6 Week Old German Shepherd Puppy: My Biggest Trainer Mistake EVER!
I once adopted a 6 week old German Shepherd puppy and it led to the biggest training mistake that I ever made.
Curious, aren’t you? Well, we’ll get to that story below. But first, here’s some background information on the breed in question – the German Shepherd Dog, or GSD, for short.
The German Shepherd Dog
Rin Tin Tin, a pup found in a World War I battle zone, became the world’s first canine movie star, forever marking the German Shepherd Dog as one of the most easily recognized breeds. From his imposing size to his erect ears and dark, intelligent eyes, he has achieved legendary status as the ideal canine.
A versatile, athletic and fearless working dog, the Shepherd has done just about every job a dog can do, from leading the blind and detecting illicit drugs to bringing down fleeing criminals and serving in the armed forces. An energetic, loyal and devoted companion, the GSD isn’t a breed but a lifestyle.
The abilities of this breed go far beyond its origin as a herding dog. The GSD has made a name for himself as a police and military dog, guide and assistance dog, search and rescue dog, and detector dog. German shepherd ears are among the best in the canine world.
He has excelled in every canine sport including agility, obedience, rally, tracking and, of course, herding.
GSDs still work livestock on farms and ranches around the world, including the United States.
If you have horses, they will trot alongside you while you ride and help you put the horses back in the barn when you’re done.
It takes some dedication to live with a GSD. Be prepared to provide plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. A half-hour walk twice a day, plus a vigorous play or training session, is a good start.
The protective but loving GSD is a great choice for families with children, but singles and couples who love the outdoors also match up well with this breed. With sufficient exercise and opportunities to use their considerable athleticism and brains, these versatile companions can handle anything from a small city apartment to a vast ranch. They're not suited for life in the backyard or a doghouse but need to live indoors as a member of the family.
History of the German Shepherd
According to the German Shepherd Club of America,
“In 1889 Captain Max von Stephanitz began the standardization of the breed. It all started at a dog show in Karlsruhe in western Germany. A medium-sized yellow-and-gray wolf-like dog caught his attention. The dog was of the primal canine type, supple and powerful, and possessed endurance, steadiness, and intelligence. He was a working sheepherder, requiring no training other than direction and finish to become proficient at the task. This dog, Hektor Linksrhein, was purchased by von Stephanitz, renamed Horand von Grafrath, and became the first registered German Shepherd Dog…
“With the end of World War I came a new appreciation for the breed. The German Army had made good use of the breed as a war dog. Tales told by returning U.S. fighting men, some bringing shepherds with them, and the intelligence and striking appearance of the dogs caught the attention of the general public.
Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart, whose movies played on variations of the "boy and his dog" theme, shot the popularity of the breed sky-high. Puppy factories flourished to meet the demand, gutting the American market with poor quality "German police dogs", resulting in a down-turn in popularity of the breed.
“Serious breeding did continue such as by Mrs. Harrison Eustis, of Fortunate Fields Kennels, in Switzerland. Her approach was completely scientific with exhaustive research of breedings undertaken. The most widely known usefulness to which her dogs were put was as guide dogs for the blind at the famous Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey…
“The German Shepherd Dog was widely sought after during World War II, employed by Allied and Axis forces, as mine detectors, sentinels, guard work, messenger, and other services. In America, Dogs for Defense was formed, providing thousands of dogs to the army.
“The paths of German and American shepherds diverged after World War II. The Americans continued largely with the Pfeffer and Odin lines while in Germany the breed was in poor shape. Many dogs had been killed or destroyed due to lack of food. The best that was left was bred, frequently outcross breedings, since there was no great selection of line-bred stock.
Soon the breeders had individual dogs dominant in the desired virtues.
They then began to line-breed or inbreed so that by about 1949 quality specimens began to appear at German shows.
