German Shepherds live in our world, a world that mainly relies on spoken word and lots of rules that differ between individuals. I always marvel at how dogs have been able to adapt to the restrictions we have placed upon them. Behaviours that often fly in the face of what they were born to do. Things like, don’t jump up and lick faces, don’t smell other dogs’ bums, don’t chase that bird into the pond, etc…. How would you feel if you suddenly found yourself in another world, where you only had your human behaviours to rely on? You wouldn’t understand the language, social norms or rules. Wouldn’t it be great if someone took you by the hand and lead you through the confusion? This teacher would have to be pretty certain about what the rules were and would have to be consistent and kind to make sure you felt most comfortable to try all of these new behaviours.
You can be that teacher. Start by thinking about the single behaviour you would like to teach your German Shepherd. Write it down if you need to. The single behaviour needs to be practised and reinforced on its own. For example, if you want to teach your German Shepherd to come – teach and reinforce come, not come and sit together. Each behaviour will need to go through the following phases to become reliable, then they can be put together.
The teaching phase is characterised by using food in your hand to lure your German Shepherd into the position you want. You then give the food up as soon as you get the behaviour you need. At first, you may also give the food halfway during a behaviour to encourage your German Shepherd that they are on the right track. This phase is best done in a non-distracting environment.
Now you can take the food lure away and reinforce the behaviour after offering a hand and verbal signal. Hand and verbal signals need to be unique to each behaviour. You can begin reinforcing better and better efforts of the desired behaviour. You can also work on the behaviour in different environments, start with spaces that are easy for you and your German Shepherd. Work up to being able to practice the behaviour where you will eventually use it. Most of your time should be spent in this phase. Set your German Shepherd up for success. Set yourself up for success too.
This is where you use the behaviour in the situation you intended it to be used. Little time should be spent in this phase, this is where all of your hard proofing is put to the test. For example, if you have been teaching and proofing heeling, this is where you heel past that dead bird, spilt rubbish, or poo that your German Shepherd loves to eat or roll in (yes, it is normal)!
Think of dog training behaviours as building a house…..If you start with a solid foundation, when you start adding pressure, the behaviour will hold firm.