I’m sure you’ll agree that a well-trained dog is a pleasure to live with!
This is especially true for a large and powerful breed like your GSD.
Of course, starting early with your German Shepherd training will set the stage nicely for the future.
And thanks to the German Shepherd’s strong work ethic and drive, even older Shepherds will benefit from training at any stage of their life.
As a certified professional dog trainer, I coach dog guardians and their dogs to learn new skills, improve existing skills and work through behavior challenges.
These dogs range from puppies to adult and rescue dogs. So I know it’s possible to start implementing successful plans in your German Shepherd’s training no matter their age!
So, whether you’ve just brought home your first German Shepherd.
Or if you’ve finally decided it’s time to teach your old dog new tricks…
You’ve come to the right place to get my best tips for training your German Shepherd using positivity and kindness.
- My 7 golden rules for German Shepherd training.
- Positive reinforcement training my 4 x 3 method.
- One vital skill all dogs and their guardians should practice.
The Lowdown on Your GSD’s Intelligence
It is a fact that German Shepherds are among the brightest and most intelligent working dogs.
According to a book published by Dr. Stanley Coren in 1994, “The Intelligence of Dogs,” the book documents different breeds and their speed of learning and responding.
- The number of repetitions to understand new cues.
- Percentage of responding to a cue the first time.
The German Shepherd Dog performs exceptionally well!
Understanding a new cue in less than 5 repetitions and responding to a first cue 95% of the time or more.
So, your Shepherd is up there with the best, preceded only by the Border Collie and Standard Poodle.
Training any dog is exciting! But training a German Shepherd is doubly so because it’s incredibly reinforcing to watch their eyes light up when they realize they’ve hit the bull’s eye!
We’ll dive into the 3 positive reinforcement training methods in a bit. But before we do that, here are my 7 golden rules for German Shepherd training.
My 7 Golden Rules for German Shepherd Training
These truths will stand you and your GSD in good stead as you grow into the best dog-human training team!
#1 Your Dog has a Built-in Breed Specific Function
Your German Shepherd comes from a long bloodline of working dogs – and that’s true even for our show line Shepherds.
In the case of your GSD, their breed-specific function is dual-purpose…
- Guarding the Shepherd and his sheep. Assisting the Shepherd with herding his sheep.
In fact, if you consider your GSD’s official name, it reveals their breed-specific function perfectly!
“German” reveals where they originate from. And “Shepherd Dog” indicates that they are bred to work closely alongside the Shepherd.
So don’t be surprised if your GSD sticks to you like velcro and is always up for a training session or a game of some kind.
The bottom line is your German Shepherd wants to be busy.
And so, training serves to fulfill your dog’s breed-specific function and provide the stimulation their intelligent brain needs.
#2 Your GSD is not a Human; your Dog is a Reflection of the Training You Give Them
As humans, we tend to personify everything we love including our beloved dogs.
And in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that, with a few caveats…
[+] Our dogs operate on instincts.
If we don’t provide them with the training to make good choices, they will always revert to their instincts.
[+] Our dogs are not people pleasers.
I come across many people who believe that dogs should behave because they love us.
In dog training circles, we call this a “Disney Dog.”
Disney Dogs only exist on the Silver Screen!
And in reality, dogs do what’s reinforcing for them. And this is reflected in their training or lack thereof.
[+] Our dogs can and do react to our behaviors.
Dogs are masters of body language and visual patterns. And they have an uncanny knack for picking up on the most subtle changes in our demeanor and behavior.
Let me explain with an example…
The story starts several years ago in 2015 when my now departed GSD Charley attended one of many therapy sessions after her hip surgery…
And a Staffie named Apollo also had his sessions in the same time slot as my Charley.
Charley and Apollo were never fond of each other for some mysterious reason. And they’d often exchange stares or the odd growl.
One day Apollo strolled past her massage mat. And within a split second, Charley, who has just had hip surgery, jumped up on all fours and started barking madly.
Neither myself nor the therapist saw it coming. But I know that I tensed up when Apollo came strolling by because I knew they weren’t fond of each other.
And looking through the lens of 7 years of experience and formal education, I realize that it was likely because of me that Charley reacted that way.
She responded to my tension, change in body language, and likely even my breathing – and it wasn’t positive.
You may be wondering what you can do to encourage your GSD to respond to you positively.
This brings us to the following golden rule…
#3 German Shepherd Training is about Leadership, not Dominance
Whether you’ve got yourself a GSD puppy or you’re sharing your life with a gray-muzzled senior, your dog looks to you for guidance.
If you think guidance is about establishing yourself as “the alpha,” – please know that this is based on pseudo-science, and it’s not a real thing!