The pedigrees of these "new" dogs were largely the result of "type" breeding without the influence of Pfeffer but having the great dogs behind him. Prepotent sires emerged, Axel von der Deininghauserheide, Rolf vom Osnabruecker-land and Hein v. Richterback, representing preserved pre-war genetics.
“Through Pfeffer, American breeders established a beautiful type. This was concentrated by inbreeding, and in combination with descendants of his half-brother Odin vom Busecker-Schloss. Many well-known kennels of the day, utilizing these lines were Long-Worth, founded by Lloyd Brackett, Liebestraum, owned by Grant Mann, and Hessian, owned by Art and Helen Hess.”
In summary, this majestic breed began taking shape and getting standardized in the late 1800s, and it caught the eye of many people for its practical usage as well as its appearance and intelligence. In World War I, it was used by the German military to great effect, gaining the interest and respect of American soldiers.
The stories of dogs and their nobility during the war caused the breed’s popularity to skyrocket, until it decreased in popularity when the market was oversaturated by poor variations of the German Shepherd.
After World War II, however, the popularity increased once again, as the GSD was a fantastic working dog and had many practical uses as well as being a strong pet. In the U.S., a beautiful type of GSD was standardized, and it began to be used in large numbers by the military and in working America. Today, the German Shepherd is descended from these blue-collar dogs and is one of the most popular dog breeds in the United States.
Nurturing Your Puppy
A big part of raising your puppy is raising it.
Your puppy will need to have a dog bed, as well as a designated area to be during most of the day.
This could be a whole section of your house or even just a room. You will likely need to buy a crate for your pup.
When it comes to dog food, you can raise a German Shepherd on high-quality puppy food. Let me reiterate; normal dog food isn’t ideal for raising a puppy. You must feed it the proper German Shepherd puppy food so that it will receive the nutrients necessary to promote healthy growth and development. Weigh out the benefits of dry food versus canned food. Both have their merits.
Training Young German Shepherd Puppies
Before dog training starts, you have to consider the training method you intend to use. This method needs to be consistent, so making the decision is one that requires some research. Many professional animal trainers use what’s called positive reinforcement. This philosophy believes that animals are much better behaved and easier to train when they’re earning rewards and praise than if they’re being punished. Punishment and negative reinforcement training has actually been proven to cause aggression and unwanted behaviors.
One common tool used in positive reinforcement training is the clicker. It’s a small hand-held device which makes a clicking sound when pressed. It can be found at most pet supply stores for a couple bucks.
The purpose of the clicker is to mark the correct behavior with a sound. More info on clicker training here. It’s more consistent than a word or phrase from the owner - and faster - which means it’s easier for your dog to understand when they’ve performed the correct behavior. Follow the click with a reward, like a tasty treat, and you’re off to a great start.
When it comes to potty training, a young puppy should never be left loose unattended in your home. With so much space, and no training they are likely to relieve themselves wherever they happen to be, even on your lovely rug – that happened to cost an arm and a leg and will cost even more to replace or clean. This will set back your potty training progress.
A puppy will not relieve themselves where they sleep if they can help it. This makes its crate an ideal place to keep it for extended periods during potty training, but keep in mind that puppy bladders aren’t the strongest. You should never leave your puppy in their crate longer than 4 to 8 hours depending on the age of your puppy, due to risk of elimination or separation anxiety.
When it comes to puppy training, it is important when you first bring your German Shepherd puppy home to set up a socialization schedule. I like to make sure I am literally scheduling outings to make sure that my puppy is acclimated to all the things that might be in his environment.
It is important to start young so that you can ensure a positive experience with things that will be in your dog’s life later.
Puppies are pliable and form generalizations easier than do adult dogs. But, this can be good and bad! If your puppy has a bad experience it can also affect how he feels about certain things for life (or at least it will make changing his mind extremely difficult). So this makes you responsible for making sure that experiences are positive. Socialize him with people and children that you know and trust.
