When do German Shepherds Become Protective?

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When do German Shepherds become protective? Say the word “protective” in the canine world and there are a few breeds that immediately spring to mind. The German Shepherd Dog is always near the top due to a GSD’s temperament. But how do you know when the playful puppy will turn into the protective guardian? Can this behavior in fact be turned on or off? And will you be able to recognize and/or control it?

So, when do German Shepherds become protective? GSDs are born with a protective instinct that can manifest as early as 12 weeks but definitely when it starts to become an adolescent at around 6 months of age.

It is most important to understand that there is a difference between aggressive and protective behavior. Many “overprotective” dogs are actually aggressive dogs. It is an issue especially with GSD’s because they are known to be both protective and aggressive. So how to tell the difference and how to deal with it?

Protective Behavior

Most mammals have a protective instinct regardless of whether they are big or small, young or old. A mother will protect her young when she perceives a threat – it doesn’t matter if she’s a mouse or an elephant.

Dogs are no different.

GSDs in particular, have a strongly developed sense of protection. This is natural but has also been artificially enhanced by selective breeding.

A GSD in protective mode is easy to recognize:

  • He is alert. He is watching and listening.
  • If a new person, animal, or object arrives in his environment, he will move to inspect him, but he is still calm. If he feels reassured that there is no danger or threat he will continue with what he was doing.
  • If not, he may growl or bark until the person, animal or object goes away or is removed. When that is achieved, he calms down.
  • Baring teeth at someone or something (even sounds) often is an indication that the dog feels a need to protect. Snarling is another matter.
  • This protective behavior may be exhibited only with its owner but usually with the other members of the family as well.

When Is It Overprotective?

Protection is fantastic. The GSD that mingles with the family while keeping its eyes and ears open for possible threats is doing exactly what it is predisposed to do. GSDs that come from a reputable breeder will be protective but not overprotective and certainly not aggressive. So where is this fine line? 

A GSD that is overprotective is unable or unwilling to correctly identify a threat. It usually behaves that way with one specific member of the family. 

  • Early signs of overprotection are when the dog starts to position itself between that person and anybody else that tries to approach, even other members of the family. If it also growls, there is no doubt – it is overprotective.
  • If it has no respect for your personal boundaries by jumping, nudging, climbing all over you in spite of your commands not to, it is overprotective.
  • Overprotective dogs are often said to be resource guarding – you are the resource that provides it with everything it needs and so its protection of you becomes possessive. This behavior is complex and should not be allowed to develop into overprotectiveness.
  • Territorial marking inside the house by urine and even feces is a danger sign, especially if it has been properly house trained and knows it’s supposed to go outside.

Aggressive Behavior

There is a fine line between some dog signs as to whether it is overprotective or aggressive.

According to the ASPCA, the following are signs of increasing aggression:

  • Becoming very still and rigid. Usually accompanied by raised hackles or a head-up, direct stare with stiff, forward-facing ears at the source that is making it uncomfortable.
  • Guttural bark that sounds threatening. Very different from the joyful or communicative bark. Most people instantly recognize it.
  • Lunging forward or charging at the person/animal/object but without actual contact. This is warning behavior but may be omitted if the dog feels really threatened, in which case it may attack without warning. Otherwise, it will stop just short of contact, with stiff, splayed forelegs, and will sometimes lower its forequarters as if it is going to jump, while still staring.
  • Mouthing, as though to move or control the person, without applying significant pressure. 
  • “Muzzle punch”. The dog literally punches the person with its nose. Again, this may be a warning that you ignore to your detriment.
  • Growl. Same story, but the growl will sound serious. Deep and drawn out. The kind you hear in movies like The Hound of the Baskervilles.
  • Showing teeth. Lifting the lips, especially over the canine teeth is a way to show that they mean to use them.
  • Snarl (a combination of growling and showing teeth).
  • Snap.
  • Quick nip that leaves no mark.
  • Quick bite that tears the skin.
  • Bite with enough pressure to cause a bruise.
  • Bite that causes puncture wounds.
  • Repeated bites in rapid succession.
  • Bite and shake – this is how they kill small animals.

There are many causes and instigating circumstances for aggressive behavior in canines. Once again, the breeding of GSDs has predisposed them to aggression, which is not the appropriate behavior in all circumstances.

There is some evidence that aggression is genetically based but it is also well known that other factors play a large role. Some of these are:

  • Pain – for example, a GSD with hip dysplasia will lash out if disturbed.
  • Training – if you use aggressive training techniques, you get aggression in turn.
  • No training – no or little basic obedience training has been shown to result in a dog that behaves “aggressively”. They need to know where their boundaries are and what kind of behavior is appropriate under what circumstances.
  • Fear and insecurity – a GSD that is fearful or that is not confident that its owner will protect it in turn, will become aggressive. Fear aggression is a well-known behavioral condition that can be identified and managed by vets and animal behaviorists.

Puppies that Nip and Bite

A GSD puppy is not much different than other dogs. While it is young and teething, its gums are itching and it chews and bites and nips to try to ease it.

It is natural.

It is especially noticeable at around 6 or 7 months of age, but it will pass. Of course, a lot depends on how well you train your GSD at this time.

There are many training tips but the simplest is to give it an alternative – chew on a dog toy, not my legs!

This is neither protective nor aggressive behavior.

However, if you jerk your legs or hand away, it can trigger a response that makes it hold even tighter or even “chase” you. Again, it is a natural reaction for the dog so to prevent it, do not make the move that will result in this response.

It is essential to train and socialize a GSD puppy while it is still small. Protective behavior can turn into overprotection or aggression without any intention on your part if you do not lay the foundations correctly.

Related Questions

Can a German Shepherd Dog have no protective behavior?

You can find complaints on GSD forums of dogs that are not protective. It is unfair to try to identify why if you have not observed this lack of protection yourself. Temperament is a complex issue and although the breed history should give a good indication of whether it will turn out to be protective, it is not a guarantee.

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