Overly Enthusiastic German Shepherd

Hi John,

I have a 2 year old german shepherd dog who is normally very well behaved. He took to basic commands and potty training almost instantly and responds very well with a few exceptions. We have been having difficulty in getting him to remain calm in public or on walks. We took him to socialization classes as a pup and frequently take him to dog parks, he is very gentle with other dogs and good at reading thier behavior and knowing when another dog wants to be left alone, however, on walks, at the vet or trips to the pet store he can not contain himself when he sees another dog. He pulls on his leash and barks non stop. He ignores all commands to sit or stay. This is not agressive behavior, just excitement about seeing another dog. If the owner of the other dog allows orur dog, Drogo, to get close they simply smell eachother and Drogo attempts to engage in play. I need to find a way to contain this behavior though, as not obeying commands is very bad. While I know my dog, other people do not and this behavior is has been viewed as agressive and frightening to others. (I would be scared too if a 65lb dog was barking continuosly at my tiny pup) I have even been pulled to the ground by my dog durring his excitement and attempts to interact with another dog. He does not exhibit this behavior with dogs he sees daily (our roommate as two dogs) but only with new dogs so doing controlled training is difficult. We have tried offering treats to motivate him to pay attention to commands but he just ignores them, he values interaction with the new dog far more than a tasty treat, not even his favorite toy interests him as a reward for good behavior durring this type if distraction. Any suggestions?

K. (Illinois)

Hi K,

Let me preface the following by saying, keep in mind I haven’t seen this dog in action so my response is a generalization based on German Shepherds I have ended up seeing with owners with similar complaints. It may apple to your situation but it may not, so take it with a grain of salt.

If your dog is “good at reading (another dog’s) behaviour and knowing when another dog wants to be left alone”, it is because one or more other dogs showed him what would happen if he did not respect their wishes. What you may need to ask yourself what did those other dogs bring to the table that you do not. We can be sure that it isn’t tasty treats or his favourite toys. It was very likely a negative consequence for a negative behaviour.

I’m guessing here, but you’ve probably done your obedience training on the basis of all positive rather then balanced, (which for the purpose of this discussion let’s define as all positive – almost all the time.) A lot of dog owners go to dog training classes and come away thinking their dog has obedience training but their dogs perform more what I would call a trick and often but not always only around limited distractions.

Over the course of my 30 year career I have seen a surge of people becoming dog trainers embracing the all positive, all the time, treat foundation method. Using treats to “train” a dog can convince people interested in becoming a dog trainer that they are indeed training a dog in a meaningful, useful way when they see how quickly they can get some dogs to perform a simple thing like – “Sit”. It’s a simple thing to learn but it does not a trainer make. Unfortunately, it has convinced a lot of people that they are dog trainers.

Some go on to learn more about behaviour, but a lot have flooded the dog training market with a very low skill set. The ones I’ve met mean well but their naivety sets a lot of dogs and dog owners up for failure down the road when dogs grow older, more confident or real life contexts are encountered. I don’t know how good this is as an analogy but it might help illustrate my point and motivate you to seek a higher skill set in your next trainer. If a man only visits his children once a week for an hour (dog trainer in a dog training class) and brings along a box of candy and toys that he doles out to reward their good behaviour he is going to find he easily achieve center of attention status and will indeed get results. He may also very well start to think he’s got the raising children puzzle licked and wonder why their mother, school teachers, baby sitters etc. who have to guide their behaviour into adulthood can’t mirror his success, the other 167 hours of the week. That is the model a lot of dog owners have inflicted upon them and find themselves in situations similar to your own. A lot of dogs pay a price too and because they don’t learn a real skill set at best lead lives of near house arrest because they can’t behave around distractions.

It’s not that it’s incorrect to reward good behaviour, (quite the opposite – remember all positive almost all the time) particularly when learning new skills but as any good mother, father or truly skilled dog trainer will tell you it’s a rare child or dog that won’t at some point in life develop to a point where they must hear from those guiding their path, “I’m not asking you. I’m telling you.”, along with a promise and delivery of consequences for disobedience. To some all positive dog trainers this is equated with abuse. Any negativity is found abhorrent by some. Let me be clear, that does not mean and I am not suggesting abuse. I’m suggesting a measured response based on a variety of common sense factors. Does the dog know what was expected of it? Was the level of distraction so great that the handler could not reasonably get the dog’s attention? (Don’t expect to succeed teaching a child geometry at the gates of Disney Land). Does the dog live with the handler like they’re college room mates or as teacher/student? Are there environmental factors undermining the success by conditioning the dog into a negative response (window watching in your case) etc.

I would suggest that the first thing you consider is whether your dog perceives you as a great college roommate or as a parental figure. If not the latter, I would work on that for a month before I’d work on your dog’s excitability around other dogs. Once that has been accomplished I would start testing the dog’s ability to comply with loose leash handling, stay’s and recalls around various distractions, using distance to give him a chance to work up to them if necessary. Finally, I would work around other dogs, again from a distance.

There is more that can be said but I’d suggest you see if you can find a balanced trainer in your area. Keep in mind some trainers consider “might is right” to be balanced so do your research and make sure you’re working with someone that is all positive – almost all the time. They will be big on reward but not exclusively so.


John Wade

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