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
I take something I call my “patience pill” every morning. It’s not really a “chill pill.” It’s more of an adjustment to my mindset, usually done while contemplating a bowl of porridge. I know that when I go out with my German Shepherd, Cody, to practice commands, good as he is, I still need to take a breath and remember to keep my composure and be tolerant. You see, dogs want to please and they will try hard, but they don’t always get it right the first time they try something, or the second time or the third.
So, when you and your pup start out working on her basic set of commands, it needs to be done with self-control and some restraint on your part. And treats, did I mention treats?
You can start working with your German Shepherd puppy as soon as you bring her home, which should be no sooner than the eight-week mark. When they are that young, one of the first things they need to learn is their handle, their alias, their nom de dog. Just because it says Bella on her name tag doesn’t mean she knows she is Bella. As we work through this chapter we will use the name “Bella” in reference to your new puppy, whatever their name may be.
One of the first things that you need to make sure of is that Bella will always look at you when asked. All her life. The simplest way of teaching that (as with all commands) is the two-pronged approach. Say your dog’s name, and when she looks up at your hopeful face, clap your hands, say yes or whatever physical/verbal encouragement you want to give, and then deliver a treat from your full pocket. The name exercise can be incorporated into any other routine that you are working on but as with all exercises, don’t overdo it. If Bella doesn’t look at you when her name is called, try this to jog her memory.
- Attach her leash.
- Call her name.
- If she doesn’t respond, call her name again and give the leash a little tug, which will almost certainly cause Bella to look at you.
- Deliver verbal praise, closely followed by the most important thing in your German Shepherd’s eyes, the treat.
I know you love your dog. Bella-Wella is one of the most precious things in your life, but at least when your German Shepherd is young you need to refrain from using cute names or nicknames for Bella. She needs to get used to her given name first before all the love handles that will come her way throughout a dog’s life. I suggest that you choose a name with no more than two syllables so that it is easy to say and/or shout at the dog park. Bartholomew does not exactly roll off the tongue with ease.
“Luring” is a term used in the dog training world to describe how to employ the promise of a treat to prompt the desired action. Luring is never more useful than when it’s time to teach your dog to plant her posterior. When teaching your GSP how to sit, take the treat and hold it right in front of her nose. Slowly raise the treat a little bit at a time so that the dog raises her head. Most puppies will automatically assume the sitting position as they enthusiastically follow the treat and try to get a nibble. Once they’re sitting, deliver the “sit” command and of course hand over the treat. Repeat until you have to go and sit down. Now would also be the time to think about introducing hand signals to coincide with your verbal commands, if you can handle all that pressure at once.
“Come” is probably the most important command you will ever teach your dog. It could save her life in some circumstances. So, you need to get your puppy to respond to the recall command early and practice often. Here’s the technique that has worked for me. You are out with Bella in the backyard. It’s best to be in a contained space where no one can escape and the distractions will hopefully be at a minimum. Walk backward facing your GSP with a treat in your hand calling her name and “come.” Odds are Bella will run toward you. Deliver the treat with much praise and do it several more times but again not excessively.
You may have to conduct several sessions like this on different days before Bella starts associating the move toward you with the “come” command. At a time of your choosing stop using Bella’s name and just use the command.
- Practice collar grabs at the same time as you are working on recall. This will get your dog used to you holding her collar. In an emergency you need to be able to “collar” your German Shepherd easily to keep her from harm or at least away from the birthday cake.
Do Not Do This!
Never recall your dog to you and then punish her in any way. If you do you are teaching Bella that there may be unpleasant repercussions for her if she comes so she could be hesitant to come or not listen to the command at all. This is where your patience may be tested but take a chill pill and a deep breath.
I take a closed fist approach to teaching a German Shepherd how to keep her mouth off things. Now remember how hard this is for a dog to do. Their first inclination when they see something they want to investigate further, is to go have a sniff and then clamp their pearly whites on whatever it is. Some of the things they may want to taste could kill them. So, you need to have a command that tells your dog to refrain from her natural behavior. It’s a tough ask and it may take a while and a lot of dog slobber on your hands but it’s a must have in your command arsenal.
- Place delectable, irresistible treat in open hand in a location where Bella can easily wander over to investigate.
- When Bella makes a grab for said treat, close fist and say “No, leave it.” She may slobber and nibble your fingers but be strong and just sit there with closed fist
- When Bella stops her oral assault, open fist and repeat procedure.
- After innumerable attempts by your puppy to maul your hand she will get the idea that she cannot have the treat so at some point she will just sit there when you have your hand open and tasty treat exposed. I remember watching the drool cascade off Cody’s chin when we were at this stage.
- Once you’ve ascertained that your German Shepherd is sitting there, more or less under control, you can then say “OK” and let her have the treat.
- Repeat until your dog just looks at you with those big brown eyes as if to say, “I get it. Enough already.”
