Agression issues

doucanoeDecember 1, 2012

We rescued a German Shepherd last November, he is now two years old. In general he is a very good dog, sweet, smart, and very active.

However he was never properly socialized and we are having a very difficult time fixing this problem. He goes ballistic when people come over, be it friends and neighbors or the UPS guy. Anytime anyone comes to our house he barks incessantly, jumps on them and shows his teeth.

He hasn't yet, and I don't think he would intentionally bite or hurt anyone, but he just gets so out of control. If we know someone is coming we have been crating him until they have been here a while and he has calmed down a bit, but when we let him out he is still very excited.

I am to the point of considering taking him back to the shelter, but I really don't want to do that. I just can't handle him when he gets this way. He is 85lb and very strong!

I do love him but I have a sort of love-hate relationship with him simply because of this behavior.

I have borrowed a friend's shock-collar, haven't used it yet. I don't know what else to do we have tried everything but "doggie downers" on him!

Any advice on curbing this behavior will be welcomed. Other than this we have been able to train him to be a really good boy!


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Control is necessary to start. And control is going to take a bit of time to accomplish. Training to prevent a problem is far superior to having to train away a problem.

Since you now have a problem, solving it will take longer, since you have to show him certain activities are not wanted, while other responses are what you want.

The whole point here is to require his obedience. You simply give him no other option. That does not mean yelling/hitting/abusing him, just not progressing an inch until he obeys.

To start, it might be a good idea to just leave him in the crate during short visits, since any work on a leash before he becomes accustomed to the desired behavior will just make retraining take longer.

First, he needs to be taught leash control when he is calm. A regular collar is just fine for this work, using so called 'control' collars is not only harmful, they often make control more difficult. Doing this calmly removes the necessity to have to hold him back with the collar/leash when he is excited. Trying to do that with an excited dog actually increases the initial problem.

When there are no distraction, work with him on leading, stopping, sitting and being calm when moving after sitting. Repetition is the key here, if he 'gets' it in just a week, he still needs practice.

Once he is accustomed to being calm on leash, add a distraction. Like a car pulling into the drive way. Or ringing the doorbell. He will quickly understand the sit/calm is required behavior.

This training may take weeks. And it needs to be done daily---if only 10 minutes a day. Once he begins to be calmer, allow him to accompany you to the door(on leash) and require him to be calm before you open the door.

And keep him on the leash while he gets accustomed to the visitors. In time(several months or less) he will be accustomed to being calmer and act better when folks come.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 12:24PM
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Handyman, thank you. We did take him through a 6 week obedience class and learned a lot there. Got the basic leash skills mastered and we practice them with him daily.

The problem is that he is perfect on a leash in every instance EXCEPT when people come to the house.

If we are walking him on a leash on our dirt road and we encounter a neighbor he is perfect. He does get a bit agitated if a car comes down the road, but other than that he is, for the most part, leash trained. He walks at my left side and is not easily distracted. Sits, lays down, stays, etc. At home when he wants to go outside, I make him sit and wait for at least a minute with the door wide open before I give him the okay to get up and go out.

It is just when visitors come or leave he gets overly excited and somewhat intimidating.

We live out in the country and I don't want him to become overly submissive and lose his protective instincts, but I need him to learn to be calm when we have visitors and/or deliveries.

I like your idea of leashing him when people arrive, we'll try that. Unfortunately he is not a food-driven dog, so treats don't do the trick as rewards, but he does love to be praised.

Is there such a thing as an "untrainable" dog? Just wondering since we have not had any luck with the methods we have tried thus far.


    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 12:59PM
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I don't have any tips for you, but have heard that GSD's can be more difficult to train. But that after they're trained, they're reliable & great pets.

HM has trained hard to train dogs, his advice is worth a second look imho.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 1:22PM
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I think there are 'untrainable' dogs, but that would be because of physical(brain) malfunctioning and not because they cannot be trained.

There are very difficult dogs to train and there are dogs that have areas where training is particularly difficult.

You sound like you have a really good start, so leashing when someone comes to visit---and settling the dog before the door is opened---would be the first place to start. You have a protective dog that is young and has a lot of drive/energy. Most of what you need to do is let the dog know what actions you like and which ones you do not like.