Start early by making him sit to be petted or treated! Now is the time to socialize your GSD, not when he is 80 pounds. Expose him to kind and gentle dogs. Do not allow him to bully other dogs or be bullied.
If negative interactions start you must bring it to an end.
Some puppies learn to bully early and puppies that are bullied can become defensive and later aggressive with other dogs.
Now, I know I said to start early; however, if you start too early, such as with a dog younger than seven or eight weeks, you’ll be at a severe disadvantage.
Your German Shepherd puppy is supposed to be mothered at a young age.
Its mom will teach it bite inhibition, proper social cues, and how to respect the pecking order, among other key tools that your dog will need to socialize properly.
This brings me right into what I did wrong with my GSD.
The Big Mistake
Those of you who are familiar with my articles know I tell it as it is and I am not afraid for other people to learn from my numerous mistakes. Just because we are professional dog trainers doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. We usually make them with our own dogs!
Ask any mathematician, accountant, doctor, lawyer or any other professional and you will root out mistakes. Some people readily admit to them and others…well, they don’t. But, I am no God. I am not immune from making mistakes every now and again.
And, this time I made a BIG one! This mistake I even knew better than to make, but decided to do it anyway. I broke one of my cardinal rules: This Face Doesn’t Look Evil!
Never, Ever Take a Puppy That’s Too Young!
No excuses! Don’t do it!
Not only did I take my latest family member at 6 weeks, I did it because he had already been separated from his mother at 4 weeks.
4 weeks, *gasp*…This is WAY too young! Puppies need their moms for essential learning and especially bite inhibition.
Puppies grow and develop and explore their world with their little mouths and tiny, sharp teeth. And, when these teeth inevitably find their momma’s leg or paw; she strikes back delivering a punishing blow and an experience they will likely not forget.
Moms don’t usually hurt their puppies; they are simply quick to put an end to hard and inappropriate biting, possessiveness and aggressive behaviors amongst her pups. This interaction is crucial and often humans are unable to duplicate the strict force needed to teach young puppies not to bite. And, other dogs can injure puppies with no bite inhibition.
What is the Proper Age to Adopt a Puppy?
The underlying psychological issue about what age to bring pups home involves socialization.
You can think of socialization as a process where the dog learns how to deal with the living things in its environment—specifically dogs and people.
The scientific foundation for our knowledge of socialization in dogs begins with the classic book by John Paul Scott and John Fuller which was published in 1965*. It summarized 13 years’ worth of research which was done at the Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor, Maine.
The suggestion is that socialization of dogs with other dogs comes first (from 3 to 6 weeks), and socialization of the dogs with people comes next (from 6 to 14 weeks). If puppies do not have a chance to start socialization during these time periods then the chance that the dogs will ever be properly socialized becomes very small indeed.
A poorly socialized dog is apt to be more fearful and will have difficulty fitting in to the world of dogs or people, which means that it is not likely to succeed as either a pet or a working dog, such as with GSDs (German Shepherd Dogs).
What I Should Have Done….
When I found out the pups had been pulled from their mother and all other adult dogs at 4 weeks, I should have declined taking a pup from this litter.
I should have found another litter that had the experience of living with mom.
BUT… I figured since I was a professional, I could help get this puppy what he needed at a young age.
I assumed that my dogs could teach him how to act.
I Was Wrong….
Now, first let me explain myself…
I have had true genetic working dogs for over a decade.
Those that have come from top line competition lines and those from working dog lines (police K9 etc.). So working dogs and their issues are not new to me.
I have dealt with possessive and aggressive puppies before, but never like this one.
At 6 weeks he bit an adult dog in the leg over a bath mat and was over corrected by the adult dog resulting in a swift bite to the puppy face and the loss of a couple of puppy teeth.
He Has No Bite Inhibition and is EXTREMELY Possessive and has a Terrible Temper!
