Socializing Your German Shepherd Puppy – The First 16 Weeks

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to German Shepherds" by David Daigneault. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: David Daigneault

Socialization. Why would we have to think about that in relation to our German Shepherd puppies? Don’t we just roll with the punches, let the chips fall where they may and take one day at a time? The short answer is no. Canine behavior can be extremely unpredictable UNLESS you have made the effort to mold and expose your GSP to the varied social possibilities and responsibilities in the big, wide world.

I knew one of my biggest challenges when we brought our GSD home would be socialization because we live on a rural property. There are no other dogs to expose Cody to, few people come by during the course of a week, and short of the odd squirrel, rabbit, or coyote, Cody is stuck gazing into my bloodshot, brown eyes most of the time. So, I have had to make a point of taking him places with me in the truck, making the forty-five-minute drive to the nearest dog park, taking one-on-one lessons with a trainer, and generally exposing him to whatever the day has to offer. Does the occasional service repairman have to put up with Cody nuzzling him, trying to coax a throw of a tattered Frisbee or a kick of a deflated basketball down the hill for the dog to chase? Sure, but If I hadn’t made those socialization efforts, I would in all likelihood have a fearful, insecure, and potentially dangerous eighty-five-pound dog that would only perpetuate the false stereotype of the aggressive, out of control German Shepherd. I didn’t want that and neither do you.

Pushing the Positive

German shepherd by the door
Photo Courtesy – Colleen O’Connor

The first sixteen weeks of a puppy’s life are a critical period for your GSD. Her personality is beginning to take shape and patterns of behavior are forming. So, the time you put in now will pay off in spades later. Just as your training methods should always include positive reinforcement, your socialization approach should also be pushing the positive. If you’re moaning about what a big job this will be and how much time it’s going to take and you’re not sure if your puppy really needs a focused socialization effort, remember this. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a dire warning about what can happen if your GSD is inadequately socialized.

  • “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”

Having a dog is all about dealing with possibilities and this is one of those times when you need to think about how your dog would get along if you were no longer in the picture. A socially adjusted canine, one that handles meeting new people well and enjoys exploring different places, increases her chances that she will continue to have a good life without you. Play the odds and maybe, just maybe, you can save your dog’s life even if you aren’t around.

Positive Preparations

I mentioned making the exploration of the world a positive experience and you can accomplish that in several different ways. Don’t rush your puppy into situations. To a certain extent let her feel her way. You also need to remember that German Shepherds, even puppies, pick up on how you are feeling. If you’re tense, they will tense up. So, try and relax and take your time. Putting your pup on a tight socialization schedule could do more harm than good. You want to take your pup out of her comfort zone, but gradually. If you’re creating fear in your GSP you’re going backward. Another way to push the positive is to be liberal with the treats when you’re out and about. If Sheba loves little sweet potato nibbles make sure to have some of those in your pocket before your next get-to-know-the-world expedition takes place.

After you have had your GSP around the ranch for a week or two and she has had time to get used to the new faces and some of the routine that her life will have, it is time to start seriously socializing Sheba. You can expand her circle of acquaintances to extended family, friends, and neighbors. One of the best moves we ever made was getting our next-door neighbor introduced to Cody when the puppy first came home. Our neighbor is so comfortable now with our dog that he will look after Cody when we are away. It really is the best of both worlds for you and your GSD if some people close to you can help take care of the dog when needed. There is an intense bonding process happening during this early time. This is when your GSP learns to trust you and you start to have some faith in her.

My Tip

  • In order to solidify the bonding process during this socialization period, here are some no-no’s. Never scare your pup “just for fun.” Never tease your dog just “playing around.” Last, but not least, never hit your GSP just “to teach them a lesson.” GSDs need to know that you are a constant dependable, positive presence in their lives. You are their whole world, so don’t make it a bad one.

You’ll need to wait until your puppy’s initial vaccination program is done and she has her immunity built up before expanding your horizons to total exposure, but don’t wait to start the socialization process. Begin slowly but once the shots are over with, the sky is the limit. Now let’s deal with some specific interactions that your puppy needs to have.

