How Easy is it to Train a German Shepherd

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Recently I did my 6-monthly inbox clean-up, and carefully going back over the emails I got from readers of my blog prompted this post.

And I'm going to answer one of the most common questions I get; “how easy is it to train a German Shepherd?

Although, be prepared because I'm going to dive deep into how you can improve your training and sky-rocket the results for both you and your dog.

I think it's vital that we always remain a student of learning, which is critical in dog training as much as it is in life.

What I'm about to share with you is not my creation. I mean, why would I want to reinvent the wheel?

Oh no! What I've learned comes from the minds of legends in the world of positive reinforcement dog training.

And today, I'm going to show you how I apply some of the principles to make training my Shepherds easy, fun, and engaging.

But before we get to the good stuff, I want to get a tad sentimental for a second…

It's funny how a mundane task like an inbox clean-up can remind us of everything we have to be grateful for, especially in this “twilight zone” time we're living through right now.

I love running this blog because I get to chat with German Shepherd-loving folks from all over the world!

And since this blog has been around for going on seven years, I can happily say I've communicated with thousands of you, and it's brought significant meaning to my life and work as a dog trainer.

So I'd like to say, whether you're a long-time reader or brand new to my blog – I appreciate you, and I'm grateful for the joy that you and your dogs bring to my life!

So now, back to that question…

How Easy is it to Train a German Shepherd?

German Shepherd Training with Handler

I could end this blog post right here by telling you the GSD is intelligent, a quick learner, willing to work, and so this breed is easy to train.

Boom, end of a blog post!

But how much help would that be? Because here's the reality…

It's easy to train any dog, including the independent German Shepherd! If you approach your training with great strategies and what I like to call joy-tactics.

And all of the emails I've gotten asking this question are from folks facing real-life dog training challenges with their GSD.

These folks struggle with one or several challenges – going the whole nine yards to solve their challenge, with little success.

We're talking about everything from counter surfing, jumping on guests, leash pulling, not coming when called or playing keep away, to digging up the garden or raiding the trash can.

And some have been honest about their decision (or their partner's decision) to give this challenge one last-ditch attempt before relinquishing their beloved dog.

I want every dog to live their best life. And I also believe that we get the dog we need.

The one that teaches us lessons on being better humans, better parents, partners, and dog trainers.

And so it's up to us to find ways to know better so we can do better. And I think the American author and poet Maya Angelou says it best when she writes;

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

It's up to us, the loop end of the leash, to give our dogs (the clip end of the leash) the clarity they need in the kindest way to live their best lives with us.

I mean, that's the reason we chose to share our lives with them, right?

One of the many ways we can achieve clarity and kindness is to start with four principles that I like to call M.U.S.T.

Yup, what follows is what the loop end of the leash MUST do to make training, teaching, and learning clear, kind, and easy.

  1. Mind-shift change on the part of us from “don't” to “do.”
  2. Understanding of what our dogs genuinely value – what really motivates them?
  3. Structure that's easy to follow in our training.
  4. T.E.M.P. – reading our dog's body language as set out by the legendary Dr. Sophia Yin.

Okay, so I know the word MUST sounds a little pushy and bossy. But it works as a nifty acronym to help me remember these principles in my training.

So I like to think of it as more of a noun. As in these things, M.U.S.T not be overlooked in our training.

Good dog training is easy, so keeping these front and center as we plan, train, and observe will make our Shepherds (or any dog for that matter) a pleasure to train.

Now, let's get into that deep dive I promised you right at the start of this post.

The Mind-Shift Change at the Loop End of the Leash (That's YOU!)

Make the Mind Shits You Need to Improve Your Dog Training Skills

I think two BIG mind shifts will have an immediate impact on how you approach training your Shepherd.

These mind-shifts are about believing what's possible with your dog, And a belief about what's possible for YOU!

And I will bet my bottom dollar these changes will fast-track relationship building between you and your dog. And make training your GSD easy and uncomplicated.

You'll start noticing that your training sessions are easier to manage, feel lighter and flow with fun and joy.

I'm not promising the mind-shifts will be easy, though, because as humans, changing old narratives that no longer serve us is a challenge in and of itself.

But stick with it, and you won't regret it!

Grow from Don't to Do!

The concept of teaching our dogs what we do want instead of focusing on what we don't want is something that gets thrown around in positive reinforcement dog training circles a lot.

I give this same advice to my clients, family, friends, and folks I meet at parties when they ask me about their dog training challenges.

Although dogs respond way better to do than don't, for humans it's a concept that's like trying to catch a plane while it's 30,000 feet in the air.

