Adding Exercise and Discipline to Help an “On Duty” German Shepherd Learn to Relax

By: David Codr

Published Date: April 19, 2015


Sable is a German Shepherd who has several bad habits including: “bull-rushing” the door whenever someone knocks, difficulty relaxing due to constantly being “on,” and playing so rough and excitedly with other dogs that she has been kicked out of a few dog day care facilities.

When I sat down with Sable’s guardians to discuss the situation, she was actively excited. In mean her energy was high, but she was almost on alert. Her head was on a swivel, she paced the room going from heir guardians to the window to the other room, as if she was on patrol.

Because of Sable’s play issues with other dogs, her owners had started to limit her contact with them which didn’t help matters. Lack of structured exercise combined with limited social interaction can be a bad combination for a higher energy dog or puppy. When this happens to a young working breed dog like German Shepherds, it often leads to frustration and behavior issues.

I wanted to try a Martingale collar on Sable to show her guardians how to get her to behave on the leash, but before we got into structure, I asked them to show me how they played with her. Her guardian pulled out a favorite ball and demonstrated how they play fetch.

“Ok Sable! Ready to PLAY FETCH?! Now! Go!” By the time he actually threw the ball, his sharp, excited delivery of the words caused Sable to get more excited, but in a work-mode sort of way. He sounded more like a drill sergeant running through an exercise rather than someone who was playing with their dog. I had his wife take the ball and she commanded the dog with the same tone and energy.

While a sharp delivery and tone like that has its place, it was far too intense for play time. I suggested that the adopt a more casual, even playful tone when playing with their dog. I also showed them how to add in a few pauses while conducting the exercise. These pauses, and waiting for the dog to settle down a bit, before throwing the ball will go a long way towards helping the dog play, rather than work when at fetch.

I also went through a few exercises to help them calm the dog down. When you have a dog that is “on” most of the time, its important to stop and pause whenever the dog started to get over excited. We were able to put this exercise into action when I asked Sable’s handler to put her on the leash.

As soon as he walked over to the drawer that they kept the leash in, Sable’s energy shot up and she started to nudge him or pace around the room excitedly. I had him place the leash back in the drawer then stand there motionless. Sable didnt know what to do, staring at him for a moment then walking around the room. Only after she had calmed down did he motion to picking up the leash again. When he did so, the dog got excited again so I had him stop and pause the same way.

It took about five minutes of pausing and restarting when the dog was calm before he was able to get the leash and collar on the dog. While its not convenient to start and stop this way, its a short term exercise. With some regular practice at this exercise, most dogs settle themselves down faster and faster until they stop getting excited at all.

I had Sable’s handler remove the harness they were using and slipped a Martingale collar over her head. Once In place I attached the leash then added my special twist to the leash to stop her from pulling.

As her handler headed for the door, Sable moved into the forward position. I had them correct her and move her slightly behind them in a follower position. Next I had them put her into a sit then slide the screen door open. As soon as it slid open, she started to move forward, so I had him correct her and start again. The goal is for the dog to sit waiting for the handler to communicate its ok to go while the door is wide open. This is another opportunity to get the dog to stop and settle itself into a calmer energy before heading out. When you put a leash on a dog, the energy they have as they are about to leave the house is the same energy they will have for the walk.

By stopping and waiting for the dog to calm down any time it starts to get excited, the dog eventually learns to adopt a calmer energy all the time. It takes precise timing when applying the corrections, but if done properly and constantly, the dog eventually learns that the only way to move forward is by being calm.

As usual, the Martingale collar and leash twist stopped the dog from pulling. Sable’s guardian mentioned that she looked a little uncomfortable at first which I explained was normal. With Sable was a little uncertain about the new leash position, her owners were able to take advantage of her calmer energy and willingness to be lead to do just that. She needed little to no corrections and walked right next to both of them in a near perfect heel.

If they continue to practice a daily structured walk using the tips and Martingale leash setup, they will be able to help Sable deplete her unused energy in a way that also increases her respect for her guardians. I made sure to emphasize how important a daily drain of her excess energy will be in her rehabilitation. In Sable’s case, I estimate that half of her behavior issues are related to this pent up energy.

When we got back inside, I went over a leadership exercise that will help Sable calm down, learn to respect boundaries, practice restraining herself while seeing her owners as being in a leadership position. The exercise involves her handler placing a high value treat on the floor and then walk away after claiming it. I went through the exercise three times before it was clear that Sable was understanding the rules. Next I walked her guardians through the exercise with equal success, being able to stand across the room from the unguarded treat while the dog kept a respectable distance on its own.

Sable Treat

After Sable had mastered the Leadership exercise with both her Guardians, I showed them how to claim the doorway to the home. Like many of my client’s Sable’s guardians pulled or pushed her away from the door physically. While its possible to move the dog away this way, it doesn’t teach the dog anything.

Instead I showed them how to use body language and movement to communicate that the dog was to stay 12 feet away from the door when she heard the door bell. I had her guardians take turns playing the part of a guest arriving so that they could practice this exercise. The first time we went through it, Sable barked most of the exercise. By the third repetition, she hardly barked at all. It shouldn’t take more than a handful or practice sessions before Sable learns to sit at the designated space 12 feet from the door when someone knocks. By conceding the door greeting job to her guardians, Sable will not be saddled with the responsibility of being in charge of security. This will be a crucial part of her rehabilitation process.

By the end of the session, Sable was completely calm, responding to her guardians commands and corrections and even starting to stop herself from reacting to things on her own. If her handlers provide her with a structured energy release every day and practice the exercises we went over in the session, her ability to stay calm and self restrain should help her learn to play nicer with other dogs and stop acting out when someone arrives or passes by.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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