Establish a routine for how the visitors(anyone outside your home residents) come in helps.

They come in, stand without acknowledging the dog as he sniffs them, then let them precede the dog and you into whichever room they wish to enter.

That lets the dog know they are welcome and OK. It can differentiate between visitors---anyone who does not do that is not welcome kind of thing.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 3:25PM
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Good advice, thanks. We will give that a try. I can recruit my neighbor to help out by coming to "visit".

How would you handle the jumping up on people? We have tried all kinds of ways to deter that but without success.


    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 5:29PM
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That is the point of the leash---you should have enough control to prevent the jumping.

Start by keeping the person at a distance and put the dog in a Sit/Stay. Have the person come a step closer and keep the dog in Sit/Stay.

I use a type of grunt---HEH! to remind the dog to remain as settled. That HEH! is a reminder for any correction. Any sharp sound could be used, it is simply a sound unlike any words used and is specific to a correction.

Once the person gets close and the dog is still in Sit/Stay, simply say "Good Boy" calmly and scratch the dogs head.ears---which ever place you choose to convey affection. Keep the praise calm and cease immediately if the dog starts being excited.

The whole purpose of this kind of training is to require obedience---gently, but absolute. No reward is needed, save your praise. Works well and the dog will be more content, since that means he has rules to follow.

He may test the rules now and then, that is natural. You just have to maintain the continuity.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 12:46AM
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Handy has given you great advice. First and foremost, you need to establish to that new dog that YOU are the alpha and YOU decide who comes into your home/pack and who does not.

Frankly, dogs hate thinking no one is in charge. And if it isn't you, then they will. You absolutely have to be be the dominant member of the pack. To a dog? IT'S Just work and a job. You do it, then they don't have to. But they have to be confident that you ARE leading the pack.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 1:20AM
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Thanks, all. I will let you know how it goes!

It's a whole different ballgame raising/training a rescued 1 year old than it was with our last GSD that we got as a puppy!


    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 9:53AM
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absolutely agree with everything HM has told you.

please, PLEASE give the shock collar back!!!! ONLY professional dog trainers (GOOD ones) should employ the use of shock collars as, in the wrong hands, they will do way more harm than good!

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 11:11AM
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A shock collar makes absolutely no sense at all, in anyone's hands. All they do is they suppress behavior and non-compliance. They don't treat the cause for the behavior. And the dog only works to avoid the shock, not because they have the skills or understanding to deal with their problem. You also frequently have to turn up the shock when the dog becomes tolerant to the current level of shock. Since I'm a dog trainer by profession, I have studied the use of just about all the tools out there and other trainer's videos. Shock trainers are notoriously inept at training, preferring to use the shock collar to tidy up the end product rather than improving their own teaching in the first place. You see a lot of things like poisoning cues, which they later shock the dogs for. You see unclear hand signals, mumbled cues, not sufficiently rewarding the dog, placing dogs purposely over threshold in order to show off, etc. POOR training. Then the dog gets punished (shocked) for the trainer's poor teaching.

Dogs are associative learners. They learn by association. Your dog ALREADY has negative associations regarding strangers. So you're going to shock him when he's near/sees strangers and add yet more negative associations to the ones that he already has? Makes absolutely NO sense at all! As a result, you'll get a dog that doesn't let you know that he's uncomfortable with strangers. He'll stand there, silently suppressed, not communicating anything to you and he might just attack one day without any warning at all.

Please find a competent trainer to counter condition him to strangers or give him back before you make this worse. A competent stranger won't use corporal punishment to compound this dog's current negative associations. They will counter condition.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 2:45PM
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Meant to say, A competent TRAINER won't use corporal punishment to compound this dog's current negative associations.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 2:46PM
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And for the record, your dog can only be submissive in regards to a valued resource. Submissive and dominant are NOT personality traits. Neither can you be "alpha". You're not a dog. Your dog isn't such a stupid creature as to mistake us for the same species. Nor do domestic dogs form packs. Pretending to be alpha or a dog doesn't make any sense at all. You can be your dog's leader but not as another dog.

