don’t let your dog be one of them.

For help finding a professional dog trainer or animal behavior consultant near you, visit the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants at iaabc.org, or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at apdt.com.

German Shepherd Site Herder

Here are a few blogs and blog communities whose pages you should bookmark (besides this one)! All About Dog Training Blog Carnival offers a variety of articles on dog training, currently in its second edition; ClickerTraining.com offers both a community training blog and blogs written by users; and the Dog.com Community is packed with features allowing you to connect with other German Shepherd fans, including blogging and photo gallery tools and forums.

GermanShepherds.com has it all for the German Shepherd lover — forums, chat rooms, articles, dog food recipes, a photo club, you name it. And Yahoo! offers a variety of German Shepherd-related e-mail lists through its Yahoo! Groups service. My favorites are GSD-Euro, German Shepherd Dog Genetics and German Shepherd Dogs.

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