Adolescent German Shepherd Knight is a challenge. He is now nearly nine months old, wilful and strong. His owners do all they know to give him a good life – they walk him, feed him and love him.
Unfortunately, living the life of a much-loved family pet just isn’t enough. Knight is a working dog without work to do. Much of how he is will be genetic.
The poor lady showed me the bruises up her arms and a bite mark.
He is big, bold and confident – and a bit of a bully. Unfortunately he missed out on early training because the couple both had fallen ill when they first got him at eight weeks old and things have basically got out of hand as he’s got bigger and become adolescent.
The family of five adults sat opposite me. Knight repeatedly targeted the two youngest, jumping on them with his mouth open. He also did the same with me.
Throughout the time I was there we were rescuing one another. Telling him off only fired him up further, as it does, so I had a person across the room calling him away and giving him something else to do. Diversion only lasted briefly.
I did some clicking for calm which gave us some respite. I lent him a Stagbar to chew and then an Ancoroot. Both kept him occupied for about five minutes.
He was already trailing a lead, but there was simply nowhere to put him away from us. There was no door between the two downstairs rooms and the gap was too wide for any gate. Even the garden isn’t secure.
It was hard to know where to start with improving the situation for both the family and for Knight.
So – getting down to basics first.
The biting is unacceptable.
When I was ready to leave, the young lady took Knight into the back garden on the lead – just as they do for a toilet visit. I needed to pick up my Stagbar and Ancoroot with him out of the way as he guards resources – even his own poo. We said goodbye.
As the door shut behind me I heard “He’s attacking my sister!” and loud screams from the back garden.
She was very shaken, her arm was bright red but thankfully the skin wasn’t broken. The whole morning had been very arousing for Knight with so many people all together for so long and, unfortunately, she got the fallout.
On the plus side if there is one, although the biting is dreadful, the adolescent and angry dog was actually able to show a some degree bite-inhibition and self-control.
Control and management
The challenge will be in implementing new boundaries without using force or confrontation which can only make things worse whilst also enriching his life. He needs more happening – more constructive stuff. This will be a big undertaking.
The times and places where the behaviour is most likely to occur are predictable and must now be controlled using management and change in routine – or Knight muzzled.
For instance, they always have trouble with him leading up to his meals. He won’t leave them alone while they themselves eat (there is nowhere in the house to shut him apart from a crate) and he gets more and more rough and hyped up until he’s fed.
I suggest now that they break the routine and feed him first – in the crate, and leave him there until they have eaten and cleared up.
This isn’t the problem solved for the future, but it’s managed for now.
Control and management also means making it impossible for the behaviour with some physical restrictions. Physical restrictions are hard in a small house with no doors, and gaps too wide for a gate.
We considered anchor points with cable attached and at making the crate a place he loves to be.
Free use must be made of the muzzle. He knows he can control them by using his teeth and he can sense their own fear. With a muzzle they can relax and no longer give in to him.
The more the adolescent biting, grabbing and bullying is rehearsed, the more of a learnt behaviour, a habit, it becomes.
Adolescent, frustrated and bored.
Knight has little space at home, is at present unable to be outside off-lead in the garden and can’t be trusted off-lead when out. The lack of freedom must add to an adolescent’s frustration. Something needs to be done about this along with working on his recall (we will look at this later). Meanwhile, maybe they could perhaps sometimes hire a safe field so he has a chance to run.
Knight’s roughness and biting is all about controlling people but he wouldn’t do it if it had never worked. There are times when he’s gentle and peaceful, but once aroused – frustrated or angry…off he goes.
They should now add as much fulfillment to his life as they possibly can. Getting the fine line between enrichment and stirring him up will be tricky.
Earning some of his food.
They were a little resistant to using food. It’s almost impossible to train without food unless you use force, old-school style. Then it would all be about dominating the dog and his complying only to avoid punishment. The result of this approach would likely be real aggression, particularly when the person exerting this control wasn’t present to keep him under check. I’ve met many dogs like this.
Positive methods are the only way to go. Barking Up the Wrong Tree for 110 years, by Ian Dunbar.
Knight can earn the food he would anyway eat – it’s not treating him, it’s payment. Food is also for reinforcing the desired behaviour – positive reinforcement. The end result, with sufficient time and effort, is a biddable and cooperative dog.
There is a lot more to cover over the weeks I shall be working with them. Walking on a long line in the park, they can work on recall whilst giving him some freedom. They can teach him to settle on a mat when he’s calmed down a bit. Work needs to be done on his resource guarding and also separation problems.
Finally, they have a cat. Just hearing the cat at the door gets him going.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Knight and because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog, you can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where aggression is concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)