Please research social dominance and domestic dog social structure before incorrectly throwing around these terms and misapplying concepts.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2012 at 12:33PM
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I think everyone has given you great advice. It may be that this dog, in this environment, is just going to take a bit more work than another dog. The only thing that I would add is that when the dog is jumping or barking because someone has come over - you need to stay extremely calm and "in charge". Anything that you or any member of your household might do to add to the excitement level will only slow things down as far as getting the message across to this dog. I would buy a bunch of short leashes and leave them all around the house and keep one up near the door. Whenever anything sets the dog off - put him on a leash. Don't open the door until you have him under control. Don't introduce him to people until he has calmed down. He will eventually figure out that better behavior lets him participate more.

Don't worry about him not being protective. You're not going to train that out of him. Having control over him is far more important.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2012 at 1:49PM
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If you don't like the term "alpha", then use another word. In common usage, it only describes who is in charge. In one's relationship with one's dog, it had better be the human who leads, makes decisions, and sets behavioral standards. Any other scenario is headed for trouble....

    Bookmark   December 3, 2012 at 4:17PM
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"You can be your dog's leader but not as another dog."

I agree.

However, you cannot successfully train/rehabilitate a dogs behavior by treating the dog as if it had human characteristics.

By training, I do not mean tricks or to mimic human behavior.

Dogs have been modified---by selective breeding over centuries---to be receptive to domestication. Much like cows/sheep/etc. There is a group of folks in Russia who have successfully created domesticated foxes which act just like domesticated dogs.

I will agree most domesticated dogs do not form packs of the same type as wild dogs. Reason being, that pack structure is simply not necessary. Dogs are still by instinct pack oriented.

People are actually pack animals. You really need no proof, since people always select leaders. It is necessary for functioning.

Dogs do have personality traits. I have two diametrically opposite dogs in relation to their personality. Max is extremely aggressive/dominant. Molly is exactly opposite---timid and submissive.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 11:43AM
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I agree that dogs have personality traits. Breeders, who have an eye for it, can look at a litter of puppies and easily pick out the traits of each one......shy, independent, loner, strong willed, etc.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 1:42PM
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I said that submissive and dominant aren't personality traits. NOT that dogs don't have personality traits. OF COURSE they have personality traits!

No one said that dogs are humans and should be treated as such. Dogs should be treated like dogs and their behavior should be modified via scientifically sound methods. Dogs, while not humans, can still be treated humanely. NOT like humans, however. No one claimed that.

Training is a form of behavior modification. It modifies behavior. Cues teach self control, thinking, build confidence and much, much more. But no one is saying that this dog needs obedience 101. I understood what you meant by training. Training an appropriate and constructive means to deal with what is making this dog uncomfortable.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 6:26PM
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Questions, how much basic training and walking does this dog get a day? Is the walking leaash walking? is it controlled leash walking or is your dog all over the place, does your dog know sit-stay-leave it? If not, this is the place to start. It sounds like you might not have the best dog for your situation. No shame in returning it.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 7:08PM
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I don't see how leash walking is relevant. Does anyone else??

Handymac, again, you don't seem to understand what social dominance is. Dominant and submissive are NOT personality traits. They only apply ONLY in regards to resources. That is the way it is. That is the scientific definition. You can argue with the definition all you like but you're not changing the concept. Only misinterpreting it and misapplying it.

The links below give the ethological definition for dominance. Not the Merriam Webster definition you seem to be using.

There are plenty more from reputable sources all saying the same thing.

These are from scientists and ethologists who study the domesticated canine. Not from lay people claiming to be "alpha dogs".

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 2:43AM
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Ok, I see where our miscommunication lies. The use and meaning of the word 'dominant' etc.

I read several of the articles you listed---the use of cows and bulls to illustrate what happens with dogs is a bit baffling since the animals are totally different.

It seems to me those folks are trying to combat a practice that was popular but misused. Things like Alpha rolling. I agree, those things are stupid. I don't use them and do not recommend them.

Dogs are dogs. Cattle are cattle, Horses are horses. I spent 20 years owning/training horses---do not remember using any dog training techniques to train the horses. Had some difficult horses to train as well.

I agree there is a bad connotation when using the words 'dominant', 'aggressive', 'Alpha", etc. when working with dogs. But, denying the obvious in order to combat a problem is strictly a failed human trait that has to date never worked.