What does it mean, where do we start, and how do we apply it?

So let's land that plane and look at the practicalities of growing from don't to do.

Here's a little exercise…

Think of one thing that your GSD is doing right now that you would like to change. Now, write it down word for word on a piece of paper.

Maybe it's, “I want my dog to stop ignoring me when I call him.”

Or it might be, “I want my dog to stop jumping on my guests.”

And it could even be, “I want my dog to stop play biting or nipping.”

Chances are, what you wrote may have come from a place of don't.

And that's okay – there's no judgment!

We have all come from a place of don't at some point in our dog training journey.

The important thing is, how do we grow from don't to do?

Here's an example using jumping on guests as the challenge…

Instead of saying, “I want my dog to stop jumping on my guests.”

Try and reframe the don't or stop into what you do want.

Ask yourself what you would like your dog to do instead of jumping.

For instance, any of these ways of reframing the challenge is growing from don't to do.

  • I want my dog to keep all four paws on the ground.
  • I want my dog to go into a sit and calmly wait for guests to greet him.
  • I want my dog to go to his bed or crate when guests arrive and wait to be released to greet guests.

This is an excellent exercise to refocus our minds from don't to do. And it also has the benefit of tying in seamlessly with the next big mind-shift.

Our dogs are doing the best they can with the education we have given them, in the environment we're asking them to perform in.

Our Dogs are Doing the Best They Can!

This quote from the living legend and multi-world champion in the sport of dog agility, Susan Garrett, truly gets to the heart of the matter.

It's a pretty darn powerful statement and gives us the clarity we need to start this next mind-shift. It's all about education and the environment.

So let's take jumping on guests as our example again and apply the principles of education and environment to our solution of “do.”

  • I want my dog to keep all four paws on the ground.
  • I want my dog to go into a sit and calmly wait for guests to greet him.
  • I want my dog to go to his bed or crate when guests arrive and wait to be released to greet guests.

When we start to look at training challenges from a do-perspective, we begin to see the education we need to provide for our dogs.

In this case, we see that the first step is to educate our dogs to keep all four paws on the ground.

We also see that we need to build a lot of positive value for the behavior of sitting with duration and later distraction.

Or being on a bed or in their crate if that's what we want our dog to offer.

We shouldn't start our training when guests arrive or are already visiting.

If we do that, the environment will be too challenging for our dog to perform in, and we'll be setting him up to fail.

Instead, we should be training for the situation and not in the situation.

This means we start training in a low distraction area with no guests around. We are slowly building up the layers of learning, adding duration and distance with just us.

And once our dogs genuinely understand what we want them to do in a low distraction area, should we move on to adding distractions – one guest, then two, and so on.

Before you know it, you'll be throwing a cheese and wine party and your dog will be the star of the show!

Understanding What Our Dogs Genuinely Value

German Shepherd in Water with Tug Toy

B.F. Skinner said;

Reinforcement builds behavior.

This means that the more a behavior gets reinforcement, the more likely it is to occur again.

And the number one most important thing in training is reinforcement.

But if we keep in mind that reinforcement builds behavior, we start to see that reinforcement is so much more than just food rewards!

As our dog's educators, understanding our dog's reinforcement hierarchy is vital if we want to be successful in training.

Let me explain…

In a great interview on Reinforcement in Dog Training with Steve White on Susan Garrett's podcast, this gem of a quote from Steve nails the concept of understanding what our dogs value.

If you want to get the most out of it [dog training], you've got to figure out how to meet them [dogs] at their level. And they [dogs] are really good at telling you when you haven't.

There are many ways that we can approach meeting our dogs at their level.

But for this post, and specifically understanding what our dogs value, we're going to focus on reinforcement and what motivates our dogs.

To begin with, there are three categories of reinforcers (or motivators) to look at; these are food, toys, and activities.

And you want to be fully aware of what your dog loves most in all three of these categories.

And later on in the same podcast, Steve describes how law enforcement agencies have run pilot programs for “positive reinforcement driving tickets.”

The idea is that folks would be pulled over and issued tickets for “good driving behavior” that can be exchanged for flowers, ice cream cones, and the like.

But because of a long history of aversives to being pulled over, people resent being stopped, even if it is for something “positive.”

This also drives home the fact that it's the subject that decides what's reinforcing.

With my dogs, getting down to the nitty-gritty of what reinforcers each of my dog's value and rating them has catapulted our training noticeably.

To help make training your GSD easier, I encourage you to take a few days and make a list of things your dog genuinely values.

