German Shepherd Barks at People

nualaThough she’s not completely comfortable with having her photo taken, Nuala and I made friends very quickly! What a stunning dog the two-year-old cream-coloured German Shepherd is.

She lives alone with a lady in a quiet country cottage, where anyone even coming up the path is a major event. Like so many German Shepherds that I go to, she is very reactive to people who come near to her. Her response is to lunge at them, jumping and barking. She has never bitten.

Nuala is very good with other dogs – she has mixed more with dogs than with people. The lady began by taking her to puppy classes and then, due to an operation for elbow dysplasia, the young dog was confined for quite a long time. Since then her dog walker has taken her out with other dogs and the lady also takes her on Big Walkies. Like many dogs, if the humans have dogs with them Nuala is fine.

The situation has come to a head because the lady is having to spend several days at a time at her daughter’s house, looking after her seven grandchildren.Nuala1 Where, strangely, Nuala gets on fine with the smaller children, there are five teenagers who are as scared of her as she is of them – understandably. As soon as one enters the room, if not caught fast enough she flies towards the child, barking.

The lady could see from how quickly Nuala calmed down when I arrived just how the few other people who do come into her house should be asked to act.

The two main challenges for a dog like this are people entering the room and people getting up and moving about – even people the dog has met before. Often the dog is worse with men.

The teenage grandchildren are very cooperative and not over-noisy. They will do their best to help, so we have devised a plan. Unfortunately they live too far away for me to visit their house too, else I would do so.

‘Safety First’ is vital. Even with the younger children the lady should be looking out for signs of any stress from Nuala – lip-licking, yawning, looking away etc. It’s easy to assume a dog is enjoying a fuss when really she may only be tolerating it.

The older children will do lots of walking in and out of the room through different doors. Nuala will be on a lead (I decided against asking her to sit or lie down as not only could this put more pressure on her, the ultimate ubject is to have her walking freely and happily about). As they do so the lady will feed her something especially tasty. The child will walk in quietly – not burst in! Soon the children could be throwing her food as they walk in. If it happens enough times and they blitz her with comings, goings and food, I’m sure Nuala will become sufficiently desensitised for the leash to be dropped – until possibly after a period of quiet like when the kids suddenly appear again having been at school when they will need to do some more desensitising.

The older kids will also teach her to be happy while they stand up and move about. Again, bit by bit, moving slowly and so Nuala remains comfortable whilst also being on lead, they can work on this. They can be taught the best way to move and the body language to use.

When the lady comes back to her own home she can spend a couple of weeks weaning Nuala into wearing a muzzle – just as something to fall back on and so everyone can relax a bit next time. She should regularly take her somewhere a bit more busy to get her used to people. They can start at quiet times of day and the other side of the road from a passing person at a distance that doesn’t stress her, and gradually go at busier times as Nuala’s confidence grows.

In my experience, in many of the cases where a German Shepherd barks at people it’s because the dog hasn’t been adequately socialised with people in the first few vital weeks of her life – well before she has even left the breeder – so we are playing catch-up. It can be a big challenge requiring a lot of hard work.

PS. Here is an excerpt from a recent paper which scientifically backs up the importance of early socialisation where German Shepherds in particular are concerned: http://www.journalvetbehavior.com

One month later and the lady has decided to upgrade to my ‘lifetime’ option: ‘Nuala and I are making progress and are an on-going project and I am very aware of that.  I am so delighted with the consultation and plan and have been recommending you to everyone. I do wish to take up your continuing support.’

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Nuala, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).