You’ve still got those treats handy, right? OK, let’s continue. There are some dog trainers that say you don’t need a “stay” command. They believe that when you give your dog a direction, such as “sit,” for example, that the dog should just sit forever until you release them. That may be fine for some folks but it never seemed to work out that way for me. I’ve always used a three-part process to implement and release a stay command.
- First, I use a “sit” or “down” command.
- Then the “stay” direction.
- Lastly to end the stay, my release command is always “break.”
“But wait a second,” you say. “You haven’t told me how to do a stay.” And you’re right, I was getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s back up and try that again, stay with me now. How about this?
- Put your dog in the sit position.
- Place your extended arm in front of you with the palm of your hand facing Bella.
- Say “stay” and take a step or two back. After your German Shepherd has remained in the sit position for a few seconds use whatever word you want to release Bella and give her a treat.
- If your dog breaks her sit right away, restart the sit with arm outstretched and issue the “stay” command with no steps. Proximity is important sometimes and if a dog feels you are within reach of them, they are more reluctant to move without permission.
You will ultimately want to work on putting some distance between your dog and yourself while she is in “stay” mode, but that should only be done when Bella is reliable within an arm’s length or two.
Here’s a question for you. Do you cross your legs when you sit down regardless of what your doctor says? Why do you think you do it? I can tell you why I cross my legs when seated. It makes me more comfortable. Calms me down in a way, so that if I’m at a boring party and I have to listen to someone talk about themselves, I can sip my wine, grin, and bear it. Now your German Shepherd won’t find herself at too many parties, I’m imagining, but they sure do like to relax when they think things are under control around them. One of the ways dogs like to kick back and relax is by lying down, so it’s a natural thing for them to do. Your job is to make it natural for them to listen to you and lie down on command.
- Have Bella sit. Show her that you have her most favorite, wonderful treat in your hand.
- Take your hand with the treat in it, put it in front of Bella’s nose, and then move your hand ahead of her and down. The puppy’s natural inclination will be to follow her nose right to the ground. Don’t forget to say “lie down” when she accomplishes this.
- Presto, you have a downward dog. Deliver treat and profuse praise.
- After it has been mastered from the sitting position, practice the “lie down” command from a standing start.
The theory behind this particular exercise is to get your German Shepherd involved in a trading game. My GSD is a ball hound. Most of them are. For the longest time as a puppy, Cody would run around with a ball in his mouth and not even think about dropping it or giving it up to any human. The ball was one of his prized possessions. Until one day he realized that I could throw his ball, and he could chase it. He loved chasing the ball but still didn’t want to give it up once he had it. I’m sure it was a conundrum for him. A ball in the mouth versus using his prey drive and chasing down the orange ball. He never would have worked it out on his own and that’s where I stepped in. I figured that if Cody loved that one ball so much, he might love two balls twice as much.
- I went out into the yard with two orange balls and a very enthusiastic puppy. With his focus squarely on me I would throw one of the balls a short distance away.
- Cody would energetically sprint after the ball, grab it in his mouth, and then his natural inclination was to prance over to me, not to drop the ball, but just to taunt me that he had the ball and I didn’t.
- I would then show Cody the second ball in my possession, point to his ball and then the ground, and say “drop.” This of course didn’t work for the first few times, so then I introduced the treat element.
- Armed with some small pieces of freshly cooked chicken I said to Cody “drop it” and waved a piece of chicken under his puppy nose.
- Cody dropped the ball, ate the treat, and then looked at me standing there with a ball in each hand.
- Here’s how the process played out after that. Many more ball throws, more treats, until finally Cody would come back with his ball and drop it on command.
- Eventually treats were taken out of the equation, replaced by the two balls.
- The “drop” command eventually became transferable to sticks, stones, and small dead animals.
By the way, I still use two balls at a time when playing fetch with Cody because we can get twice as much exercise done in half the time if we really concentrate on the game. So just to summarize the fundamentals of the “drop” exercise:
- Give Bella one of her favorite toys.
- Use treats to convince Bella to give up the toy.
- Each time she releases, use “drop” command, give her a treat and verbal praise.
- If your dog isn’t treat-oriented (it happens) use a low value toy to begin with and work up the treasured scale of toys.
- Eventually treats can be removed from equation to be replaced by “yes” and “good girl.”
This command can be used to keep Bella off your favorite chair or the sofa. It can be used to cut short a counter-surfing episode. It even helps stop your dog from jumping up on you when you come home at the end of the day. It’s a really versatile command but teaching it can be problematic. It’s not a behavior you want to encourage so you have to wait until you catch the scoundrel in the act. And like any of the exercises you teach your four-legged fur child, consistency is paramount.
If Your Dog Jumps Up on You
You need to break your German Shepherd of this bad habit as soon as possible. If your dog jumps up on someone when she is full-grown, she can knock them down and cause injury, especially to elderly people. So, it all starts with you and here are a couple of tactics to use.
- When your GSP jumps up on you, turn your back on her and say “off!” A stern tone of voice is required for the command word. Remember, your dog just wants you to engage with her and turning your back shows you are not going to pay any attention to her if she behaves this way. She will get it eventually.
