Training Secrets for German Shepherds

You might be suprised by what makes the German Shepherd Dog breed tick.

Jasmine had to testify in court, but Toni Liedtke knew it wouldn’t be easy to get the scared 6-year-old to talk. As victim witness coordinator for Linn County in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Liedtke often dealt with children, but this little girl, the victim of a crime, had no interest in sharing her story with adults, whom she had learned not to trust. Instead, she stared at a bulletin board covered in police-dog cards in Liedtke’s office. Suddenly, she turned to Liedtke and said, “Why isn’t Charger on this board?”

Charger, one of the newest K9 officers, hadn’t had his card made yet, Liedtke explained. “But how do you know Charger?” she asked. Jasmine explained that her school had raised money for the police department, and in thanks, was allowed the opportunity to name the newest K9. “I named him,” she said proudly. Then Liedtke had an idea.

She took the little girl on a tour of the courthouse, and introduced her to Charger’s handler, Officer Graham Campshure. Jasmine got to pet Charger and throw the ball for him a few times. “You could see the change on her face whenever she was with that dog,” Liedtke says. Finally, Jasmine said, “I’m not talking about this without Charger.”

The little girl met with Charger on all her subsequent visits, and while the judge wouldn’t allow Charger in the courtroom while Jasmine had to testify, the faithful shepherd waited just outside the door. While testifying, Jasmine clutched three photographs of herself with Charger, and whenever she got scared and needed a break, she was allowed to go outside the courtroom and pet the German Shepherd.

“I sincerely believe she never would have been able to go through all this and testify in court if it hadn’t been for Charger,” Liedtke says. “This dog helped her regain trust. The most amazing part was to see this tough police German Shepherd lying down on the floor with this little girl hugging and kissing and petting him, and then to know that 10 minutes later, he was out on the street apprehending criminals. But that’s a German Shepherd.”

Popular Pet LibraryWhat Makes a GSD?
The founder of the German Shepherd Dog breed, Capt. Max von Stephanitz, had some very specific ideas about what a German Shepherd should be. He wrote: “The most striking features of the correctly bred German Shepherd are firmness of nerves, attentiveness, unshockability, tractability, watchfulness, reliability and incorruptibility together with courage, fighting tenacity and hardness.” None of these qualities have anything to do with looks, structure, coat type or even herding ability. Instead, the hallmark of the German Shepherd is that steady, somewhat aloof, alert and ultimately reliable temperament.

But anyone expecting a big waggy retriever-style dog, a cuddly lap dog, a couch potato dog or a dog who is easy to outsmart won’t be happy with a German Shepherd. To know the GSD is not only to love him but to have the ability to train him successfully. “The things von Stephanitz said are very, very true,” says Lori Nickeson, a GSD breeder in Bend, Oregon, who does obedience, herding, tracking and agility with her dogs, and is chairwoman of the performance award of merit committee for the German Shepherd Dog Club of America. “But this breed isn’t for everybody. This dog has to be part of the family in order to fulfill his potential. They are a one-family dog to a great extent, and they don’t solicit attention from strangers. But you won’t find a more trainable, courageous or loyal breed.”

The Living Fence
The toddler wandered outside the gate of her family’s rural home when her mother was on the phone, and began to toddle down the country road — a situation the family’s German Shepherd knew was hazardous. But because German Shepherds herd by making themselves into a living fence, the dog knew just how to keep the child safe. “That dog stayed right next to the child, right between her and the road as the cars went by,” says Nickeson, who was the dog’s breeder. Passersby, witnessing the scenario, tried to help the child, but the German Shepherd wasn’t about to allow strangers to interfere with her flock of one. Finally, neighbors located and contacted the mother, who had no idea her child was out. Mission accomplished. “That dog was not going to let any harm come to that child,” Nickeson says.

