You are the proud owner of a gorgeous German Shepherd dog. Congratulations! Whether you have a playful puppy or a chilled out senior citizen, training is still important.
German Shepherds are highly intelligent dogs, but they also have a tendency to be stubborn. This can make training a little difficult, but you have come to the right place! Just German Shepherd are delighted to offer you our free German Shepherd training guide.
This guide will cover the following most common behavioral issues:
- About the breed
- General training advice
- How To- the basics
- Potty training
- Nipping and biting
- Preventing leash pulling
- Reactivity in the home
- Playing with children
Table of Contents
Breed History and Character
As the name suggests, German Shepherd dogs originated in Germany, towards the end of the 19th century. These dogs would have had a mongrel appearance, with rougher, dense coats, shorter tails, and longer hair around the muzzle.
The modern German Shepherd developed around the time of the Second World War. Max von Stephanitz, a former cavalry officer, began crossbreeding working sheepdogs with the aim of creating a herding dog capable of running for long periods.
The first German Shepherd breed show took place in 1899 after breed standards were agreed upon. The breed was not introduced to the USA until 1906. For a more in-depth article on the German Shepherd dog’s history please see this article here.
It is important before you start any training with your dog, that you have researched the breed and are aware of their quirks and character traits. Each breed is unique and therefore, their training will be different. Your training needs to be tailored to suit your German Shepherd.
To start, German Shepherds are highly intelligent, so just the basic commands will not be enough to keep your dog mentally stimulated. Without consistent, regular training, a German Shepherd can quickly become bored and frustrated. This leads to destructive and disruptive behaviors such as barking and chewing.
Preparation is the key to successful training. Always have plenty of treats for your sessions and your dog’s favorite toy as a reward. Having a routine is also a good idea, as this keeps your dog settled.
For puppies under the age of 9 months, training should ideally be no longer than 5 minutes at a time. You can have several sessions throughout the day, but your puppy will need a break to rest, play, and eat. Just like human children, puppies reach a point where they cannot absorb any more information. Too long a session and your puppy will start to lose interest.
As your German Shepherd ages, you can slowly increase the length of your training sessions, but even as adults, they do best with training sessions of less than 20 minutes.
The treats you choose have a far bigger effect on behaviour than most people realise. Some brands use sugars to give their treats a less bitter taste, but your dog can experience a sugar rush if he eats too many. Similarly, fat can be used as a flavour enhancer, which is not good for your pup’s waistline!
Choose treats that are low in fat and are labelled as ‘no added sugar, flavours or preservatives’. The best options are brands that use natural or locally sourced ingredients. Air-dried meat treats will be 100% meat, so these are great for training. You can also purchase bite-sized training treats specially designed for puppies.
For our guide on healthy treats for German Shepherd dogs, including some homemade recipes please see this article here.
Any dog trainer will tell you that recall should be the first thing you teach your puppy. This forms the basis of your dog’s behavior. Not only will he learn to come to you when you call, but this training creates an association between you and your dog.
You are teaching him to focus on you and be aware of you regardless of his surroundings. For a recall to be successful, you must be more interesting than anything else. Training should be fun and engaging, in short, 5 to 10-minute sessions.
The recall is one of the easiest things to teach, but also the most important. Choose your cue word before you start. “Come” is the most popular recall cue, but “here” also works. Make sure you have a toy or a few tasty treats ready.
- To begin recall training, start in a distraction-free environment. A quiet room at home with no toys or other people works best.
- Allow your dog to come to you when he chooses. As soon as he is a couple of feet away, say his name and your cue word.
- When he reaches you, give lots of praise. Your puppy will learn that coming to you is fun and rewarding.
- Repeat this each time your puppy comes to you, slowly increasing the distance between you. You can also start giving your cue word when your pup is further away from you.
- Make yourself more exciting by using a friendly tone, showing your dog his favorite toy, or running away. At this early stage, you need to solidify the idea that coming to you is the best option.
You can progress the recall training further by including a second person and turning your training sessions into a game.
- Gently restrain your dog while the other people stand a short distance away trying to get your dog’s attention. An excited voice is best to hype them up. Do not release your dog until the other person says his name and your recall word.