Dog Demeanor

German shepherd in snow
Photo Courtesy – Sherry Schuessler

It’s crucial to allow your German Shepherd puppy to meet and associate with other dogs. You and Axel will get some socializing in puppy class but it’s also important that puppies meet older dogs to continue their learning curve. Your GSP would have received some of the social basics in his first eight weeks of life from his mother and undoubtedly from his littermates. However, for Axel to become a full-fledged member of society he needs some adult modeling. Many people cringe at the suggestion of dog parks for their little baby but that’s really where you’ll find a cross-section of canine society.

The Gang’s All Here

  • The Bullies who can’t take no for an answer are always parked at the park.
  • The Scaredy-Cats who cringe at all the barking are there.
  • The Mighty Mouse little dogs who think they’re ten feet tall strut their stuff there.
  • The Cool Dudes who are only there for the sniffing, and maybe a drink of water, hang out here.
  • The Laidback Hippie Hound with the bandana and a goofy smile on his face is sure to show up.
  • The Big Boys who just stand around and don’t do much of anything but drool are usually present.

With a mix of personalities like this, you’ll need to be careful introducing little Axel to this rough and tumble environment. By the time you and your GSP put in an appearance at the local park you need to have at least some control over your puppy. Having a reliable degree of recall, coming when called, is a requirement because being on leash in the dog park is not a good idea. Being the only dog on a leash at the park is like a boxer having one hand tied behind his back. Axel needs to have mobility in order to move around and possibly get himself out of some tight spots.

Playing with the Big Dogs

Before taking your GSP to hang out with the big dogs, a little advance intelligence is in order. What’s the best time to take a newbie to the dog park? Probably the quietest time possible, so in the beginning avoiding weekends, evenings, and first thing in the morning is the way to go. The dog park isn’t a substitute for other exercise so make sure your pup has had a workout before the park jaunt. That will take the edge off his energy and make him a little more civilized once the gate to Fido Fields opens. OK, so here we go, you’re at the dog park. Get out your mental checklist.

  • Keep the visit short. No more than fifteen minutes, even less if you sense your GSP is overly anxious.
  • Take the leash off. Tethered dogs can be extremely defensive and unleashed dogs can be aggressive in mixed company.
  • I don’t recommend toys or treats at the dog park. They’re just an opportunity for a squabble.
  • Pick up after your pet. Most parks provide plastic bags and garbage cans for disposal but bring your own bags just in case.
  • Always keep track of your German Shepherd. Just because your dog is well-mannered doesn’t mean everybody is and if trouble happens you want to cut it short before someone gets hurt.

From my experience, most older dogs will cut puppies some slack but if the youngster is too energetic or doesn’t respect any boundaries, the big boys will put him in his place. That’s all part of maturing and understanding the rules. You need to be sure that during your excursion nothing untoward happens, so keep your eyes peeled. Again, from my experience, most German Shepherds enjoy dog parks but don’t necessarily want to play with other dogs. Cody has a good time but displays some aloofness and no other dog has really bothered him.

Pets and Pecking Order

Bringing a new German Shepherd puppy home and expecting him to get along with an existing, comfortable top dog and perhaps a temperamental kitty without thinking that scenario through is asking for trouble. Here’s how to avoid complicating your life and maybe a large vet bill.

Senior Rover

German shepherd looking up
Photo Courtesy – Erin Huntley

Your older dog has had the house to himself. As far as he is concerned it is “his” territory, so when you bring your puppy into the equation it is a home invasion of sorts. You just need to do your best to make sure Rover welcomes the little invader with a wagging tail. If Rover is an older German Shepherd, they can be extremely protective of their territory, so you want to make sure that first introductions are brief and, most especially, non-threatening to both dogs. Initially that means some kind of neutral ground. The first encounter should be outside; it could be on the sidewalk down the street, the local park, anywhere that Rover doesn’t claim as his own turf.

  • You’ll need to have both dogs on loose leashes. Control is important but the dogs need to have a chance to sniff and move around.
  • Smelling is all-important to dogs and each smell goes into their memory bank. You want Rover to recognize the puppy’s smell for next time.
  • Remember, dogs feel what you feel, so take some deep breaths and calm yourself down.
  • If your German Shepherd puppy is overly excited, walk away and bring him back after a few minutes. You may want to try a short walk so the dogs get a chance to expend some energy. You’ll be able to tell quite quickly how the newcomer is going over with the veteran.