Alpha or dominance training is based on punishment, pain, coercion, and force.
And studies point to a clear breakdown of dog-human relationships based on this type of approach.
It’s a fallout that will most certainly cause your German Shepherd NOT to look to you for guidance!
The most valuable thing you can do to be a good leader for your GSD is to approach training them with kindness and clarity.
Training with kindness and clarity will build trust, safety, and comfort. Creating the perfect trifecta for your GSD to want to look to you for guidance and leadership.
#4 Your GSD Doesn’t Communicate Like a Human
Secretly we all wish that our dogs could speak a human language!
We also know that they don’t come with a pre-installed language program!
Although your Shepherd can’t speak, they can communicate. And as I mentioned earlier, dogs are masters of body language!
If you want to learn more about how dogs communicate using their body language, check out Dog Decoder. It’s available on iOS and Android for a small one-time fee.
With that being said, here are a couple of tips for using words and cues in your German Shepherd training plans…
- Short and sweet cues are more useful than longer phrases.
- Be mindful of your tone and volume. Giving a cue in a different tone or volume can mean the difference between your dog responding or not.
#5 German Shepherd’s Benefit from Consistency
This is true for most things in your German Shepherd’s training…
[+] Consistency in daily training.
And here I recommend doing at least two training sessions per day. Keep them short and sweet – 5 minutes each is plenty!
[+] Consistent boundaries.
I’m a positive reinforcement trainer, but I also believe our dogs should have consistent boundaries.
Positive doesn’t mean permissive!
So if, for example, you prefer your dog not to sleep on the sofa, be consistent.
Sometimes is anytime for a dog! And if you allow it sometimes and other times not, you’ll confuse your dog.
[+] Consistent cues.
Cues are a pretty black and white scenario for dogs. So if you train a cue to mean something, don’t change the cue or the meaning!
So, for example, if you use the cue “come” for your recall, don’t change it to “here.”
Consistency in your German Shepherd’s training will equal harmony and understanding, so it’s worth being mindful of this!
#6 Train Your GSD in Layers
Training your GSD in layers and progressing from easy to intermediate and advanced in logical steps will set both of you up for success!
I’ve written in-depth about this in my M.U.S.T protocol. So here’s I’ll just share a 30,000-foot view…
It all starts with a low distraction and a quiet training area for new behaviors. And progressing to increased distractions as you see your dog’s confidence and understanding grow.
- In the beginning, the correct choice is easy to make for your GSD.
- The correct choice is a little more challenging to make at the next level.
- And finally, the correct choice is tough to make.
In a nutshell, following these steps will:
- Establish your dog’s focus and clarity.
- Protect and grow their confidence.
- Expand their reliability and confidence.
#7 Positive Reinforcement Produces Positive Results
This golden rule really is a culmination of all of the other truths we’ve just looked at.
Science has repeatedly shown that positive reinforcement training builds relationships that drive positive results.
Whereas using punishment-based methods destroy relationships, devastates trust, and slows down learning.
And punishment-based trainers often criticize positive reinforcement training, calling it a bribery system.
But if we’re honest…
No human on earth would work for no pay. So why should our dogs?
Positive reinforcement is a system of payment for a job well done. It starts with food, but as you progress with your German Shepherd’s training, you’ll rely less on food.
Well, through training, there are a host of other experiences that naturally reinforce your dog.
Here are a few…
- Established behaviors in and of themselves become rewards.
- Life rewards like going for a swim, jumping into the car for a ride.
- A game of tug or fetch with you.
- Permission to go off and sniff the shrubs.
Positive Reinforcement 4 x 3 Training
I chose a catchy title for this section because, as you’ll notice, there are a lot of 3’s here!
3 main goals when you use positive reinforcement training…
- Set your GSD up for success.
- Let them know precisely what they did that was successful.
- Reward their success so that it will occur more often.
3-step process to communicate with your dog…
- Observe for the correct behavior.
- Mark the correct behavior.
- Reward for the correct behavior.
3 positive training methods (and when to use them)
This is the easiest of the 3 techniques we use in positive reinforcement training.
It’s easy for both dog and trainer, and it usually produces quick results.
Capturing does require that you have good timing and reflexes.
Think of it as taking a snapshot of a moment in time with your camera.
With this method, you’re reinforcing a spontaneous behavior your dog offers.
A good example is to think about how you’d train your dog to bow on cue.
The easiest way would be in the morning or after a nap, when dogs naturally bow more as a way to stretch out their body.