- Release your dog as soon as the cue is given. He should go running straight to them. Your training partner should make a big fuss and give a reward. You can then repeat this game in reverse. This time, you will be encouraging your dog to come to you.
- Do not play this game for too long as you risk your puppy getting bored or becoming tired.
Adding a hand signal to your recall cue is a great way of being able to communicate with your dog over greater distances. Even if your dog cannot hear you, he will be able to react to your hand signal in the same way.
To teach this, simply repeat the process of saying your dog’s name and giving your cue word when he looks at you or moves toward you. This time, you are going to give a hand signal at the same time as saying your cue word.
As before, give lots of praise and a reward when your dog does come to you. If he doesn’t come, simply shorten the distance, and try again. Remember to keep these sessions short to prevent boredom.
If your dog is consistently coming to you when you give your verbal cue and hand signal, it is time to take your training outdoors! The reliable recall should work in all environments, so you need to make your recall more challenging.
Take your puppy out to the garden and repeat your recall steps here. Call his name and give the cue word when he looks at you or starts moving towards you. Give your hand signal at the same time.
Remember to reward them with a treat or toy and lots of praise whenever he chooses to come to you. As with your indoor training, keep these sessions short. Slowly increase the distractions before taking your recall training to a public place like a dog park.
For the best results, you should keep your dog on a training leash, to begin with, to prevent him from running off. When you have him consistently coming to your recall cue, you can let him off the leash to continue the training.
A positive way to increase your dog’s recall is to call him while he is doing something fun, such as playing with other dogs, but immediately let him return to his fun activity. This action tells your dog that although you asked him to come to you, it does not mean you are taking him away from the fun.
Dogs are intelligent animals and quickly notice if you only call them at the end of the walk. Your dog will be less likely to respond when you call him if he thinks his playtime is over. This is the most common reason people struggle to get their dogs to come back to them.
A few things to avoid:
- NEVER run after your dog. Dogs love to chase and if you start running after him, he will think it is a game.
- Do not shout at him or scold him, as this will make him nervous to come to you in the future.
- Avoid simply calling your dog’s name over and over. This only teaches your dog that he can ignore you if he wishes.
Training Sit, Stay, and Down
A solid ‘sit’, ‘stay’, and ‘down’ is incredibly useful for a variety of day-to-day scenarios. Answering the door, greeting new people, crossing the road; all much easier if your dog knows simple behaviors.
Asking your dog to sit and wait by the side of the road is much safer and makes your dog easier to control. The same is true at home. Having your dog in a calm sit and asking them to stay there, makes them less likely to get over-excited and start jumping all over your guests.
Let’s start with sit first. Be sure to have some tasty titbits ready as a reward and start in a quiet, distraction-free environment.
- Show your dog a treat, then hold it in a fist. Allow your dog to paw at your hand, sniff or lick it, but do not react.
- Most dogs will instinctively go into a sit position. As soon as his little bottom touches the floor give him the treat and make a big fuss.
- Repeat this a few times for around five minutes. End the session here to prevent boredom.
- After a few repetitions of this, begin giving your ‘sit’ command when your dog sits. Make sure to say it as their bottom hits the ground.
- Continue to repeat this training a few more times.
- Now you can try giving the ‘sit’ command before your dog sits. If he gives you a sit, immediately praise and reward him with a treat. If he doesn’t, go back to waiting for him to sit and repeat a few more times.
- If your puppy does not sit when you give the command, he has not yet formed an association to that word. You may need to go back to previous steps before moving on.
An alternative to teaching sit is to use a simple hand movement. Hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose and slowly move your hand in an upwards motion. Your pup will lift his head to follow the treat, which will naturally push him into a sit position.
Give him the treat as soon as his bottom touches the floor and repeat the remaining steps as above.
Once your puppy is sitting every time you ask, you can start moving the training sessions to more distracting places. As always, keep these sessions to less than 10 minutes.
For most puppy parents, potty training is the most stressful part of raising a well-behaved dog. You have to watch them like a hawk, never deviating from your routine and will no doubt go through your fair share of carpet cleaner and odour neutraliser!