Modern dogs are not as close to their ancestors as they used to be. But, the reason we have been able to domesticate dogs is simply because of two reasons. One, dogs have an inherent requirement to need leaders and form living units---the pack. There is always one leader, although that leader can change. And the pack cooperates for the survival of the individuals.

Modern feral dogs do not form packs like their ancestors simply because there is less need for the basics of survival cooperation.

Try to train a cow. Very difficult. Cows are herd animals.

Horses are also herd animals. The difference is that selective breeding has been applied to horses for centuries to get an animal that can be trained and used by humans for work. There are feral horses. The government had a program to catch and find homes for those excess feral horses---that program failed because feral horses are wild animals and still have the wild instinct. We adopted one as a yearling. Our own horses shunnned it, it was basically untrainable/useable.

That situation does not apply to modern dogs.

Let me ask a question. How would you describe my two dogs in less than 4 words? The male is always the top dog and the female is always submissive to any other dog.

I use aggressive/dominant and passive/submissive.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 12:23PM
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While there are as many ways to train dogs as there are breeds of dogs, Whenever a client comes to me with dog issues, I go straight back to the basics, one of the first things a dog owner should do, In my opinion, especially a rescue dog is to leash walk the dog. To establish immediate communications with the dog that it is not the boss, the leash walk should have the dog by the side of the prospective or new owner and the walk should be no less than 15 minutes. If the owner has an hour all the better. There is much non verbal communication which can go on with a leash, coupled with verbal commands, Leash walkiing is a very effective tool for immediatey establishing boundaries, and status. Right on the heels of leash walking in helping to work out problems is basic training. I just helped a woman with a 4 month old puppy who was out of control, ignoring commands and biting its human family members. I gave the mom advise, took the dog for a leash walk and proceeded to tie the dog to my belt loop and go about my errands for the 4 hours I had the dog. Works wonders. The owner was seeing behavioral changes within the first week. The combination of setting up rules for the family to follow and be consistent with, establishing boundaries for the puppy and for how the family interacted with the puppy and limitations on what the family accepted as far as behavior goes, in addition to daily leash walking, which incorporates all of the above and adds even more discipline works. It does not take much work, helps the human family members establish a routine and an effective role in the puppys life.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 9:41PM
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That is an excellent program!!

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 11:48AM
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Sometimes it's just unreal... No one is saying that dogs are cows... I don't think you understood the gist of that article.

I don't see the relevance of rank reduction tactics, especially since the OP stated that they have nice walks. This dog views strangers who come to the house as a threat. It has nothing to do with rank. The dog's perception of strangers who come to the house needs to be counter conditioned to form a new perception that the strangers aren't a threat and thus, don't need to be acted on aggressively.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 5:27PM
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ms minnamouse, you've quoted a lot of concepts, scientific studies and opinions in training but I've yet to hear what you suggest the OP do to keep her dog from jumping on people.

The basic steps handymac and mazer have suggested should help the owner in gaining confidence and also help her dog feel secure but there is no way any of us here know exactly what is going on in that household and what is causing the dog to feel he has to be so protective within the home.

Linda, I really feel you need to bring in a trainer to help with the problem. The dog showing his teeth isn't good, and what you're seeing can easily lead to biting. Once he starts biting you'll have a very difficult problem to correct.
Six weeks of obedience training just covers the basic commands and I have to add that not everyone is meant to be the owner of a German Shepherd.

Is the rescue you got him from a GSD rescue? If so, and you really feel you can't handle him then the best thing to do is to contact the rescue and discuss trainer referrals and the possibility of returning him. If it wasn't a GS rescue then find one in your area and work with them.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 6:28PM
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I said counter condition. Do you know what that is? If you did, what to do would be glaringly obvious.

Keep the dog under threshold, set him up for success, and pair strangers with something the dog views as reinforcing so the negative association to the strangers becomes countered.

The jumping and teeth baring, in this case, sound like intimidation. Change the dog's perception of strangers and both of these will stop.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2012 at 2:09AM
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Try pretending I'm someone who doesn't know what that means and translate your last post into layman's terms. Otherwise, a lot of what you're saying comes across as meaningless jargon.
That's all I was asking for...........

    Bookmark   December 8, 2012 at 9:36PM
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ms_minnamouse, what you are trying to get across is what most of us already do---it is just fancied up wording.


