German Shepherd Puppies
Understand your developing GSD puppy as he grows into an adult.
Though Max is just a few days old, his owners, Bryan and Ami Nye of Orlando, Fla., already have his future profession planned. This German Shepherd Dog will grow one day to serve as an assistance dog for Oscar, the Nyes' 8-year-old son who suffers from autism. After nearly two years of nurturing, socialization and training, Max will have learned as many as 50 cues, and he'll be ready to stand alongside the child as a guide and guardian, calming him at school and preventing him from bolting out the front door.
For now, the family is content to play with the pup. "We feel so fortunate to have Max in our lives," Ami says. "We know that if our son has a meltdown or temper tantrum, Max will know the appropriate way to respond. We also know that their interactions will be completely safe, even if Oscar develops a fascination with Max's mouth or ears. After his training, Max will have the patience of a couch pillow."
All the World's a Stage
Without a doubt, German Shepherd Dogs are known for their protecting and serving abilities. Some, like Max, work as assistance dogs; some heed their original herding calling; some excel at schutzhund, a sport that focuses on developing traits like strength, endurance and agility; and others find work as search-and-rescue, police, military or sniffer dogs. They're family dogs, too. In fact, the American Kennel Club says that although the breed is hailed as the world's leading police, guard and military dog, it's also one of the most popular breeds in the United States.
The German Shepherd's innate abilities certainly impress, but he — like all other breeds — requires shaping during puppyhood to help him develop into a well-socialized and well-mannered adult dog. In their first year of life, puppies progress through five distinct developmental phases: neonatal, transitional, socialization, juvenile and adolescent. Each phase has telltale behavioral signs that are normal and expected.
"When owners are familiar with and understand these developmental stages, they can better anticipate and recognize behaviors, and provide support by exposing their dogs to positive experiences," says Lori Holmberg, a certified associate applied animal behaviorist in Aurora, Colo. "An owner should teach his or her puppy how to respond and to look to him or her for what to do in new situations. Owners are really pet parents, and they provide guidance and direction in different situations."
How do you guide your German Shepherd puppy through his critical developmental stages? By understanding the fundamental first-year milestones and learning what you can do to support your German Shepherd through puppyhood.
"People need to enjoy puppyhood, because it's such a wonderful time," says Pamela Reid, vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal's animal-behavior center in New York City. "It lasts for a short time, and puppies are so much fun. Even though they do some things we don't like, it's wonderful to lose yourself in their joie de vivre as they discover the world."
From the moment a puppy leaves his mother's womb until he's about 2 to 3 weeks old, he's considered neonatal. At this first developmental phase — the first stage of discovering the world — he can't see or hear. For the next 10 days, he relies on his mother to help him with normal bodily functions. She cleans him, she cues him to eat, and she even helps him urinate and defecate.
"Neonatal puppies are essentially little eating machines," says Katherine Houpt, an animal-behavior professor at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y. "The turning point is when their eyes open."
A pup's senses of taste, smell and touch function from day one, but at around 10 to 16 days old, he begins to see and follow moving stimuli. At 14 to 18 days old, he'll startle at loud sounds. This is known as a puppy's transitional period.
"What's happening is that the German Shepherd puppy's little brain has never seen or heard anything before, so all these new signals are coming in," explains Nicholas Dodman, director of the animal-behavior clinic at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass. "The puppy is orienting himself to pick up on a lot of visual and auditory cues. This is a week of orientation, of gaining an appreciation for all these signals, putting them together and figuring out which way is up."
In most cases, the puppy will still be living with his mother and littermates at the breeder's kennel. There, the pup begins to learn how to interact with other dogs. He'll gradually begin to learn how to interact with people, too. That leads the pup into his next phase: the socialization period.
"At around week three, after the transitional period, the socialization period begins," Dodman says. "Now, pups have all the equipment: functioning sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. They can use those senses while interacting with their littermates."
Even at this early stage, German Shepherd puppies show hints of job-related skills, says Helen Gleason, an AKC-certified judge and education chair for the German Shepherd Dog Club of America, who has bred and shown GSDs for more than 40 years in Hudson, Fla.
"We begin handling the puppies on a daily basis from birth," she says. "We touch them, move them around, hold them in our hands, correct them and make sure we bond with them. If someone calls and says they need a hearing-guide dog, I'll play music for all the puppies to see which ones react to the sounds. Someone else might call and ask for a high-drive puppy for schutzhund, and the first puppy who jumps out of the box is probably the one best suited for that particular job."
As a puppy progresses through his socialization phase, which runs from about 3 to 12 weeks of age, he learns how to interact with other living beings and situations, says Bonnie Beaver, D.V.M., at the small animal clinical sciences department in the college of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station.
"The socialization period is absolutely the most critical time for any dog breed," Beaver says. "It ends relatively early, so a new owner needs to know a lot about socialization."
This sensitive learning period is the time when a puppy owner introduces his or her dog to a wide variety of people, animals and experiences to teach the dog what's normal and OK. Curious and outgoing, a German Shepherd puppy learns all about the world and develops his contact list of safe people and playmates.
"The puppy is particularly malleable in terms of his willingness to adapt to new experiences, to form attachments to people, to form attachments to other dogs and to be introduced to other animals," Reid says. "This is the period when the puppy sees everything as fun."