The most important thing in this relationship-building exercise is to let the animals work out their own dynamic. The older dog will be dominant, and Rover should not be corrected if he has to put little Jaeger in his place. You may encounter a growl and maybe even a snap or two throughout and it is certainly something to keep your eye on but may just be a perfectly normal interaction between an established dog and a puppy who is unknowingly breaking the rules. If the first encounter went well, the next step would be having the two dogs spend some time in your front yard. Before moving into the house make sure that you take your GSP in first to let him get used to the interior sights and smells. Each time they meet, Rover and Jaeger can spend more time in each other’s company, but you always need to have a keen eye out. German Shepherds and other dogs can be dependable but their behavior is never one hundred percent guaranteed.

Kitty Cats

Understanding prey drive is important when it comes to GSPs and cats. German Shepherds like to chase things. It’s in their genes going back to Max von Stephanitz and the sheep-herding days. GSDs will have varying degrees of prey drive but it inevitably kicks into high gear when something small runs by. Like a cat. Young German Shepherd puppies don’t have the tools to do much damage to Kitty but unless their behavior is modified early when it comes to the feline it could be a problem later. So, we need to teach the puppy that Kitty isn’t prey and that you would dearly love for them to be friends and confidants. OK, maybe not confidants.

Before Zelda ever lays eyes on Kitty the best introduction for both of them should be a smelly one. It’s really a sniff test. I would stress that it’s important for the two animals to eventually meet each other in the environment that they will co-exist in, so for the purpose of this little exercise I’m assuming we have an indoor cat. Let your German Shepherd puppy get used to the cat’s smell before a physical introduction. The first face-to-face could be with the pup in his crate and Kitty Cat free to explore in safety. It could be with both animals in the room with Zelda on a leash. Any movement toward the cat initially should be met with a firm “no” and this is a good time to work on reinforcing the “sit” command.

As you can imagine, keeping things under control is paramount. There is a theory that says cats can sense when puppies/dogs are under control and they will be more likely to engage if they feel it is safe to do so. If Kitty and Zelda can become friends, that’s great but at least they should learn to tolerate each other. We’ll go over some commands for Zelda in Chapter 12 but one of my most used commands with my five-year-old Shepherd, Cody, is “leave it.” That one is very applicable to possibly saving Kitty’s life and or your Shepherd’s eyesight if push comes to claw. Depending on what kind of relationship you see developing, carefully monitored face-to-face encounters can take place with Kitty always having an obvious escape route. Cats are always a wild card so nothing is certain in the feline-canine relationship.

Pleased to Meet You

German shepherd close up
Photo Courtesy – William Chilton

Dogs and kids just seem to go together, don’t they? Properly socialized German Shepherds are generally very good with children but there is one thing to keep in mind about this particular breed. They have lots of energy (I mean that sincerely) and they act like puppies for a very long time. My five-year-old GSD has only now started to calm down a bit so in essence it’s been a five-year puppyhood. I make that point because they can get overexcited and overstimulated quite easily, and unless they are watched closely in their interactions with kids, it can lead to problematic behavior.


My Tip

  • Mixing toddlers and GSDs can be a particular challenge. From my experience, toddlers want to hang all over the dog and German Shepherds, not aware of their own size and strength, can easily knock the child down unintentionally. Special vigilance is required with little people and your German Shepherd puppy.

There are two classes of children as we all know. Your own well-behaved little darlings and everybody else’s kids. Let’s deal with GSD interaction and your family first.

Your Best Friend

Having a German Shepherd puppy grow up with your children can be a great experience for everyone involved. They have enough energy to match any child’s stamina. They’re incredibly smart and are easily trained for a variety of lifestyles. They’re protective of their family and always want to please. They do demand a lot of attention so the more bodies on hand to help occupy that keen canine mind the better. But as with all situations, a few guidelines for the home side won’t go amiss. The sooner they become house rules the better.

Don’t torture the puppy. No hitting your new family member, no kicking, no pulling her tail.

Do pet her properly, from the head to the tail. German Shepherd puppies and adult dogs love the human touch, but in a respectful way.

Don’t roughhouse. This means you! That’s when kids and puppies get hurt.

Do play fetch. For a little while. Puppies need to burn off energy, plus it’s an opportunity to practice commands like “drop” and “sit.”

Don’t disturb your GSP in her crate. That’s her space and her refuge.

Do let sleeping dogs lie. Your puppy needs her rest and should not be disturbed during nap time.