Now, if you know me, you also know that I, too, compete in the world of dog bite sports so to some degree this is expected, and wanted, but never have I had a puppy that could not integrate with my adult dogs.
Usually they can be possessive with me or other humans but when they are puppies they are accepting of the pecking order of the adult dogs. Not this puppy; he has no respect and despite his horrible bite to the face, still no fear.
So What Do You Do?
To some degree I have to accept what I have, learn to train and live with him.
I know that you would like me to tell you that there is some miracle cure for this puppy. But there is not, it just is not that simple.
Instead, he is going to be a lifetime of maintenance.
He will need to be separated for every meal, not only from people he doesn’t know (I am working with his acceptance of me being around his food) but also for my other dogs and other animals.
He has no doggy social skills, and the lack of these skills puts him at risk for an attack.
He has no appeasement skills. Let me explain. Most puppies get into the face of an adult dog and eventually that dog may get tired of being poked at and climbed on so the adult dog will snarl or growl and the puppy (having been taught by his mother) immediately rolls onto his back may put his head down or otherwise show appeasement skills; showing the adult dog he is sorry he made a mistake.
My puppy on the other hand, gets more aggressive when an adult dog gets irritated with his poor behavior and threatens to lash out in heightened aggression and anger. This means that he will probably never be able to go to dog parks or play with other dogs.
With time and obedience, I should be able to teach him how to act around other dogs and socialize him safely by teaching him to simply ignore other dogs.
But he will probably never be able to be trusted to play with them without the risk of a severe dog fight.
And, make no mistake – without obedience and teaching him around other dogs he would probably become severely dog aggressive.
So, I will have to do all that I can to socialize him without allowing a negative experience to happen and I must be in ultimate control at all times.
Right now, all of his interactions with my dogs are completely controlled (except for my 12 year old dog that mothers him to the best of his ability; without hurting him).
Obedience will rule his world and already does at 9 weeks! He has already been taught to tolerate me around his food bowl and my hand in his food bowl and he has learned how to sit, lie down, stand and put his head down on command. This obedience helps his lack of impulse control, by forcing him to learn impulse control.
He Also Bites ME as HARD as He Can…
He simply doesn’t realize he shouldn’t bite me so hard.
And sometimes he bites me because he is angry that I have taken away an object or blocked his access to something he wants.
I have cuts and puncture wounds all over my arm from him biting too hard because his mother wasn’t there to teach him.
Sometimes he wraps his whole mouth around my arm and bites down over and over again rolling his eyes back into his head as if he was getting some kind of pleasure out of it; almost like he is nursing.
How To Stop this Biting
I have to redirect him when he starts biting, by giving him a toy or something appropriate to chew on.
I have also used bitter apple on my arms, hands, feet, pants to keep him from mouthing me.
When he becomes angry I have to remove myself from the situation. If I use punishment his aggression is likely to escalate and become much worse.
But ultimately the obedience I have taught him is the key to keeping him from injuring me along with lots and lots of exercise.
When he sleeps, well that is my favorite time of day! So, I must exercise him and his mind almost constantly to keep from falling prey to those jaws.
- I run him on my agility equipment
- I socialize him with other people (he is very social with people, it’s me he likes to bite)
- I walk him back and forth around my yard
- I let him chase toys
- And I teach him obedience skills! At 9 weeks he probably knows more obedience than some adult dogs and this keeps him preoccupied. When his teeth come out I can tell him to do something else for a toy or a treat!
This dog is not going to be easy to own. He is going to be a lifetime of maintenance, obedience and control and I know that and am willing to put in the time and effort.
But take a lesson from me and don’t do this to yourself! Not all puppies separated from their mother at a young age will become like this, but you run a much higher risk of these behaviors by taking an uneducated baby!
Make sure that your pup has been with his mom; and don’t take him before 8 weeks of age! Mom has lots of life lessons to teach him, that we as humans simply can’t…instead we are left to a lifetime of lessons and maintenance.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.