Some pups cotton on pretty quickly, while others take their own sweet time. Regardless of which puppy you have, the first and most important thing is to establish a solid toilet routine.
Before you begin potty training, you will need to decide on your cue words. Some people use one word for both peeing and pooping, other owners prefer to use separate words. There is no real benefit to either method, this is simply personal preference. If you are using separate words, make sure they do not sound similar. You would not use ‘pee’ and ‘poop’ as they make a similar sound. You could use ‘whizz’ or ‘tats’ for peeing and ‘poop’ for pooping.
You could get really creative here and use unusual or random words, but as long as they sound different, it doesn’t matter.
As a general rule, puppies need to go potty as soon as they wake from sleeping, after eating and after a play session. Toileting after waking is pretty obvious. Their little bladders can only hold urine for a short time, so after a 3-hour nap, they’ll be desperate to go.
When a puppy’s stomach is full, nerves along the digestive system stimulate the colon, which gives your puppy the urge to poop. You should take your puppy straight out after they eat, but also a second time roughly half an hour later. This is because a puppy processes food in about 20 to 30 minutes.
During periods of activity like playing with a toy or a game of chase, your pup’s little bladder is jiggling about like a bowl of jelly. This will increase the urge to urinate. A puppy should go outside after playing indoors.
Here is an example of a German Shepherd puppies morning, afternoon and evening routine:
8 am: Puppy wakes – outside to toilet
8:15 am: Breakfast
8:30 am: Toilet trip
8:45 am: Another toilet trip (30 minutes after breakfast)
You may take your puppy for a short walk at this point if they have had all their vaccinations. Otherwise, let them go about their normal morning of napping and playing.
10 am nap after a walk.
1 pm: toilet trip as soon as the puppy wakes up.
1:15 pm: Lunchtime for the pup
1:30 pm: Toilet trip straight after eating
1:45 pm toilet trip 30 minutes after eating
2 pm: short play session or training
2:15 pm: toilet trip
2:30 pm: another nap
4:30 pm: toilet trip after waking
You may want to substitute the afternoon toilet trip for a second short walk as your puppy gets a little older. From 2 months old, add 5 minutes for each month. So a 3-month-old would be 10 minutes, 4 months is 15 minutes and so on.
5 pm: Dinner time
5:15 pm: toilet trip straight after eating
5:30 pm: toilet trip 30 minutes after eating
5:35 pm: another play session or training
6 pm: toilet trip.
6:15 pm: another short nap
8 pm: toilet straight after waking
8:15 pm: a short 10-15 minute play session or training
8:30 pm: toilet trip
8:45 pm: quiet time to wind down ready for bed
These times are not exact, they are simply an example to illustrate how you can set yourself a good toilet routine. It may seem extreme to have so many toilet trips, but when your puppy is small, he cannot hold his bladder for more than 2 or 3 hours. Other daily activities will trigger his urge to go to the toilet. Giving him plenty of change to relieve himself will prevent your German Shepherd pup from needing to go when he is indoors.
When you do take your puppy outside to the toilet, try not to interact with him. He may want to wander around at first to investigate the smells. This is fine. Allow him to do this.
Ok, let’s crack this:
- As soon as your puppy squats or cocks a leg to pee, give your cue word. When he is done, give lots of verbal praise and reward with a small treat.
- Do the same thing when he poops.
- You need to be consistent with this. Every time he goes to the toilet you need to be giving your cue words. This repetition will build an association.
Your puppy is learning that he gets rewarded for toileting outside, which is the aim of your training, but he is also learning the word that goes with the behaviour.
This will make toileting much easier in the future. When your puppy is older, you can let them out and give your cue word straight away. If they need to go, they will do.
They will understand that by giving the cue word, you are asking them to perform that behaviour, just like training sit or stay. The difference is, most dogs will not poop on command unless they already need to go.
Some tips for those who may be struggling:
- Never scold your dog for having an accident indoors. This will only make him nervous to go potty. When he needs to go next time, he will find a hiding place to do it so he feels safe.
- Do not react to accidents at all. Ignore your dog and simply clean up the mess.
