There is a belief out there among some people that German Shepherd aggression, attacking and biting occurs because the GSD (German Shepherd Dog) breed is mean and not a good dog to have or own. Just look at some of the searches we found on Google while writing this article:
- “Are German Shepherds mean?”
- “German Shepherd Attacks Owner”
- “German Shepherd Attack Dog”
The information we have put together below challenges that belief, and explains the German Shepherd temperament, aggression in dogs in general, and what you can consider about doing about it.
NOTE: please see a professional before making decisions about an animal’s health or behavior – particularly if you believe the issue is serious enough.
German Shepherd Aggression, Attacking and Biting: What To Do?
It is true to say that every living thing – humans, and animals, wants to protect their territory/environment, their family and themselves.
German Shepherds and dogs in general maintain this natural instinct, but domestication of dogs means there are both acceptable, and negative behaviors when it comes to exhibiting this instinct.
Negative behaviors are aggressive, and include but are not limited to passive aggression ( intimidation) and active aggression (biting, attacking and causing physical harm).
Below we have outlined the German Shepherd temperament, what aggression is, what causes it, how to identify it, and what can be done (training and treatment) to manage it or attempt to stop it.
German Shepherd Temperament
Before we get into explaining aggression, let’s start with the German Shepherd dog breed and their temperament so we know what we are dealing with.
As The Daily Shep explains in our ‘Ultimate Guide to German Shepherd Dogs and Puppies‘, there is a reason the German Shepherd is the second most popular dog breed in America, and a similarly popular breed around the rest of the world among dog owners.
They were bred to be the ideal working dog, and possess traits such as intelligence, confidence, focus and obedience that are required for working roles.
They have an ‘obedient fidelity to their master’ which makes them a very loyal companion.
Such an intelligent and obedient dog makes a good family dog (good with adults and kids), and a dog that is good around other animals, as long as they are socialised, trained and taught obedience properly from a young age as a puppy. This is true of most dog breeds!
It is true that GSD’s are naturally alert and sometimes on edge around strange humans and animals they don’t know (such as other dogs).
But, a GSD that is socialised, respects its owner, and has a solid training/obedience foundation will rarely display aggression because they learn to associate most animals and humans positively (they learn they aren’t a threat), and they will not want to to act outside of what their owner has taught and expects from them.
German Shepherd puppies are really no different to adolescent humans in the regard that, if they learn early on that the world is a positive place, and they have an owner that displays leadership and they know cares for them, they will develop into a loyal and well behaved adult dog (the one exception to this being a genetic pre disposition to negative psychological behavior).
One last note to make about a GSD is to look at the line it comes from when determining what it’s personality or overall temperament might be like.
You can read about the lines of GSDs in our Ultimate GSD Guide, but an Eastern European Line Working GSD, or Czech GSD, for example are both bred for specific types of work like protection and military work.
A line like this may be naturally have a higher drive to seek a strong pack leader and constant mental and physical stimulation over a Working Line American GSD for example.
What is German Shepherd Aggression, and Aggressive Behavior in Dogs?
German Shepherd Aggression and general dog aggression can be a range of behaviors that occurs in a wide range of circumstances…
To give a one size fits all definition of aggression would be irresponsible. But, a broad and loose description of aggression might be:
‘Any behavior whereby a dog unnecessarily shows intense/violent warning signs, and/or or attacks another animal or human in an attempt to protect themselves, their loved ones or their territory.’
What Causes a German Shepherd’s Aggression?
A German Shepherd’s Aggression towards other animals and humans can be caused by an endless list of things. But, some of the most common causes include:
1) Irresponsible Breeding and Genetic Pre-Disposition/Faults
Mix breeding (across different dog breeds) and breeding dogs with poor health history can produce puppies that have a psychological pre-disposition to anti-social or aggressive behavior. This can also occur randomly in purebred breeding although it is far less common.
2) Lack of Early and Consistent Socialisation
When you take your puppy to puppy school, part of the curriculum is to socialise with other humans and dogs, and for good reason.
Socialising your GSD from a young age, and often throughout its life will do two things:
Firstly, it gives your GSD a positive view of other animals and humans (assuming they are not aggressive humans or animals they are socialising with).
Secondly, it gives your GSD an idea of acceptable and not acceptable behavior around others. It’s much easier to discipline your GSD and minimise damage in the form of biting, jumping etc. while your GSD is a puppy than a full sized dog with much more biting power and strength to cause harm, even if accidental.
3) Lack of Obedience Training Foundation, and Lack of A Clear Leader
Dogs require three things from you in order for them to see you as their pack leader and so that they conform to you from an obedience perspective – those three things are rules, boundaries and limitations (inside and outside of the house). In return a dog will give you their trust, loyalty and respect.
German Shepherds have a medium to high level drive to seek dominance of the pack that they belong to i.e. your family. If you do not spend time both during obedience training, or in the household teaching them wrong from right, and having clear rules of what you expect from them, they will exert their dominance and this is when their behavior gets out of your control.
Some breeds like pitbulls and rottweilers have a very high dominance drive. It does not necessarily mean these dogs are naturally more aggressive, but alot more focus and attention must be put into training these breeds wrong from right, and establishing a clear and positive leader.
4) Ongoing Mistreatment As A Puppy or Adult, Or A Singular Traumatic Event
Mistreatment comes in many forms like negatively training or disciplining a puppy (shouting, getting angry at, hitting and physically or mentally harming your dog).
An obvious and extreme form of mistreatment is raising a fighting dog whereby the dog has to fight other dogs for its life.
A singular traumatic might occur when a puppy is taken to the dog park for the first time and is attacked by another dog.
That puppy might always be aggressive as a form of protection as it grows around other dogs because of that one event which traumatised it so severely as a puppy.
5) Lack of Mental and Physical Stimulation
Although it is rare for a dog with a high level of obedience and one that belongs to a caring and disciplined owner, if the dog gets little exercise or mental stimulation throughout the day, it can get irritated and frustrated.
Irritation and frustration, and an excess of physical and mental energy can vent itself in the form of aggressive in German Shepherds and all dog breeds.
German Shepherds in particular are extremely athletic and intelligent breeds that need daily exercise and to be challenged mentally on a daily basis.
Types of Aggression in German Shepherds and In Dogs
Aggression can occur with other animals, usually other dogs, and with humans.
- Territorial Aggression
- Protective Aggression
- Possessive Aggression
- Fear Aggression
- Defensive Aggression
- Social Aggression
- Frustration-fuelled Aggression
- Redirected Aggression
- Pain-elicited Aggression
- Sex-related Aggression
- Predatory Aggression
What Are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of German Shepherd Aggression?
To get an indication of whether your GSD is aggressive, try looking at the warning signs, the act and the result.
Very clear aggressive warning signs and symptoms include consistently displaying the following:
- Snarling and showing teeth
- Growling and barking
- Lunging with force
- Tensing body muscles, arching back with front body lowered as if appearing to lunge
- Nipping or biting at the air as if to warn what is going to happen if the target or threat does not go away
Very clear acts of aggression include biting, attacking and physical force (tackling, hitting, smothering etc.).
Very clear results of aggression are bite marks, bruising, bleeding, feeling emotionally scared and any form of serious physical or emotional harm, damage or injury.
It is always wise to seek a vet, or animal behavior specialist’s opinion if you believe your German Shepherd’s case of aggression is serious.
What To Do About German Shepherd Aggression, Biting and Attacking – Prevention, Assessment, Management/Training, Expert Opinion ?
There is a five step process you might like to look into when dealing with German Shepherd aggression, biting and attacking:
Prevention is not always possible. German Shepherds that display aggression because of factors outside of your control like a genetic fault, or mistreatment or a traumatic event at the hands of another person or animals make prevention impossible, and you are left to manage the aftermath.
If you have a healthy German Shepherd however, doing all the little things like being a positive but firm leader, socialising your dog, providing a strong training and obedience base, and exercising and mentally challenging your GSD regularly will go a long way to keep aggressive behavior surfacing.
2) Assess The Aggression and Fact Gather
The best way to determine whether your GSD is displaying aggressive behavior (if you suspect it), is to ask yourself what behavior is being displayed, and what were the circumstances in which the behavior arose. Collect as many facts and information as you can.
See if you can answer these questions about the German Shepherd aggression:
- When and where did it happen?
- What else was going on at the time?
- What had just happened or was about to happen to your dog?
- What seemed to stop his/her aggression?
- How long has the aggression been present?
- What is your dog’s history as a puppy and dog, any mistreatment?
- Does your dog have any fears or anxieties that you’ve noticed?
- How often has your dog been socialised throughout it’s life?
- What level of obedience has your dog been taught?
- What are you like as an owner…do you have rules, limitations and boundaries in place at home for your dog to set a standard level of discipline?
- Do you use positive reinforcement, or do you often shout at or mishandle your dog?
Sometimes your German Shepherd may not be aggressive, but just be displaying natural behaviors. It is normal for example for a puppy to explore the world through lots of licking and mouthing.
Is your dog displaying fearful behavior? Read more about German Shepherd Scared and Fearful Behavior at The Daily Shep
Does your dog have anxiety? Read more about German Shepherd Anxiety at The Daily Shep.
3) Professional Training and Management
If you think your GSD might need some extra help with its aggression, contact your local dog association, German Shepherd club or vet to get a referral for a professional trainer to minimise or manage the aggression.
Some trainers may suggest choke chains and electrical collars during the course of training.
Management tools (to protect you, your dog and those around you) for an aggressive dog whilst training may include a head halter and/or muzzle.
4) Expert Opinion – Vet And/Or Animal Behavioral Expert
It is important to note that aggression cannot be fully cured, only limited and managed.
If you have tried all of the above options, or you’ve gone straight to this option because you suspect the aggression may be severe/serious, a vet or animal behavior expert can be consulted.
A Vet may be able to suggest some form of medication, and a behavior expert may be able to provide you with a psychological profile of your GSD.
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