Third Time is a Charm for This Excited German Shepherd

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 18, 2015


Fritz is a one-year-old German Shepherd who is very high energy, anxious and has been getting progressively more reactive to people and dogs he doesn’t know..

When I spoke with their guardian on the phone, they mentioned they had already had a couple of dog trainers come by to help, with no success. In fact, after hearing about some of the methods they used, its a safe bet that these “trainers” made matters worse. They introduced a pinch collar which is one of the most extreme training tools you can use.

The trainer incorrectly showed the guardians how to correct the dog using the pinch collar and neglected to let them know the collar should only be used in training situations. The pinch collar is supposed to emulate the sensation a pup feels when his or her mother bites / holds their neck. Mothers will do this to correct or settle a pup down and the prongs are supposed to mimic the sensation of her fangs. But if the dog feels that sensation all the time, it can cause them to get anxious. Considering Fritz was already anxious, this was a horrible combination.

The guardians had also gotten an e-collar and were using it to try to stop the dog when it got to excited or aggressive. But the e-collar should only be used for specific corrections and very sporadically. You also want to avoid having the dog wear it all the time as electricity flows through it and it includes two prongs that can be uncomfortable.

Both of these tools have their share of critics. In fact pinch collars are illegal in some countries like the UK. I don’t use either, but that doesn’t mean they are cruel or inhumane. Used correctly both can be great tools that can assist a handler and a dog. But used incorrectly, they can do some real damage.

When I arrived for the session, I waved off Fritz’s guardian when he went to grab the dog by the collar and pull him away from the front door as I stood outside. While this seems logical, pulling a dog away from something it is reacting to can actually intensify the dog’s reaction.

Instead, I opened the door a crack and pressed my leg up against the small opening so that Fritz could get a sniff of me. Due to his excited and agitated state, I made sure to not open the door wide enough for him to nip or bite me. I had cheated a bit and rubbed a puppy up against the shin area of my legs before I left home with this specific greeting in mind.

Fritz gave me a good sniff which had the added benefit of settling him down a bit. After about 20 seconds he stopped and started back away from me. I waited in place as the length of time he sniffed didn’t seem sufficient to me. When dealing with an aggressive, excited or territorial dog, I always wait for them to sniff a reasonable amount then move away from the door before I come inside. My intuition proved correct as Fritz circled back around and came over for a second whiff.

After he finished his encore sniffing session and moved away, I came into the house and followed his guardians into the back room of the house. Fritz started out walking between his guardians and myself, then rushed ahead to beat them into the living room.

Once in the living room in the back of the house, Fritz started pacing around the room while periodically barking at me. I had his guardians remove the pinch and e-collar then sit down so we could discuss Fritz and his behaviors.

I avoided looking at Fritz directly and didn’t try to engage him in any way. He was so anxious that I knew the wrong move could trigger a reaction. While he had never bitten anyone before and seemed more excited then aggressive, I proceeded cautiously.

I was hoping that by ignoring the dog and remaining still he would settle himself down. But after a few moments it was clear that wasn’t happening. In fact he seemed to be getting more worked up with each passing minute. His guardians informed me that was normal behavior for Fritz, especially in that room.

Because the dog was essentially caught in a feedback loop, I got out a leash and methodically followed him until I was able to drop a looped leash over his head. This is a dangerous activity as animals are the most dangerous when cornered. This was why I slowly approached him using a body posture and positioning to help the dog feel less confronted. Due to the skill and experience required, this technique should only be attempted by an experienced trainer or behaviorist.

Once Fritz was on the leash, I gently led him over to where I was sitting, dropped the leash handle to the floor and then stood on it about three feet away from his head. He pulled a bit at first and being a big dog, its a good thing Im thicker than Id like to be otherwise he would have knocked me off my feet.

Getting Fritz into a calm state of mind and energy is the first thing that needed to happen before starting to work with him. Unfortunately the trainers that his guardians had hired ignored this crucial step and instead tried to rush their way through the session.

