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German Shepherd Aggression: 101 Guide

Haley photo

Haley

May 29, 2023

Dog Reactivity

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Many dog breeds have gotten a bad reputation over the years for being dangerous. German Shepherds are among them — as a large working breed associated with military and police work, they’re often thought of as aggressive. But are they really?

Here’s a deep dive into aggressive tendencies, territorial behavior, and more in German Shepherds! Everything you need to know about causes, signs, and treatment of aggression issues.

The short answer: German Shepherds aren’t inherently aggressive — behavior problems depend on a huge range of factors

Breed alone is not a reliable predictor of a dog's behavior or likelihood of aggression. Dogs of all breeds, sizes, and backgrounds have the potential to exhibit aggressive behavior if they are not properly trained, socialized, or cared for by responsible owners. Proper training, early socialization, appropriate handling, and responsible ownership are crucial in promoting a well-behaved and safe canine companion, regardless of breed.

Understand what German Shepherds were bred for

German Shepherds were originally bred in Germany in the late 19th century. They were primarily bred for their working abilities — the breed's original purpose was to serve as herding dogs, but they quickly gained recognition for their versatility, intelligence, and trainability.

German Shepherds have a strong herding instinct and were initially bred to work alongside shepherds in herding and protecting livestock, such as sheep and cattle. They are known for their ability to control and guide animals through their presence, intelligence, and physical agility.

German Shepherds were also bred to serve as guarding and protection dogs. They have a natural protective instinct and were utilized to safeguard property, farms, and the livestock they were responsible for.

Herding and working breeds are often prone to reactivity

Working dogs, which are bred and trained for specific tasks and jobs, may have a higher likelihood of dog reactivity compared to other more low energy breeds.

Many working dog breeds, such as herding and guardian breeds, have been selectively bred for their protective instincts. These instincts are an essential part of their job protecting livestock, property, or their humans! This protective nature can sometimes translate into reactivity towards other dogs or people in our modern society.

Working dogs are also often bred for their high energy levels, stamina, and intense drive to perform their specific tasks. While this drive is beneficial for their work, it can also manifest as increased arousal or excitement when encountering other day-to-day stimuli. This heightened arousal can contribute to reactive behaviors.

Reactivity is not necessarily aggression

It’s important to note that reactivity does not automatically equal aggression. We always recommend getting in touch with a reputable trainer if you’re worried about your dog’s behaviors — they’ll be able to help you interpret your individual pet’s behavior and body language. You can find some recommend trainers here and learn more about canine body language in this article!

Recognize how breed popularity plays into dog bite statistics

Dog bite statistics can be influenced by various factors, including the popularity

Dog bite statistics can be influenced by various factors, including the popularity of certain breeds, media coverage, and reporting biases. Popular dog breeds — including the German Shepherd — may have higher numbers of reported bites simply because there are more dogs of those breeds present in the population.

Additionally, media attention often focuses on incidents involving specific breeds. This can lead to an impression that certain breeds are more prone to aggression, when in fact it may not be the case — and many dog bite incidents are misreported, relying on quick visual identification from witnesses in stressful situations.

Know that any dog can bite if pushed!

Any dog, regardless of breed or size, has the potential to bite if put in a situation where they feel threatened. While some dogs may be more prone to aggression or have a higher likelihood of biting based on their genetics, temperament, or past experiences (more on those factors in the next section) it’s important to understand that all dogs have the capacity to bite if they feel the need to defend themselves.

Keep in mind that different dogs have varying physical capabilities, so bites can be more or less severe

In general, larger dogs have the potential to cause more severe physical damage with their bites compared to smaller dogs. This is one reason many large dog breeds are automatically considered more aggressive than their littler counterparts — many nips from toy breeds go unreported.

Regardless of a dog's size, all dog bites should be taken seriously and treated promptly. Proper training and socialization are key in reducing the risk of dog bites and promoting safe interactions between people and pets!

A german shepherd lunges at the end of its leash

What causes aggression in German Shepherds or other dog breeds?

Aggression can be caused by many different factors. Dogs who show signs of aggression like growling, lunging, and eventually biting are often motivated by fear and self-preservation rather than intent to do harm to others.

Genetic factors (not limited to breed alone)

Like we mentioned above, certain dog breeds — the German Shepherd breed among them — have been selectively bred for specific traits over the years, including guarding instincts, territoriality, and protectiveness. These breed-specific characteristics may increase the likelihood of displaying aggression in certain situations.

Beyond breed stereotypes, some studies suggest that certain aggressive behaviors can be inherited. The specific genetic mechanisms underlying aggression are not yet fully understood, but looking at a puppy’s direct ancestors might be a better way to predict their future temperament than relying on breed estimates alone. Responsible breeders take this reality seriously and work hard to produce solid, stable family dogs for pet homes.