- Some household cleaners contain ammonia, which is what gives urine that distinctive smell. If your pup smells the ammonia from the cleaning fluid, he will think that is a pee spot and will keep peeing over it.
- Purchase ammonia-free cleaners or make your own at home using white vinegar, water, and baking soda.
- If you are still getting accidents, increase the number of times you take your puppy out to the yard. Sometimes they will need to pee twice. Stay out another 5 minutes after the first pee in case they need to do another.
Correcting Biting Behaviours
All puppies bite. It may be things that look like their toys, the sofa cushions, your shoes, or even your hands and feet. For a dog, this is normal play behavior. Puppies learn each other’s boundaries by mouthing and biting. They do not understand that we humans don’t also do this. (For more information on German Shepherd puppy biting please see this article here.)
Correcting mouthing is simple, but you must be consistent. Whenever your puppy mouths or nips you, immediately give a firm “no” or “ah-ah”, get up and walk away. This teaches your puppy that biting ends the play session.
You need to do this every time, even if the mouthing is done gently. This does not generally take long at all, as your puppy does not want to lose you as his playmate. He will soon learn that to keep playing, he must not use his mouth on your body.
For puppies, guests can be very exciting, children in particular. You will need to ask friends and relatives to help you with this training. Your puppy needs to understand that it is all humans, not just you, that he cannot bite.
To help the training along, you can give your puppy a toy in place of your hand. When he chews on the toy, praise him so he knows this is an acceptable thing to bite.
Dogs go through a teething stage just like human toddlers. Between 4 and 6 months of age, they will start to lose their baby teeth and their adult teeth will start growing through. This can be quite uncomfortable and chewing soothes the pain.
To prevent your puppy from using you as a teething aid, give him alternatives. You can put his cuddly toys or chews in sandwich bags and refrigerate for 15 minutes. They will now be nice and cool to soothe his sore gums.
Ice cubs are another great alternative. Not only will they help to numb his gums, but he will also have fun playing with the ice cube! You can even hide a tasty piece of meat in the center as a treat.
There are also commercial products you can purchase such as puppy teething toys. These toys are made of durable materials designed to cool quickly and withstand heavy chewing.
(For more tips on surviving the puppy biting phase please see this article here.)
Leash Pulling and Reactivity
There is nothing worse than trying to enjoy a nice walk around the park with your dog, only to be dragged about all over the place and getting home to sore arms. Dogs don’t understand what a lead is, so we have to teach them how to walk nicely. You don’t want to be that dog owner everyone stares at!
Let’s look at the type of lead you are using. If the lead is too long, your dog has too much freedom and he will be harder to control. Ideally, your lead should be no longer than 2 metres. Most standard leads are 1m or 2m. either of these is fine.
Leads that clip onto the collar are fine, provided your dog’s collar is not loose enough for him to slip out of. If the collar sits low on his neck, this makes controlling a strong dog more difficult and can damage his windpipe.
Halti’s, like the ones that slip over the nose, are ok for short term training, but should not be used as a long-term solution. A Halti means your dog’s nose never switches off and this can lead to your dog getting frustrated, which will only make your pulling problem worse.
For smaller dogs, harnesses are ok as a training aid, but larger dogs tend to find pulling easier with a harness. That is because the chest section is designed to cover the whole chest to aid comfort. On the downside, that large surface area is perfect leverage for your dog to lean on!
Harnesses that have a ring on the chest section are far better than those that connect on the back. Having your lead attached to the chest will enable you to control your dog’s front legs much better.
The best option is the humble slip lead. They made of a rope material so they are soft around your dog’s neck. You will need one with a stiff rubber topper to prevent the collar end from loosening. These leads are best because they can be positioned right below your dog’s ears, which gives you maximum control without being uncomfortable for your dog.
Slip leads are also self-correcting. If your dog lunges at another dog or tries to chase something, the collar tightens, which immediately corrects his behaviour.
So, how do we teach our dog to walk nicely? Here’s how:
- Get yourself some training treats or cut some chicken into small pieces.
- If you are using a slip lead, it should sit just below your dog’s ears at the top of his neck. You should be able to get 1 finger between the lead and his neck. Any looser and the correction won’t be effective.
