Building Confident German Shepherds through Socialization
We all want our dogs to lead happy healthy lives free from fear. However, many German Shepherds will require intense training to overcome natural, genetic or learned fear responses to what should be normal interactions and situations. Socialization is the process that accomplishes this goal.
What is dog socialization?
Webster’s dictionary defines socialization as the “exposure of a young domestic animal (such as a kitten or puppy) to a variety of people, animals, and situations to minimize fear and aggression and promote friendliness”. My husband Jason likes to say it is the passing of rituals (proper behaviors if you ritualize proper behaviors and bad behaviors if you ritualize bad ones) from one generation to the next. Your practice in socialization starts the moment you take your puppy home. Your breeder should have started this process long before you received your puppy.
A puppy’s critical socialization period starts at about 3 weeks and begins closing at 12 weeks old. The earlier we can start imprinting on our puppies, the more well rounded all our dogs will be. Don’t discount the impact that can be done after 12 weeks of age but have patience and know you will need to put in the repetitions. Socialization continues through the life of our dogs. Experiences and exposure will continue to shape your dog in a positive or negative way through life’s interactions.
So What Can I Do?
Embrace the power of Counter Conditioning. I love pairing food with new situations. No matter how young or old a pup is, I can counter-condition any visual or auditory stimulus to create a positive response in my dog. Imagine the Fourth of July and all the fireworks making your dog happy instead of scared. That is the power of counterconditioning. Every time we feed our baby puppies, I start by playing an obnoxious YouTube video like “Sirens for dogs” or “Fireworks for dogs” and then feed the pups. When the lawn mower, trimmer or chainsaw is running, the pups are on the deck and we are each feeding them while they hear the loud, new sounds. Remember, next time you're going to the park, take high value treats! Do the same with the vacuum. Starting from a distance, turn the vacuum on and feed the dogs. How about taking out the recycling? Shake a bag of empty plastic bottles and cans then feed the dogs immediately after.
Make Time for Field Trips My goal is to take my puppy out to a new place 2-4 times a week. I make these training opportunities with my high value rewards and a treat pouch in tow.
Be Creative and Have Fun How many different surfaces do you have in and around your home? Gravel, grass, asphalt, concrete, tile, carpet, hardwood floors, linoleum, granite, wobbly floors, grates… Be intentional to get your puppy comfortable on all types of surfaces. Laying a track of treats for your puppy to follow will incentivize your pup to want to explore new things.
How many car rides can you take your pup on? How many different types of dishes can you feed your puppy out of? Will your puppy potty on a leash? Or potty in a new location? All of these things go back to socialization and creating a well rounded puppy.
BUT what about dog on dog socialization?
Dog on dog interaction is another crucial part of socialization. This starts with mom and her puppies. As she interacts with them, she is teaching social cues and play cues and correcting their exuberant or boorish behaviors. Littermates are constantly rough housing, stealing toys and causing mischief. These interactions are opportunities to learn and practice social cues with each other. Ideally, pups are learning from mom until they are 8-10 weeks old or longer!
I love having numerous trustworthy mature adult dogs for my litters of pups to interact with. Starting between 8-12 weeks of age, we will pair a “grandma” or “aunt” type dog with a couple of puppies to run and play with. The social cues like play bows, high pitched barking, lip licks, shakes, stiffness, growling, yawning are all learned through healthy interactions with other dogs.
Sadly, at such a crucial stage of development, all it takes is one bad experience for a puppy to become afraid of other dogs for life. I am so protective of my puppies and what dog’s they engage with. I am intentional to expose them, in a controlled environment, to dogs from Mastiffs to Shih Tzu’s, large and small breeds, poodles and doodles. But I will not put my puppy in a position to be bullied. Having a calm, trustworthy dog for the pups to interact with helps generalize their socialization to all dogs.
Our society has created an expectation that socialization includes dog parks and doggy daycare and a mentality that every dog should love to play with every other dog in the world. This is not realistic for all dogs such as the average German Shepherd or the average working or herding breed dog. Yes, there are individual dogs who love that lifestyle and certain breeds thrive on it. But it is not for every dog. Be ok with that.
Remember that dog parks are a relatively new cultural phenomenon. Just a generation ago they were not a thing. While some breeds have been selected for social interaction with strange dogs over hundreds of generations (some hunting breeds) Others have specifically been selected through those same many generations to be aloof of new canids (dog like species) even aggressive to strange dogs (herding dogs.)
The long-term socialization goal is for our German Shepherds to be able to work in and around high stress, high distraction, high excitement situations and tune it all out; to be a ‘gentleman not a jerk.’ I’ll never forget vacationing in Chelan, taking my dog and kiddos to the farmers market. As we’re strolling through, looking at all the homemade goods and locally grown produce, an off leash dog, no joke, came and stuck its nose up my female GSD’s rear end! How appalling. I have no idea where the owner was but they obviously didn’t care about what their dog was up to. Thank goodness, her socialization and obedience training paid off. She focused heeled through that crowd and never glanced back. We were bombarded by a number of other dogs and she rocked the entire experience. Intentional socialization pays off. Be intentional. Make it a training rep.