In fact, helping Fritz stay in this calmer mindset and energy level is the single most important thing his guardians can do to help Fritz learn to relax and stop getting over excited. Preventing the dog from circling the room or pacing back and forth will force him to develop a new way of dealing with stimulus that gets him over excited.

I suggested that they leave the pinch and e-collar off from this point forward as they had both become associated in a negative way and as mentioned previously, the pinch collar wasn’t helping the dog relax or become balanced.

While being on the leash all the time isn’t desired, placing it on him when something that triggers a response from the dog is something I suggested his guardians do. I also suggested that they place him on the leash and stand on it to give him a doggy-time-out any time he started to pace, circle, chase his tail manically or show other signs of anxiety. Interrupting and blocking Fritz from these activities as soon as he starts up consistently will help the dog learn to develop a new behavior.

Now that he was completely calm, I asked the guardians if there were any specific triggers that got Fritz all worked up. They said that when there was loud action on the TV Fritz usually got worked up so I had them play a program with this sort of content.

As soon as the TV came on, Fritz started to breathe a little faster, his body tensed up, he lowered his head and his ears rotated forward as he stared at the TV. These are all signs of a dog that is entering what I call a heightened state of alertness. This is an offshoot of their hunting mode that is manifested in a highly focused state.

I was observing him closely so that I could identify all the various non verbal cues he was giving off so that his guardians would know what to look for in the future. Disagreeing with a dog before it gets excited is the best method to interrupting and stopping unwanted behaviors.

By recording and replaying scenes on the TV that the dog reacts to while he is leashed will be an important part of the rehabilitation process. Repeating these scenes while blocking him from pacing and getting frantic will allow the dog to practice a new behavior.

The best way to do this is to just watch TV with the dog in the room (preferably programs recorded on a DVR). When a scene plays that triggers a response, the guardians can rewind to the start of the scene and pause it. This will allow the dog time to calm down. Once that is the case, they can add a leash and use it to disagree and correct Fritz when they play the scene again, but at a lower volume. The leash will also help them keep Fritz from pacing and circling, behaviors we also want to avoid when the dog is excited this way. Its important that they let the dog calm down before adding the leash so the dog doesn’t start to associate the leash with being introduced due to excitement.

By playing the scene back at a very low volume while watching for the signs that he is starting to get excited, his guardians will be able to desensitize the dog from what he is reacting to. Once the dog can sit and remain calm when its played back, they can raise the volume a bit and practice again. This will be a gradual process, but by repeating the stimulus over and over in a low intensity and controlled situation, Fritz will be able to practice remaining calm instead of reacting with a barking and lunging outburst.

Next I showed the guardians a simple exercise they can repeat at the door before heading out on a walk.

Its important we don’t head out on a walk with a dog who is over excited, anxious or in any other kind of unbalanced energy. The state and energy level your dog is in when you leave the house is usually how it will act for the rest of the walk.

By stopping and practicing small things that trigger a response from the dog, like we did with the TV, Fritz’s guardians will be able to help him learn to restrain himself. At first this is done for specific, repeatable situations as that’s what we can control and recreate to desensitize the dog. But the more we practice these self restraint exercises, the better equipped the dog becomes to handle those situations in the future.

After showing them how to do this, I had one of his guardians take the leash and repeat the exercise while it was still fresh in their and the dog’s mind.

The guardian did pretty well, but will need to work on his timing and the intensity of his corrections. When we are late or don’t use the sufficient amount of snap in the correction motion, the dog wont respect or respond the way we want.

The guardian also had a tendency to keep tension on the leash. This will always cause a dog to pull back and can cause a dog to become anxious or alert as the dog thinks the tension is due to something being wrong. When correcting a dog with a leash, you only want tension on the leash for a brief second, then the leash needs to go slack.