- If you see your dog coming, and you know she is excited and about to jump up on your clean shirt that you’ve just taken out of the dryer, put your knee up so that Bella cannot plant her paws on your chest. Timing and balance are crucial.
- The last option you can employ is anticipating your German Shepherd as she makes her move to jump up on you. Grab her forepaws as she is standing on her hind legs and walk her backward. She will most likely sit at this point and as she does you need to issue the “off” command. You need to be careful not to turn this one into something that Bella considers a game.
The comforting thing to know about jumping up is that it is one behavior, coupled with the dog’s age and your dogged persistence, that Bella will outgrow.
Now what can you do with a German Shepherd that likes to surf? Inside your house. Roasts swiped off the counter, cake stolen from the kitchen table, conspicuous clumps of dog hair left on the sofa. Let’s start with the sofa.
You know when in training mode with your dog you always need to have treats in your pockets. So, when you see Bella stretched out on the sofa you need to take a couple of those delectable delights, place them on the rug or floor, and say “off” while pointing to the treats. Bella will abandon her comfortable perch for the food. Again, repetition is the only cure for this disease. Even if you’re tired and you just got home from work and the last thing you want to do is correct your dog’s behavior. Dogs understand consistency.
Sometimes dogs are just overpowered by smells. You can tell they aren’t actually thinking about what they’re doing. Instinct has taken over. That’s the case when food is out on a counter or a table. This is when having a large dog like a German Shepherd can actually be a disadvantage. They can stand on their hind legs and make a clean sweep of whatever might be out in the open. Here are some things you can do to make sure Bella minds her manners.
- Keep the countertops and tabletops clear of food when you’re not immediately using them. This means everyone in the household including the teenager who makes a sandwich and leaves all the makings sitting out on the counter. If there is no temptation, there is no crime.
- If there is a big meal underway, say Thanksgiving dinner, and there is food absolutely everywhere, remove your dog from the area. If they have a day bed somewhere or a rug that you habitually locate them to, tell them to go to their bed. Keep them in place and out of the way until the gourmet extravaganza is under control.
- If your German Shepherd habitually hangs out where food preparation and delivery are underway, make sure that some little treats go into her food bowl or onto the floor in an out of the way spot. If Bella realizes that she is going to receive some good stuff if she stays down, then that is likely to become an ingrained habit.
Loving the Leash
I’ve saved the best for last. Walking on a leash isn’t so much of a command as it is a way of life. I have seen dogs that learned to walk on leash without pulling very quickly and I have seen the personal dogs of trainers who were bad citizens when on a leash. Once again there are no secrets to success here.
- Always do the same things when leash training so your dog knows what to expect and what is expected.
- Use the leash. Sometimes when your dog doesn’t seem to be catching on as quickly as you would like, you are tempted to avoid situations where you have to put them on a leash. Instead of a walk they go into the back yard. Or to the dog park where you can get them off leash ASAP. Don’t do that.
- Give your German Shepherds rewards for good leash behavior. If it’s treats and food, great. If not, make play time a little longer. If your smart girl realizes good things come with leash time Bella will be good. After all, it’s in her best interest.
- Need I say more?
Start ’Em Young
The best thing you can do when that eight-week-old comes home is get the collar and leash out and put them on. Under supervision, of course. Let little Bella wear her collar and drag the attached leash around during the day so that it becomes part of her scenery. You can even go for leash walks around the house. Go bother someone who is doing her homework. Interrupt the video game marathon. See what’s cooking in the kitchen. You’ll need to wait until your GSP is a bit older to formally start leash training. Three months of age is typically when German Shepherds can begin to make sense of training so when you’re ready, try this.
- Get yourself a fanny pack. Fill it with treats. It’s a handy tool to have when your hands will be full with the leash and dispensing treats.
- Decide what side your dog will walk on. I find the left side is more natural for me and it is the “traditional” side, FYI.
- Start walking briskly with a loose leash in your right hand, and your left hand, with treats, by your side.
- Your puppy should naturally gravitate to that left side. Keep walking and dispense the occasional treat as long as Bella stays by your side.
- After several expeditions you can try leash walking with fewer treats.
- If your dog pulls, change your direction immediately and walk the other way. The idea is to plant the concept in your dog’s brain that she has to follow you, not the other way around.
- Whenever Bella follows you, make sure the treats flow.
- Some dogs are quick learners, some are resistant learners. You’ll soon know which you have on your hands.
So that’s a quick overview of some of the foundational work that you should be doing with your growing German Shepherd. Yes, it’s a bit of work but it pays off in the long run with a very civilized canine member of your family. If your appetite has been whetted for more training and you want to learn where else there is to go with your German Shepherd’s education, well, the next chapter I call “Dogs with Jobs” is designed just for you.
To read more from "The Complete Guide to German Shepherds" by David Daigneault, or purchase on Amazon, visit the link below: