Lessons from a German Shepherd

A thick layer of snow is currently covering the garden.  Hopefully our bees are still alive, but it is too cold to check the hives.  Salad greens, Brussel sprouts, onions, and peas are safely growing under lights in the basement waiting to be transferred to the garden next month.  Getting sufficient exercise for our dogs in this weather is a challenge, and dogs and humans alike are suffering from cabin fever.  We have two dogs.  Forte is our five year old German shepherd, and Carmen is our senior rescue dog of unknown age and unknown breed.  I am sharing Forte’s story because I hope it will be helpful for anyone who may be struggling with a dog that they love.

When Forte came into our lives, my husband and I were healing from broken hearts.  Our precious German shepherd Lyric had just died in a tragic accident that is still too sad to discuss.  Nobody was at fault.  Sometimes bad things just happen.  We wanted another German shepherd dog (GSD) because we both grew up with GSDs and were familiar with the breed.  We know they are demanding, require lots of exercise, and have a high degree of intelligence that can be applied towards good or mischief depending upon their proclivity.  On a Sunday afternoon we drove to see some sable puppies that a GSD breeder* was going to have ready for adoption in a few weeks.  The driveway curved around a large fenced area where the puppies were kept with their mother.  A wave of puppies ran across the yard towards the fence.  I didn’t notice them at all.  What I noticed was this very large 12 week old puppy that watched us from the door of the air conditioned puppy shed.  He was too lazy or too hot to waste his energy to check out the new visitors, and he sat alone in the doorway.  I knew from the moment I saw that dog that he was meant to be ours.  I can count on one hand the number of times that I felt something so strongly almost like it was a voice speaking from my soul.  We drove home with that puppy and named him Forte. 

I knew from the moment I saw that dog that he was meant to be ours.

Everything was great for the first three months.  We took Forte on outings to socialize him.  He went to doggy day care to socialize with other dogs, and he went to puppy classes and did fairly well.  Things changed at the six month mark, which is when a dogs’ sex hormones go into over drive.  Dogs, like humans, are prone to bad behavior when their brains are flooded with hormones. 

Forte started growling, mostly at me but occasionally at my husband too.  The growling was unpredictable and without cause.  We never used physical discipline with Forte.  We never used choke collars, shock collars, or pronged collars.  The dog had no reason to fear me, but he would unexpectedly start walking towards me and growling to the point I didn’t know if he might one day try to bite me.  Everyone had advice for how to address the behavior, and most of the advice involved hitting the dog or yelling at the dog.  All of the training books say that GSDs need strong leadership, so we would scold Forte sternly when he growled.  That strategy seemed to escalate his bad behavior.  We never hit the dog ever.  I didn’t think it was right to do so, and I also felt that if we hit him he would bite us.

We sent Forte away for two weeks of obedience lessons where he stayed with his breeder.  When Forte came home, he had licked a sore on his leg from the stress of being away from home.  Sadly, his behaviors were no better after the training.  Once when Doug was working with Forte on leash walking, Forte kept pulling away.  Doug kept correcting the dog the way we were told by the trainer.  Forte finally took a dump on Doug’s shoe.  Forte wasn’t being disobedient, he was trying to get away to go to the bathroom.  All the creatures in the house were frustrated.  Doug was also frustrated because he had to buy new shoes.  We took Forte on lots of walks, which GSDs are supposed to love.  Forte hated them.  The people at the park looked at this big GSD and were afraid, which made him anxious, which caused him to bark, which caused the people to be more afraid.  It was a terrible cycle that left all of us exhausted by the time we returned home.

Forte didn’t growl at everyone.  He loved to be groomed and was excellent with the groomer. She said he would toss his head back like a model when she was blow drying his coat.  Forte loved my dad and would follow him everywhere and never growled at him.  Forte was never kicked out of doggie daycare, although we were told he had to be placed in time out a few times for trying to run into the other dogs.  (This behavior is called checking and is very common in GSDs.  Most of the GSDs had to be placed in time out occasionally.) 

Our next step was to get Forte neutered.  At this point, his aggressive behavior towards us were such that we wondered if we were going to be able to keep Forte.  These discussions were fleeting.  I felt that if we surrendered Forte, we would be giving him a death sentence since GSDs are known to deteriorate rapidly in shelters.  These dogs are bred to be active and are prone to anxiety, which is magnified in a shelter environment.  We quickly put aside talk of surrendering Forte and focused all our energy on trying to help him.

The turning point for all of us was when we explained the problems we were having to the vet.  The vet said that we needed to view the growling as communication rather than a bad behavior that required correction.  We took her advice, stopped trying to follow the training books, and started focusing on understanding what Forte was telling us.  Here is what we learned:

  1. Forte is afraid of almost everything.  He growls when he feels he needs to defend himself from a perceived threat.  I stopped correcting him for growling and started speaking to him in reassuring tones to reduce his anxiety.  Over time, he began to see me as a source of reassurance rather than a threat.  Now when he is anxious he comes to me, stands between my legs, and wants me to rub his hips and shoulders, which is so much better than growling.
  2. Forte will obey, but he wants you to know he is doing it on his terms.  We stopped striving for perfect obedience. He is not a police dog.  Instead we have established mutually agreeable working arrangements.  Forte will not take items out of the trash can so long as we allow him to lift the lid and smell the trash.  Forte will get in the car when asked, but first he needs 60 seconds to saunter around the car or to get a drink of water.  Forte will eat his breakfast, but first he must get at least one ball toss before he eats.  These are minor concessions on our part to get the desired behaviors.
  3. Forte is very grumpy when he is tired.  He plays hard all day and becomes extremely grumpy at bedtime.  It is best to ignore him and let him go to sleep.  He does most of his growling at night.            
  4. Forte needs to be accepted for the dog he is, not the dog the books say he should be.  Forte hates the park, and he probably always will even though the books say he should enjoy it.  We try to keep Forte in environments where we feel he will be successful.  Forte will never be like Lassie.  If I fall in a well, Forte will not go get help.  Forte will drop his ball on my head and want me to throw it out of the well for him.  We have learned to accept this.
  5. Forte needed a buddy.  We added our rescue dog Carmen to the household, and she has helped Forte’s anxiety level.  Carmen has a loving and calm temperament that keeps Forte’s anxiety in check. 

Forte will turn five in just a few months.  Over the span of several years, he has blossomed into a wonderful pet that provides great companionship. He is my constant helper as I work in the vegetable garden.  We refer to Forte now as a “rescue dog” because we feel that if he had gone to a different household his fate may have been very different.  Not everyone has the luxury of waiting years to see if their GSD will overcome his aggressive behaviors especially if small children live in the home.  I’m glad he is ours and that we never gave up on him.  The payoff was worth the struggle.      

* Footnote: Before anyone posts negative comments about us obtaining a dog from a breeder, let me stop you.  We made sure the breeder was reputable and the dogs were well cared for.  We love rescue dogs too, which is why we have adopted a rescue dog and provide financial support to a dog rescue. 

7 thoughts on “Lessons from a German Shepherd

  1. patruss

    Kathy, Thank you for your reflections on dog training. I always learn so much from your posts. I can use some of the information you shared for my own dog. Pat Russ

    Liked by 1 person

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