Considering Fritz is a big dog who has a lot of energy and the guardian had never done it before, he got a great response from the dog this first time. A big reason for this was because Fritz was calm due to the time we took leashing him up, stopping when he started to get excited and waiting for him to calm down before proceeding. If the dog was over excited and we tried to conduct this exercise, the slow and soft corrections the guardian gave would have been ignored completely.

This is why its so important to practice. Just like the dog, Fritz’s guardian’s timing and intensity of corrections will get better the more he repeats the exercise.

We returned to the house so Fritz’s other guardian could practice the door exercise.

Because of her softer energy, Fritz immediately tried to move in front as she walked to the door. Even after I had her walk away to reset the exercise, Fritz sat slightly in front of her, between his guardian and the door.

For dogs, whoever is in front is literally in the leader position. This is why I frequently council my clients to teach their dogs to walk behind them down hallways, up or down stairs or even through doorways. If the dog consistently moves in front, then asking it to sit and wait for the human to pass first then call or give the dog a recall command is a great habit to get into.

The second guardian also kept a little tension on the leash at times following a correction or when she thought that the dog was about to pull or get into trouble. Its difficult, but extremely important that we have a mental image of the dog doing things the way we want when we approach these sort of situations. If you are confident and proceed as if the dog is going to stay in a heel, you can influence the exercise in a positive way.

But if the human anticipates the dog not behaving, its pretty common to react with small actions that can communicate the wrong message to the dog. Often the human isn’t even aware that they tense up their body, grip the leash tighter, pull on the leash, hold their breath, walk differently, etc. Dogs are extremely perceptive so if we eminate these cues, the dog usually interprets them as the human being uncomfortable which an cause the dog to react.

The good news is the more success a guardian has with rehabilitating a dog, the less frequent they give off these cues. Even mores if the human is aware that they are doing so and makes a concerted efforts to refrain from doing so in the future.

Once we were outside, I walked in the street so I could give both guardians tips on their form and technique with the leash so that Fritz was walking in a heel position.

When we returned from the walk, Fritz was calmer and seemed to be showing his guardians more respect for their personal space. While many humans don’t think twice when a dog walks up and lays across us or gets right up in our business, this shows that the level of respect isn’t as defined as it should be.

Now if your dog is well behaved and balanced, its not a big deal if it gets rather close to you without your permission. But when you have an anxious or nervous dog that doesn’t have the proper level of respect for the humans, adding a little bit room to your expectations for the dog can go a long way towards redefining the leader follower dynamic.

Each time that Fritz tried to get into his guardian’s personal space, I had them make a sound to disagree with the attempt before he got there or suddenly stand and turn to face him if they didn’t have time to use the auditory wanting.

Standing up and facing the dog is the most authoritative position a human can take with a dog. By doing this when the dog invades their personal space or fails to listen to a command or correction, we can communicate a “I mean business” message that the dog will hear clearly.

To help Fritz practice listening to his guardians, I walked them through a simple recall exercise.

At first Fritz tried to jump up on or physically get the treat from them. But as they grew more comfortable with the hand motions and positions I showed them, he started to react more respectfully; sitting politely in front of whoever called him to get his reward.

By the end of the session, Fritz was far calmer than when I arrived. I can’t understate how important simply keeping him from his over excited state is. This is the foundation that all other behaviors will be built on. By stopping him consistently before he gets worked up with the doggy-time-out, his guardians will help Fritz learn to stay in a calm balanced state of mind.

It was great to see the dog responding to the new non verbal communication methods I showed his guardians. Little things like making the dog wait and follow the humans, claiming their personal space, asking the dog to come to them rather than walking to the dog will help fundamentally change how Fritz sees himself in relation to his humans.

Because of his high level of anxiety, I told his guardians to focus on the things we went over in the session for the next month then to contact me with an update. Im guessing we will need a follow up session to build on the progress we made today. But based on how quickly the humans and dog both progressed, I see a bright and calm future ahead for all.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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