“The German Shepherd is a tending dog,” Nickeson explains. “They are more inclined to keep the flock in one spot, acting as a living fence.” While a Border Collie, for example, moves a flock but waits at rest while the flock is grazing, a shepherd remains vigilant and mobile, always aware of what’s going on, acting as a moving barrier to keep the flock safe.

That means you, and especially your children, are in many ways the German Shepherd’s flock. “They do try to keep kids all together when they are playing, and even when you walk them, they will tend to go a little ahead, but keep checking back with you and circling you to make sure your perimeter is secure,” Nickeson says.

This herding instinct also translates into lots and lots of energy because the shepherd had to have the stamina to keep the flock contained all day long. “If you want a couch-potato dog, you do not want a German Shepherd,” Liedtke says. “If you’ve been at work all day, when you get home your dog is going to want to run five miles or go swimming or tracking or something. It’s like the dog is thinking, ‘Look, I’ve been good all day, and I haven’t eaten your house. So we’re going to go do something.’ This is a breed that has to go and do. They are intense. You have to stimulate them physically and mentally, or they’ll channel all that energy in some way you aren’t going to like.”

On High Alert
High energy coupled with high intelligence and an ability to pick up on subtle cues help the German Shepherd learn lessons in a flash, and that’s great news for trainers. Pet owners, however, may find that they unwittingly teach their shepherds behaviors they don’t want. Because the dogs learn so quickly, it can be difficult to unteach those accidental behaviors.

When he was an impressionable 5-month-old puppy, Michele McAtee’s first German Shepherd, MoJo, escaped out of the fence with a rescue dog she was fostering. She went looking for the wayward pair in her Jeep, and when she found them, she whistled. “They both perked up when they saw me, so I thought, ‘Hey, that’s great, they can follow my Jeep back home,’” says McAtee, who lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

The next day, McAtee realized her mistake: She had accidentally taught MoJo how rewarding it was to chase a car. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing stringent daily training with him. I wasn’t aware of how critical that was. He became obsessed with cars, and I had to really study and start learning about training so I could undo this deeply entrenched behavior,” McAtee says.

“He was a high-drive dog, and this is how he channeled that energy.”

Because their herding instincts also give shepherds an exceptionally sensitive and alert awareness of their surroundings, GSDs can sometimes become reactive to fast-moving stimuli like moving cars, fleeing cats or loud noises. McAtee successfully retaught MoJo by desensitizing him to traffic, walking him near busy streets and teaching him not to follow his instinct to chase. “I got him to be about 99 percent reliable around cars,” she says.

That same alertness makes shepherds excellent watchdogs because they don’t miss any changes in the environment, and they pick up on inappropriate behavior and other signs of potential danger. “If you are nervous when someone approaches you, your shepherd will pick up on that,” Nickeson says. “The way you react to a situation will make a difference in how your dog reacts, and it’s your responsibility to help your dog make the right decision about what to do about the situation.”

One evening at a dog show in Walla Walla, Washington, Nickeson was walking her dog, Butch Cassidy, outside in the dark. “Butch was one of the most mellow, wonderful dogs you could ever ask for, just a great dog,” Nickeson says. But when an inebriated man came out of a tavern nearby and started stumbling toward Nickeson, Butch — who had been sniffing in the grass — immediately noticed the man and watched him carefully. When the man stumbled off the curb toward Nickeson, Butch lunged at him, growling fiercely. “I think he just about scared that man out of his pants,” Nickeson says. “It certainly sobered him up fast!” Butch was on a leash, and as soon as Nickeson spoke to him, he stood back. “He didn’t bite the man, but he acted immediately to let the guy know he’d better straighten up and step back,” she says. “And of course, it worked.”

But Butch was a well-trained dog in experienced hands. “This is one of those instances that without the right control and training, the situation could have turned out badly,” Nickeson says. “You absolutely have to train this breed from a very young age so you have that control and make the most out of their highly attuned instincts.”

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Behavior and Training · Dogs