Socializing with People
The key to socializing a puppy or a rescued shepherd is to make sure that while you are introducing your shepherd to new people and acclimating him to a variety of different settings, you are keeping the sessions positive. All it takes is one distressing experience to set back your shepherd in his training.
Since the situations you put your dog in are out of his control, you have to be his ambassador. It is up to you to make sure your puppy or adult dog is comfortable at all times. If someone is doing something that you know is going to frighten your shepherd, you must step in to prevent a bad experience.
Some behaviorists believe that the way a puppy is raised and the experiences he has may make up to 60 percent of his final character, giving “nurture” more clout than “nature.” Unless you socialize your puppy, he won't develop his best possible temperament.
A puppy is born with a predisposition for a certain temperament, which will develop at maturity. Environment, however, plays a key role in determining whether the puppy reaches her full potential as a social dog. In other words, a puppy that is pre-disposed to be timid and fearful can overcome her fears if she is raised in the right environment. Likewise, a puppy predisposed to be a terrific, friendly dog could be permanently stunted in a harsh and isolated environment.
There's also a sense of urgency in socializing a puppy. Your puppy is most impressionable in terms of learning social skills before she reaches twelve weeks of age. If you used a reputable breeder, he likely gave your puppy an excellent start by having friends, neighborhood children, and others come over to handle and play with the puppies. If your breeder wasn't conscientious and kept the puppies in a dark barn, the pressing need to socialize your puppy is greatly increased.
If you have a puppy, start socialization work immediately. Some experts feel that the puppy should meet 100 strangers within the first twelve weeks of life and visit fifty new places. That's a lot of stimulation. A good start would be to set a goal of meeting at least one new person every day and visiting two or three new locations each week.
When you visit new locations, encourage your puppy to check everything out. Give her treats to reward good, friendly behavior. Encourage people to pet her so she learns to enjoy handling by different people. Give treats to strangers to offer her so that she associates an outstretched hand with something good.
Your puppy should be comfortable with everyone in your family — extended relatives included — and anyone who regularly works in your home. For example, if you have children, make sure the babysitter and the puppy are on excellent terms. You don't want to come home to find your sitter trapped in the bathroom with the shepherd standing guard outside the door. She probably won't work for you again.
The rescue dog comes with the experiences of her early life. For many shepherds that wind up in shelters, this past is overwhelming. Fortunately, this likely won't be a problem you need to worry about. If you've rescued a German shepherd from a good shelter or a breed rescue, you will know your shepherd's temperament, weaknesses, and strengths. Your job is to improve upon a solid start.
Trust in humans is perhaps the biggest hurdle for a rescue that has been hurt or neglected by her previous owner. The fact that this shepherd trusted you enough to pick you speaks volumes about your potential influence on her. However, it could be months before she gives you her total trust.
Start your shepherd off slowly. Working with what already makes her comfortable is a confidence builder. In other words, if you adopted a shepherd that adores children, start introducing her to as many children in as many places as possible. Reward her with treats for good behavior. As she becomes more and more self-confident, begin introducing her to adults.
When introducing your shepherd to strangers, watch her body language carefully. If you see any signs that she's getting anxious, stressed, or frightened, you've pushed her out of her comfort zone. Take her out of the situation immediately. Dogs bite out of fear more than for any other reason.
Fearful Puppies and Adults
A fearful puppy or adult dog is twice the responsibility of a stable, friendly shepherd, and it requires dedication, time, and patience to draw him out of his shell. But bashful pups need love too, and enough time and care from you can turn yours into a delightful dog. Whatever you do, don't use your shepherd's shyness as an excuse not to introduce him to people or to take him places.
Whether working with a puppy or adult shepherd that is timid, you need to be acutely aware of the subtle body language he will exhibit as he becomes increasingly stressed. When a dog is frightened, his ears may rotate back a little. He might begin panting, crouch slightly, tuck his tail in between his legs, or shake. He might also back up or start leaning into you.
Whatever you do, don't force your shepherd to meet anyone. This is not only terrifying to your shepherd, it could also be dangerous for the stranger. The other thing you don't want to do is coddle a frightened shepherd. If you try to comfort your scared shepherd by stroking him and saying, “It's okay, sweetie,” he will think you are rewarding him for his fearful behavior. Instead, move him far enough away from the person so that he is no longer worried. Let him observe the stranger from what he considers a safe distance. Reward him with praise and rubs only when he is no longer anxious or showing any signs of stress.
Shy shepherds are highly sensitive to strangers' body language, movements, and overall demeanor. For this reason, it is important to know the actions that may upset a timid dog. Some of the things a dog might find threatening include:
Direct eye contact
Hand outstretched above the dog's head
Squatting down to the dog's level
Face in the dog's face
Sharp, loud voice
Leaning over the dog's back
If you are making introductions for your dog, tell people not to look him in the eye or pet him, and tell them to let the dog approach them. This will help your shepherd feel much more comfortable with the strangers he meets.
If your shepherd is finding it hard to meet other people on his own, consider asking a friend who owns a very sociable dog (and one that your shepherd enjoys being with) to come with you and your dog. The bolder dog can give your shepherd the support he needs to get over his fear of certain kinds of people.
Fearful shepherds require a lot of work to help them overcome their fears. This is not to say that your efforts won't be rewarding. Watching a shepherd's confidence grow (however slowly) all because of your tireless efforts is an amazing feeling. Some shepherds may never be totally comfortable with all people and all situations. Your help, however, will make a significant improvement.