Don’t feed your German Shepherd human food. Even the smallest tidbit can end up being a mess on the living room carpet.

Do leave the puppy alone at meal times. Some dogs are finicky eaters as it is and don’t need any distractions.

Don’t take the puppy’s toys away from her. Everyone loves her toys and so does Zelda, so let her have them.

Stranger Danger?

Two german shepherd looking up
Photo Courtesy – Patti Baxter-Jasper

One of the characteristic traits of the German Shepherd is that they are typically suspicious of strangers. When a full-grown GSD lets out that deep, rumbling bark and the hair stands up on his back making the imposing animal look larger than he already is, it can be an incredibly intimidating sight. That behavior, believe it or not, is part of their DNA. Remember their background as shepherds, guarding the flock and fending off danger. While the sheep are out of the picture now, and danger is not so much a part of our lives, the genetic urge remains. “That’s great,” you say, “but how do I keep my German Shepherd puppy from getting into trouble when a stranger shows up?”

Well, the introduction of your German Shepherd puppy to a stranger is a two-way street. The puppy needs to know what behavior is expected of it but so does the stranger, adult or child.

Stranger Guidelines

  • Positive reinforcement. You want your German Shepherd to learn that guests are good and that a certain amount of fun accompanies a visit. Guests who dispense a treat or two may have the upper hand, and may in fact get to keep their hand. That’s a little humor for those just tuning in.
  • Brief eye contact. Don’t stare at the dog. It’s rude to stare under any circumstances but prolonged eye contact with a German Shepherd you don’t know can be interpreted as a challenge you don’t want to make.
  • No sudden movements. If your guest gets nervous and starts to flail their arms around, that can be seen as an invitation to the dog to make a closer inspection.
  • No loud voices or shouting. Remember, a GSD senses emotions and moods and reacts accordingly. Gentle voices.
  • Let the dog come to you. I suggest making a fist and leaving your hand by your side for the dog to smell initially.
  • Even if the dog seems relatively friendly, don’t pet them on the head. On the shoulders or along the back is more comfortable for the GSD.
  • If you can arrange it, no ringing doorbells or loud knocking. Those are things that seem to send most dogs into a frenzy.

Puppy Guidelines

  • Control the dog. If meeting the stranger outside, tell the German Shepherd when it is all right to approach the person. I always have a leash with me but only use it if absolutely necessary to maintain control. You can use the “sit and “stay” commands to give direction to the puppy.
  • If your guests are expected, make sure your puppy is well exercised so that when they do arrive Zelda will be less likely to have energy to burn, running circles around your guests and jumping up on them.
  • The treat/positive reinforcement approach works for you too. If your German Shepherd is treat-motivated you can reward her for listening to you and remaining under control. Don’t forget the verbal praise. Some GSDs value that above all else.
  • Remember that you need to be calm so that is conveyed to your dog.

My Tip

  • I have always found that making a dog feel confined when meeting strangers is problematic. If you can avoid putting your German Shepherd on a leash, avoid crating them or having them in a separate room from your guests, it is a better socialization situation for them. As always you know your dog best, so watch for signs of agitation or fear. If the dog isn’t warming up to the situation then you do need to remove them from it.

This whole chapter has been focused on dealing with how to make your German Shepherd puppy a well-rounded social citizen. That means exposing them to as many things and experiences as possible so before we leave the social animal behind, I just wanted to give you a few more ideas on how to help your GSP move up the socialization ladder.

  • An easy and non-threatening way of getting your puppy some exposure is to take her to an area where you can perhaps sit on a bench and watch the action. People will just naturally come over to you and want to talk about dogs; the children will want to pet the puppy.
  • Exposing the dog to an assortment of noises is something to aim for. Walk by construction zones, skateboard parks, ballparks, hockey arenas, walking trails, airports.
  • Dog parks but initially only from outside the fence where she can watch the action but not be intimidated by it.
  • Go places where your German Shepherd puppy can see other animals, not just dogs but farm animals if possible, such as horses and cows.
  • Car rides are excursions that will become part of your dog’s daily life later on so getting her accustomed to piling into the family car and heading out as early as possible will be to everyone’s benefit. Car sickness is an aspect of those jaunts that many GSD owners have to deal with. More on that in Chapter 15.

Coming up in the next chapter, we’ll deal with the good and the bad of pack mentality. We’ll also answer the question being asked in many households, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

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