There’s a good reason people with German shepherds tend to stick with the breed. These loyal friends climb into our hearts (and onto our sofas and laps) with their companionship, devotion, and intelligence.
Yet, as with any breed, those positive traits flip easily into a negative narrative and vice versa, like an interview where the hiring manager asks, “What’s your worst trait?”
In my adult life (I had two when I was very young but barely remember them), five German shepherds have graced our home, and they have all proudly displayed distinctively unique personalities and quirks. One would think, then, that after three decades, all of the “mistakes” would be well anticipated and nipped in the bud.
Yet, those charming idiosyncrasies didn’t all surface simultaneously or even with the same dog. All pet owners make mistakes, but most of them are fortunately inconsequential. I’ve owned five German shepherds, and here are four mistakes to avoid.
1. Train Early and Consistently
The National Police Dog Foundation confirms that German shepherds are the most popular breed for K-9 police work. Why? It’s because of what we already know about these magnificent beasts: They are brilliant. They exist to please their owners. They are tireless when performing tasks. Not training one’s dog early and consistently is like Michael Jordan not practicing free throws or Frank Sinatra just sticking with a backup role in the church choir. Shepherds are born to be trained and to please their owners.
Our first four shepherds were mostly outside dogs. We own acreage on a private road, so our dogs have always enjoyed the privilege of non-confining spaces. They were all well-trained in socialization, potty training, and fundamental obedience commands. The “first four” saw the public rarely; trips were confined to vet visits and hikes in isolated environments. We jokingly called our third German shepherd, Storm, “the perfect dog.” He behaved impeccably with little training, sitting alert, staying, heeling, coming — all of the traits of a well-behaved dog. He was also perfect looking, the epitome of a German shepherd in weight and markings: He sported a continuous “just brushed” appearance.
Vincent Von Jefferson, our fifth and current shepherd, became an “inside dog” by grief default. Seven years ago two of our precious companions died within two weeks of each other. A few days later, we traveled two states away to pick up our new family member. We were careful with him, from diet to health care to the attention we gave him — even to his name: Vincent (“Pulp Fiction”) Von (German) Jefferson (founding father).
He learned quickly (of course) when to eat, when to signal to go outside to use the restroom, when to play, and when it was time to rest.
He naturally loves people and kids, so we did not train him in social skills when it comes to people coming onto our property, such as the mail person or UPS lady. We did not crate-train him because he learned to function well alone by himself both inside and outside. We did not officially leash-train him, dealing instead with an increasingly stronger shepherd pulling — digging in with all of his tenacity and might — on the leash until he finally got tired. After about 30 minutes of struggle, a tired Vincent is a perfectly-behaved boy.
2. Curtail Bad Habits
Experts confirm that a German Shepherd’s perceptiveness and intuition prime it for developing positive behavior quickly. Alternatively, they also validate the fact that a shepherd’s intelligence primes it to develop negative behaviors just as fast. So, loyal can become clingy, intelligent can become manipulative, etc.
I am not an expert, but the American Kennel Club is, and they provide an easily understandable guide with a timeline for training your German Shepherd puppy. If you have studied training methods extensively, or even better, sought help from a professional trainer, then train your dog yourself. Keep in mind that you must carve enough time consistently, every day, to train your shepherd puppy the minute he becomes a family member.
A wiser choice for the majority of shepherd owners is to have your dog trained professionally. Training sessions vary, from individual sessions to group boot camps, to intense one-on-one days or weeks at a time. Consult your veterinarian and reputable associations and word of mouth to ascertain a program that fits your schedule and budget.
3. Beware Separation Anxiety
With the first four shepherds, when we left home, we left peacefully. They were outside dogs, and to be fair, we had at least two at one time, so they learned from each other. No barking, no whining, no attempting to keep us at home.
As with most negative habits, Vincent’s separation anxiety started without reason. Although German shepherds are notoriously clingy, that closeness presents problematic behavior if not caught early. The shepherd’s fear of not being within eyeshot of its owners can quickly manifest itself into separation anxiety.
We have learned to deal with Vincent’s apprehension the best we can, but he still barks, whines, and does an incredibly fast roundabout dance where he pivots 360 degrees continuously. It’s impressive.
Methods to curtail this behavior exist. Prevention including crate training provides the best proactive solution. Additionally, avoid changes in your shepherd’s routine. If you own this fabulous breed, you already know that they thrive on routine! Vigorous exercise helps to curtail this unwanted behavior as well. Leave for short periods, increasing the time so that your shepherd gets used to your leaving. Never make a “big deal” out of leaving, with baby talk and extended hugs. Just leave quietly and peacefully.
Many experts recommend calming medication either prescribed by the vet or CBD gummies made especially for dogs. In our experience, Vincent knows that he is being medicated, and as the effects of the medicine surface, his agitation increases. As a result, the effect of the medication proves worse than no medication at all.
4. Plan for Vehicle/Riding Obstacles
We were in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, when a young couple spied Vincent and fawned over him like he was a rock star (as most strangers do). They had a German shepherd back home and asked us how we made him quiet in the vehicle.
“When we put our shepherd in the car, he whines constantly,” the man said. “Well,” we answered, “so does ours!” Dogs get ultra excited when they know they’re going for a ride, and for many shepherds, that excitement may take a four-hour journey to wear off. While feeling fearful (about going to the vet, for example) or carsick are certainly reasons your dog may whine (very loudly) in the car, the overarching reason is uncontained excitement.
Again, a car crate or even a seatbelt or some type of containment may help make them feel safe, but also be aware of your reaction and temperament. Shepherds pick up on our emotions and mimic them, whether we voice our irritation at them for their incessant whining or at the vehicle that cuts us off and then drives 45 in the slow lane. If possible, keep your emotions in check. If we are on a secondary road and the temperature and precipitation favor it, we’ve found that rolling down the windows helps immensely at keeping Vincent’s whining in check.
Don’t feel guilty for making a minor mistake with your German shepherd. Your job is to provide shelter, healthy food and medical care, playtime and exercise, and consistent companionship. After all, your reward is infinitely greater than your risk: their unconditional love.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © josephgruber/iStock via Getty Images
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