- Start out at your front door. Every time your dog starts to move ahead of you, say “no” or “ah-ah” and change direction. Encourage him to follow you by saying “let’s go”. Praise him when he is at your side and reward him with a small treat.
- Repeat this every time he moves ahead of you or pulls to get to something.
- After a few repetitions, he will realise that you want him to walk beside you.
- You will need to keep this up on every walk. Every dog is different. Some are excited by birds or leaves blowing. Others are eager to greet neighbour dogs.
- Try changing your regular walking route to add some variety and allow your dog to experience new smells. This will also test how well he has listened to your leash training.
Never shout at or scold your dog for lunging or pulling on the lead. Your dog will either think you are reacting to the same things as him, or he will be startled by your shouting and will just pull harder to keep a distance between you.
Reactivity at Home
Being at home with your dog should be a relaxing experience, but not all dog owners have this warm, fuzzy feeling. These poor people have a reactive dog. It might be barking at the doorbell or biting the letterbox when the mail arrives. It could be reactivity to people passing in the street. Whatever the reason, there are simple techniques you can use to correct this and help your dog to relax.
If your dog barks at the doorbell, there a three easy steps to follow.
- When your dog barks, say “thank you” and go to the door.
- If he continues to bark, calmly lead him away and shut him somewhere quiet like a laundry room.
- Leave him just a minute or two to calm down, then let him out again.
Continue these steps and be consistent. Eventually, he will realize he doesn’t get to see who is at the door if he barks.
For window barkers, a similar technique works well.
- When your dog barks, say “thank you” but do not move towards him yet.
- If the barking continues, approach the window and lookout. Tell him “well done” if the barking stops on your approach.
- If he continues to bark even after you have stood at the window with him, gently remove him from the room to a quiet area.
The process of removing him from the window means he no longer has a stimulus to react to. Leaving him alone somewhere quiet will allow him to process what happened.
After a few repetitions, he will make a connection between his barking and being removed from the window. Eventually, you should get to a point where he barks only once or twice to alert you and then he will be quiet.
German Shepherds and Children
The placid nature of a German Shepherd makes them great family pets, but they can also be excitable and boisterous, especially during play. German Shepherds need to be taught from a young age how to interact with children. A large bouncy dog and a small child will usually end up with the child being knocked over or injured.
When your German Shepherd is a puppy, have your family and friends visit often with their children and allow the puppy to approach and interact with them. Make sure the children are told how to be gentle with your dog.
If the puppy nips or jumps up at the child, immediately remove them from the area. Do not shout at them, as this can make them nervous to interact with children in the future.
You must be consistent with this to build up the association for your dog. He will soon realize that if he is calm and gentle, he will be allowed to play. For older dogs, you must take things slowly. Start with one child and allow the dog to get used to them.
Encourage the child to stroke them gently and play non-contact games like fetch or frisbee. Do not encourage games of chase with children. German Shepherds have a high prey drive and chasing will trigger excitable behaviors.
(For more information on German Shepherds and babies please see this article here.)
Socializing Your German Shepherd
Although German Shepherds are naturally friendly and placid dogs, without socialisation with different dogs, they can develop intolerances. They need to experience dogs of all temperaments; nervous, excitable, dominant and elderly. Your dog will learn acceptable limits with each dog by gauging their reactions to his own behaviour.
Without these interactions, your dog could become overly dominant or submissive. It is important to remember that if you have an unneutered male dog, he will be more likely to display dominant behaviours like mounting as he gets older. He will also be territorial around unneutered females, as he will see other male dogs as competition.
Set your puppy up for success by taking him to puppy classes. Organise walks with friends and family who also have dogs and talk to other dog owners around your neighbourhood or at the local dog park. The more dogs your puppy meets, the better behaved he will be when meeting new dogs.
Every dog is unique and their personalities affect the way they develop. Some dogs are naturally submissive or timid, but calm and consistent training can help them to become more confident.
If your dog develops behavioural problems or training does not help to correct those behaviours, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Some behavioural problems result from an underlying medical condition and treating this can help your dog to become more relaxed.