"Keep the dog under threshold, set him up for success, and pair strangers with something the dog views as reinforcing so the negative association to the strangers becomes countered."

Animal training has a few very basic procedures that have been developed over centuries. Trainers who want to make money---the real reason trainers train is making money while doing something they like---would not find many customers by using the same terminology as everyone else.

What trainers do is develop new terminology, rework tried and true techniques, and start 'NEW' systems.

Every trainer has their own system and every system is seemingly different. They 'invent' new collars, new leash working procedures, and cloak dog psychology in new terms.

Because, if they did not do that, people would gravitate to those trainers who do that.

Keep the dog under threshold,------exactly. Do not let the dog get excited/amped up--- prevent the problem triggers.

set him up for success,---by preventing the excitement/trigger, the dog acts better and is rewarded and his behavior gets better.

and pair strangers with something the dog views as reinforcing so the negative association to the strangers becomes countered.---------pairing is not necessary, but sounds really good. Once the dog is prevented from triggering and understands the excited behavior is unwanted, strangers no longer trigger like they did before.

All that prevention is difficult and frankly, tedious. Most people do not want to watch for signs of a trigger and prevent that behavior from happening. Couching that very same training technique in fancy language makes the process more glamorous.

I've learned some of what I do from people, and some from dogs. Lots of what I learned from people was wrong, ineffective, dangerous, or counter productive.

Everything I learned from dogs works, but not in every situation. Dogs are smart enough to know when to do one thing in one situation and something different in another.

That is the difficult part, learning enough to be able to identify what needs to be done when.

    Bookmark   December 9, 2012 at 7:26AM
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Yes, the dog walks by my side on a leash, he knows "sit, stay, wait and lay down". He knows "come", too but still needs some work to come on the first call every time.

He is the third GSD I have owned, I am no stranger to the breed. This one just happens to come with some "baggage" as he was not trained properly when he was with his original owner. We'll get there, it'll just take some time and perseverance.

I have contacted another trainer. I am setting up a home visit with her. We have had two other trainers come here over the past year but I was not impressed with their knowledge or their skill so we did not invite them back.

The obedience course we attended with him this summer was a start. However the trainer did not address the aggression issue which is the biggest issue we have with him. But we did learn some things at the class that were valuable, so it was worth the time and money spent.

The trainer I have recently contacted knows what our concerns are and I am confident she will be able to get us on the right path.

Thanks for all of your opinions and advice. It is much appreciated!


    Bookmark   December 9, 2012 at 12:30PM
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Counter conditioning shouldn't be considered "fancy" or a new concept for anyone with a semblance of knowledge in dog training. Apparently, that's what I'm seeing here with those who are self taught and feel that they're above doing any research or obtaining any other form of education from reputable sources on the subject, but still feel that they should be giving incongruous advice.

To be frank, I'm not going to read over the rest because your advice is more often than not scientifically unsound and ludicrous. You're an expert on what you call "difficult dogs" because you say you are and everyone else is to just take your word on it. I see that no one asks for anyone's qualifications and good thing too since people here don't seem to have any. Just their word and that's all. Unfortunately, that's not all that it takes, no matter how much you'd like to believe that you have some kind of special gift.

And lastly, for the record, it's not "dog psychology". The correct term is ethology. But then you'd know that if you had any idea about what you were talking about.

    Bookmark   December 10, 2012 at 11:59AM
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"Ethology is a combination of laboratory and field science, with a strong relation to certain other disciplines such as neuroanatomy, ecology, and evolution. Ethologists are typically interested in a behavioral process rather than in a particular animal group, and often study one type of behavior (e.g. aggression) in a number of unrelated animals."

And you seem to believe no one can learn anything outside a classroom. I have been an educator and know much more learning takes place outside the classroom than in it.

    Bookmark   December 10, 2012 at 1:20PM
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Linda, It sounds like you are doing all the correct things. Keep up the hard work. Remember even though the aggression issues may be the behavior most concerning. Once you get the basics under control, the aggression issues may disappear altogether, at least they might be minimized. A good routine will probably help as well since the dog has had a shakey start. Good luck and keep us posted.

    Bookmark   December 11, 2012 at 1:21AM
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