Divide your list into three groups, food, toys, and activities. And once you have a nice long list, you can begin by rating each reinforcer as a 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

In my next post, we'll dive into breaking down our list of reinforcers into even more detail.

And learn how to match our dog's reinforcement hierarchy to their distraction hierarchy. Matching these hierarchies up will result in making our training even easier.

Because it'll level up our day-to-day training and will also give us the boost we need when working with our dogs through distractions.

Structuring Training That's Easy to Follow for Both Ends of the Leash

We've all fallen into the trap of expecting too much too soon. I know I have—both in life and in dog training.

It's an easy trap to fall into because we live in a world of instant gratification, which spills over into so many aspects of our daily life.

But dogs don't work that way. Dogs have a biological speed at which they learn. And to be honest, I think this is one of the blessings dogs bring to human existence.

If we don't force things to move at a pace we want but instead allow our dogs to show us when they are ready and confident to proceed to the next level, we set them (and ourselves) up for success.

You'll often hear the following advice in dog training circles;

“Start your training in a low distraction area and only increase the difficulty once your dog is confident at their current level.”

So how can we do this without falling into the trap of instant gratification?

By following a simple structure and a basic set of principles.

Making learning easy, to begin with, is nothing new in dog training, but it's often something that's overlooked.

And in a recent masterclass I attended, Susan Garrett breaks down this advice into a foolproof chart.

Chart Depicting Layers of Learning for Easy GSD Training

Here we see how to create a learning environment where the layers of learning are stacked.

To begin with, the right choice is super easy for our dogs to make – because we have removed most or all of the options to make any other choice.

Doing this will help give our dogs the clarity they need, causing them to make the right choice repeatedly.

The knock-on effect is they experience a high rate of reinforcement for making the right choices. And this is what builds the behavior we're training.

And just as vital, it also builds their confidence which is what we need to see before we move to the next steps but adding either duration, distraction, or distance.

And this is a good segway into the last step of our M.U.S.T acronym – reading your dog's TEMP.

T.E.M.P. – Reading Your Dog's Body Language

German Shepherd Alert Expression and Ready to Train Body Posture

Dog's have a limited repertoire of ways they can communicate their emotional state to us.

And so it's up to us as dog-guardians to learn to speak dog by reading our dog's body language in the context of the situation.

But why is this important when training our German Shepherds?

Well, if we consider that our dog's confidence is the signal to move forward into more challenging training scenarios, body language is the key.

The late Dr. Sophia Yin developed a method for reading a dog's body language in the situation to determine their emotional state.

I could devote an entire week's blog posts to the nuances of canine body language, but I'll break down the basics here and link to more in-depth resources.

T.E.M.P. stands for tail, ears and eyes, mouth, and posture.

And if you want to gauge your dog's confidence at their current skill level before moving forward with training, here's where to focus.

  • Tail – Relaxed or wagging tail.
  • Ears and Eyes – Ear carriage is up and forward. Eyes are bright and alert.
  • Mouth – Relaxed mouth, may be open or closed.
  • Posture – An overall relaxed body posture.

As I mentioned, dog body language is a subject all on its own, and this section does not even scratch the surface.

So I encourage you to spend some time observing your GSD's T.E.M.P. in different scenarios and make notes about the situation and what body language you observe.

Also, I highly recommend the app DogDecoder. It's a paid app for a more than a reasonable one-time fee.

And it's an excellent way to start learning the art of ‘speaking dog' by reading their body language.

If you'd prefer a free option to learning more, here's a link to a PDF with various pictures of canine body language.

Conclusion

This is a lot of information to absorb, so if you've made it this far, congratulations!

Hopefully, you can see that it's pretty easy to train a German Shepherd if you follow a proven pathway and some careful planning.

To make things super simple to remember and refer back to, for those who prefer to skim when reading, here's a condensed version.

M.U.S.T

Mind-Set:

  • Grow from don't to do.
  • Remember, our dogs are doing the best they can.

Understanding:

  • Meet our dogs at their current level – both in skills and reinforcement value.
  • What food, activities, and toys do our dogs genuinely value?

Structure:

  • Build clarity and confidence in our dogs.
  • Start by making the right choice obvious.
  • Move on to adding the 3 D's only when our dogs are confident.

T.E.M.P:

  • Always observe our dog's body language – tail, ears and eyes, mouth, and posture.
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  • Jean Mathis

    Thank You for the Intro. well presented and informative

    • Hi Jean,

      I’m pleased you found this guide useful! 🙂

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