German Shepherds are big, powerful and highly intelligent dogs. They make wonderful pets, but obedience training is essential for their mental wellbeing and safety.
Unfortunately, there are many myths about training dogs – particularly large and strong breeds. These include using pain as a correction tool, asserting dominance with alpha rolls, or withdrawing food for “bad” behavior.
Negative techniques are unnecessary for any dog, but they are worse for GSDs. Despite their size, German Shepherds are a sensitive breed that react best to compassion and praise. In fact, dominance techniques can increase anxiety and reinforce bad behaviors.
With this in mind, here are seven tips for training your GSD without resorting to pain and punishment.
1. Training a GSD Should Not be a Battle of Mental Strength
Training a dog should be a positive process. The goal isn’t just to teach commands and obedience, but also to develop a stronger bond between you and your pet.
For this reason, training should be a positive experience for your dog. Use rewards to reinforce the right behaviors and be enthusiastic with your praise. The more fun you make the training session, the more effective it’s likely to be.
This doesn’t mean you always need to use treats though. GSDs often find their toys to be just as rewarding as a food treat – although you’ll get best results by using a mixture to keep things interesting.
2. Reward for Correct Behavior
It’s often natural to scold a dog when it does something wrong, while forgetting to give praise for good behavior.
For example, you’ll often see owners scold their dog for jumping up, but then ignore them when they don’t. This only reinforces that jumping gets attention - even if it’s negative.
Instead, teach your dog what he should do rather than always focusing on what he shouldn’t. Watch for positive behavior – even if it’s accidental – and give lavish praise or even the occasional treat. When he performs a command correctly, be enthusiastic and use a happy, higher-pitched voice.
It’s vital this praise comes immediately after the good behavior though. Even a delay of a few seconds can make it hard for a dog to understand why he’s being praised.
3. Proofing the Basics is Essential
The strength of a German Shepherd means you must always be in control of your pet. Whether you’re at home, a dog park, café or visiting a friend, your dog should be responsive to your commands.
A common mistake is to assume a dog who knows a command at home will respond with distractions. This is rarely the case, which is why “proofing” a command is a vital step in the training process.
Proofing involves re-teaching a command in gradually more difficult environments. When your dog knows “sit” at home, for example, you can then train the same command in the garden. You might be surprised that your dog isn’t as responsive in a different environment – although he’ll pick up the command quicker the second time.
Once you’re confident in the garden, increase the difficulty by adding distractions, training in a public park or with other dogs around. It’s only when your pet responds in all environments that a command is truly trained.
Extra Tip: The first command you should proof is your dog’s name! He should look at you when you call his name, as you can’t train other commands without his attention.4. Be Consistent
All dogs need boundaries and consistency – but this is especially important for GSDs. German Shepherds are intelligent dogs, so become anxious when their owner doesn’t treat them in a consistent way.
This is why it’s a bad idea to let your dog on the sofa for a “treat” or occasionally feed him under the table. While it might seem like giving a little extra love, these actions blur the boundaries – especially if the dog gets scolded next time.5. Avoid Retractable Leashes
Training a German Shepherd to walk politely on a lead is essential. Trying to restrain a pulling GSD doesn’t make for an enjoyable walk, and can be dangerous if you don’t have the strength to hold your pet back.
While leash training deserves an entire article on its own, you should avoid using retractable leashes when training a GSD. It’s important to reinforce a proper a walking distance, but a dog won’t understand this if the leash changes length.
There are also safety issues with a retractable leash. If your pet suddenly sees something to chase, he may forget he’s on a leash. When a large German Shepherd reaches the end of the line at full speed, he’ll either break free or cause a serious injury.
You should also use a harness while teaching your dog not to pull. Collars can cause pain and even damage to the trachea when a strong dog pulls, as the force is concentrated on the throat. A harness is a safer option - although it must be sized correctly to avoid chafing and an altered gait. The Dog Clinic has a useful guide for sizing a harness.6. Fix Issues While Your Dog is Still Young
Behaviors that are cute when your GSD is a puppy may be much less desirable when he’s grown. Common examples include jumping up as a greeting, mouthing and barking.
If possible, spend time breaking these bad habits when your dog is still young. Look for any behavior that wouldn’t be acceptable from an adult GSD, then work on reinforcing an alternative behavior.7. Never Reinforce Undesirable Behavior
German Shepherds are intelligent and quickly pick up on patterns. If, for example, your dog barks when he’s hungry and then you put his food down – even if you were going to give him food anyway – he’ll learn barking gets food. Once these habits are ingrained, they can take a lot of time and perseverance to fix.
For this reason, avoid accidentally reinforcing behaviors you don’t want. If your dog barks at dinner, wait until he stops before giving food. If he jumps when you come in the front door, ignore him until he settles down. He’ll soon learn these behaviors don’t get him what he wants.Summary
Training your German Shepherd is a vital part of being a responsible dog owner. Obedience training doesn’t just make your pet much easier to live with, but can also keep your dog safe and happy.
GSDs respond best to positive training techniques. Be consistent with your training, reward your dog for good behaviors, and remember to proof all your commands. Follow these tips and you’ll be amazed at your pet’s progress.
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