And here’s how that would look…
Observe – wait for your dog to go into a full bow to stretch.Mark – use your clicker or verbal marker to let your dog know reinforcement is on the way.Reward – offer a piece of food.
We use shaping to teach behaviors that need several steps to the goal behavior. It’s also great for teaching precise behaviors.
Shaping is challenging because it requires some planning and understanding of the steps in a behavior.
But as you and your GSD practice, it’ll become like second nature to you both!
In a nutshell, shaping reinforces the small steps your dog takes to a bigger and more complex behavior.
A good example is to shape your dog to get onto a target like a new dog bed.
And you might start by marking and rewarding one paw on. Then two paws on, then three paws on until you have all four paws on the bed.
Here’s what that could look like…
Observe – wait for one paw on the bed.Mark – use your clicker or verbal marker to let your dog know reinforcement is on the way.Reward – offer a piece of food.
Once your dog is offering one paw on the target, you raise the criteria and start observing for the next step – two paws on the target.
And so you continue to repeat the training until you have reached the goal behavior – your dog with all four paws on the new target.
The most important thing to remember with shaping is…
Split, don’t lump!
Luring is the most accessible training technique. But it has a few limitations to learning and progress, which I’ll get into shortly.
But suffice to say that luring or lure-reward training suits many dog-human training teams.
It’s also helpful in these situations:
- Distracting environments.
- For dogs who have previously been trained using punishment.
- For dogs with a long reinforcement history of certain behaviors like leash pulling.
In a nutshell, the process prompts the dog into a behavior or position with a piece of food.
And it would look something like this if you were to lure-train a dog to sit…
Observe – lure the dog’s nose up with a piece of food, so their butt hits the ground.Mark – use your clicker or verbal marker to let your dog know reinforcement is on the way.Reward – offer the piece of food you lured with.
And as I mentioned, there are some limitations to learning when using lure-reward training…
- Lure-reward training doesn’t promote problem-solving skills.
- Fading the lure is often ignored or done incorrectly.
- Some dog-trainer teams become reliant on the lure.
3 questions to ask before any training session
Preparation and planning are vital before diving into any training session with your German Shepherd.
And these are the 3 questions I encourage all my clients and students to ask themselves…
One Vital Skill, You and Your German Shepherd, Should Practice
The behavior I’m about to share with you is not the usual behavior people focus on.
And you might be surprised to learn that the behavior we’re going to dive into is…
Or Boop that Snoot, as I like to call it.
And before we dive into the steps, here are some excellent reasons you should add this to your German Shepherd’s training repertoire…
Hand targeting has many practical uses in dog training.
[+] It’s a relationship-building tool.
And suppose you consider my dog coming into my hand and touching their nose to my palm. In that case, you can understand how powerful this behavior is for relationships.
[+] It’s one of 4 foundation games I use to teach puppies how to use their mouth appropriately.
A puppy who can come into your palm with a closed mouth is well on their way to a perfectly soft mouth!
[+] Hand targets are an excellent and easy game to teach a dog how easy it is to earn reinforcement from you.
It builds reinforcement history for working with you, having fun, and gaining reinforcement, all with one game!
[+] Hand targets are a great way to move your dog into a position without touching them and without luring them with food.
This is especially useful when working on loose leash walking or heelwork.
[+] Hand targeting is a valuable way to gauge where your dog is on their arousal scale.
A dog that won’t or can’t move in for a nose to palm touch is likely over threshold, and this is feedback for you to know that your dog needs your help.
3 Steps to Training Your GSD How to Hand Target
- Take a treat, and put it in your right hand.
- Put that hand behind your back.
- Bring your hand out quickly, and open it.
- Let your dog access the treat.
- Repeat with your left hand.
- Put a treat in your left hand.
- Place it behind your back.
- Now bring your right hand out as if there is a treat inside your closed fist.
- Open your right hand with your palm flat.
- Wait for your dog to come flying into your open palm.
- Mark with a Yes! And drop the treat from your left hand into your right hand.
- Repeat with opposite hands.
- Repeat Step One again.
- Then repeat Step Two.
- End the game here.
- Next time, play the game again, starting with step one and then moving to steps two and three.
- Start phasing out step one when you see your dog flying to your open hand when you present it and keeps touching until you mark and reward.
And before I sign off for today, here are a few troubleshooting ideas for dogs who try to bite, lick or “almost touch.”
- Change the position of your open palm and have it just above your dog’s head.
- Once you get the nose touches you like, you can rotate your palm to a position you find more comfortable.
- For a dog who “almost” touches, ensure that your dog is actually touching before your mark and reward.
- And use the concept of shaping – rewarding for a slight touch and then increasing your criteria to reward for a more intense contact.