Understanding the potential genetic predisposition for aggression in certain breeds or individual dogs can help inform responsible breeding practices, early intervention, and appropriate training and management strategies. But it’s important to assess each dog on an individual basis and consider their unique personality, experiences, and environment when addressing behavioral concerns.

Very early experiences, including in utero

Epigenetic factors can influence gene expression and behavior. Environmental factors, such as early life experiences including stress their mother experienced before puppies were born, can impact the expression of certain genes. These variables might contribute to aggressive behavior.

What that means for German Shepherd owners: While it's absolutely your job to provide your dog with proper positive reinforcement training and mental stimulation to minimize the chance of them developing aggression issues, who your puppy becomes by sexual maturity depends on more than just your own actions.

Lack of socialization or poorly conducted socialization

Socialization is the process of exposing dogs to different stimuli, experiences, and interactions in a positive and controlled manner during their critical developmental period, which is typically between 3 and 16 weeks of age.

A lack of socialization can contribute to aggression in dogs by limiting their A lack of socialization can contribute to aggression in dogs by limiting their exposure to a variety of social situations — which can result in fear and anxiety manifesting in inappropriate responses when faced with unfamiliar people, animals, or environments. A well-socialized dog, even one with questionable genetic or very early experience influences, is less likely to be at risk for aggression than a puppy who is kept isolated from the world as they develop.

You can read more about socializing your dog in this article!

Physical pain or underlying medical issues

When a dog is experiencing physical discomfort or pain, it can impact their behavior and increase the likelihood of displaying aggression. Dogs, like humans, may become irritable, defensive, or reactive when they are in pain or suffering from certain conditions. Medical attention can be a key part of addressing this type of aggression.

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How can you treat aggression in German Shepherds or other breeds?

Prevent aggression in the first place!

Preventing aggression in dogs involves a proactive approach focusing on proper care, socialization, and training. German Shepherds are a particularly intelligent breed that often responds well to obedience training, especially under the guidance of a professional dog trainer.

As we noted above, sometimes it’s not possible to prevent all instances of aggression — it is not all in how you raise them, and certain variables in our dogs’ lives are out of our control! — but we can do a lot to stack the deck in our favor.

Get in touch with a trusted, certified trainer

Part of taking care of yourself while training your reactive or aggressive dog? Remembering that you don’t have to do it all alone. The right support network can make a world of difference as you navigate your pet’s behavior problems and create a life you both enjoy!

Consider reaching out to:

Identify the root cause of your German Shepherds aggressive displays

Identifying the root cause of aggression in dogs — whether it's fear aggression, frustration aggression, or simply natural territorial behavior — can be a complex process that requires careful observation, evaluation, and, in some cases, professional guidance. 

Before assuming that behavior is solely responsible for aggression, it is important to rule out any potential medical causes or pain that may be contributing to the behavior. A thorough veterinary examination can help identify underlying health issues that could be influencing the dog's behavior!

Carefully observe your dog's behavior and identify specific triggers or situations that lead to aggression. Document the circumstances surrounding each aggressive episode, including the context, environment, and people or animals involved. This can help identify patterns and potential triggers.

Use management to keep everyone safe in the interim

Management is an important part of helping your reactive or aggressive dog. The Management is an important part of helping your reactive or aggressive dog. The more frequently your pet practices their undesirable behaviors in a heightened emotional state, the deeper they ingrain those habits. It’s important to prevent as many reactions as possible so your training can be successful! This can make calm behavior your dog's default and avoid making the situation worse.

  • Use tools like muzzles or “ignore me” patches as a visual cue to get more space from strangers while out on walks.
  • Carefully consider when you go to an environment and whether it will be too busy for your reactive dog to feel comfortable.
  • Cover your windows with film or close the blinds to prevent your dog from barking at triggers outside your living room or office windows throughout the day. You can also use household objects as visual barriers.
  • Drive to a quieter walking route rather than trying to stay in your immediate neighborhood if it’s too overwhelming.
  • Don’t feel guilty about turning around when you see a trigger if you aren’t prepared to train through it.
  • Practice your dog’s basic cues, leash skills, and ability to receive reinforcement in multiple ways (like from your hand, scattered on the ground, and tossed in the air). Building these habits outside of stressful situations will make it possible for you to use them to get through difficult moments out and about. A solid ‘’leave it” cue can be especially powerful.

Work with your trainer to follow an individualized training plan to improve your dog’s mental health and reduce their aggression

Each dog, owner, and situation is different — and the animal training world is constantly evolving!

As long as your chosen aggression treatment plan is recommended by a humane trainer you trust and prioritizes your dog’s positive emotions, it could help them (and you) live a better life.

Haley photo

Haley

May 29, 2023

Dog Reactivity

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