Midway through this third milestone, at around 6 to 8 weeks of age, the pup typically moves to his new home. Bolstering what the breeder has begun, a German Shepherd owner should expose his or her pet to as many individuals and situations as possible, including other family pets. The dog should meet people of all ethnicities, shapes, sizes and ages. He should experience people with beards, wearing hats and carrying canes. He should walk on a variety of surfaces, ride in a car and hear the rumble of a vacuum cleaner.
"During this time, puppies aren't afraid of much, they're curious and interested in exploring their world," Holmberg says. "Puppies should be given many good experiences with different sounds, surfaces, people and animals in different situations so that when something new happens as they become adults, they will have solid coping skills."
If a pup misses these meetings and experiences, things can go awry. Fear, aggression and compulsive behaviors are more likely to occur in dogs with inadequate socialization.
"It's pretty clear that if puppies don't experience a variety of different people, animals and places during those first few weeks, they will be much more likely to have behavioral problems," Reid says.
This introduction period is critical for working German Shepherd Dogs, says Carmen Battaglia, Ph.D., an AKC-certified judge and longtime GSD breeder in Atlanta, Ga. If your dog is destined for a particular job, he should be exposed to sensations specific to that job, and that exposure should become more focused as your pup progresses through his juvenile and adolescent periods.
"Dogs who are going to do advanced tasks where more will be demanded of them — such as competition, military work, police work, guiding or search-and-rescue work — need an enriched environment so that by the time they become adults, they can perform at the levels expected of them," Battaglia says.
Regardless of the pup's future occupation, he should begin attending puppy kindergarten and obedience training classes as soon as he's finished his vaccinations, Dodman says.
"At 9 weeks old, you definitely can start training a dog," he adds. "Don't expect too much at first, because it's like teaching a kindergartner. All training should be incredibly good fun for the trainer and dog, but you can start to train a few useful things. Introduce simple monosyllabic words, like 'sit' and 'down,' and praise your puppy for adopting a sitting position or for lying down. This age is a wonderful open-window period of learning. You can start education very early."
Toward the middle or end of the socialization period — from about 8 to 10 weeks of age — puppies experience their first fear period. If a pup endures a frightening or stressful situation, it can affect his ability to socialize.
"Really bad experiences from a dog's perspective can unsocialize him," Beaver says. "If your puppy gets hit by a car or a child hits him over the head with a baseball bat, those kinds of things can damage his ability to socialize. Puppies need socialization and interaction, but they need them in positive ways."
Though this fear phase hasn't been as well documented as other developmental stages, the fear responses peak after four to eight weeks and taper off after that. "Puppies go through this fear period at about the time you should start vaccinating them," Houpt says. "As soon as your puppy is vaccinated, start taking him to puppy class."
While continuing to socialize a pup through the fear period, an owner should pay close attention to his or her pet's reactions to new things. "A puppy will begin to appreciate danger at around 7 weeks of age, and that's when owners really have to protect against unfortunate experiences and introduce things that aren't harmful," Dodman says.
After puppies emerge from their busy socialization period, they start to focus on the world around them. In their juvenile stage, which spans from 3 to 6 months of age, their attention turns from other animals and humans to their surroundings.
"We find that a 12- to 16-week-old puppy's attention shifts from people and biological things toward environmental exploration," Beaver says. "Now they're really getting curious about what's around them. That's why it's difficult to socialize them after that; their attention is focused on their environment and not social things."
Your pup will prefer to explore the yard, investigate the closet or chase a rabbit's scent rather than endure the rigors of puppy class. With the mind of a puppy and the body of an adult, he'll want to follow his fancy rather than focus on training.
"During the juvenile period, puppies have short attention spans, and they're easily distracted," Holmberg says, adding that they also begin behaviors like marking (in males), roaming and mounting at around 5 months old. "It takes some patience and perseverance to deal with them at this stage."
Despite their curious and wandering ways, German Shepherd puppies can learn quite a bit during their juvenile stage, Dodman says. Puppy owners should plan to reinforce positive behaviors and interactions with rewards and praise, and continue to expose their pets to novel situations and sensations — even if they're challenging.
"Practice exposure training — coupling something that your dog is bothered by, like a mailman, with a pleasant experience," Dodman explains. "For instance, if you see the mailman at a distance, ask him to stop at the end of the driveway, and every time he appears, reward your pup with some delectable treat or praise. You're encouraging your dog to be a good and responsible canine."
Any anxiety, territorial or aggression issues should be addressed before they develop into full-fledged problem behaviors, he adds.
"Remember that your puppy will grow into a 90-pound dog, and when he is more than 6 months old, he'll be quite big and will pick up on people's startled fear reactions," Dodman says. "If you begin to notice that your dog is shrinking away, cowering, hiding or barking at someone during those first 3 months of age or beyond, nip it in the bud by using counter-conditioning and desensitization."
At around 5 months of age, a puppy enters his adolescent period, and his hormones really start flowing. He starts displaying sexual behaviors, like mounting and fighting, and asserts his adult role. This development from pup to adult continues until he's at least 18 months to 2 years old — when a dog is clinically considered an adult.
"Dogs start to approach sexual maturity at around 6 months of age, but it could be anywhere from 5 to 8 months, depending on the dog," Beaver says. "The hormones kick in, and we start to see slightly different behavior that's triggered by hormonal changes." It's at this point that puppies should be spayed or neutered, Beaver says. She adds that a female should be spayed before she begins her first estrus (heat cycle).
"It's better for them medically not to go through heat," Beaver says. "There are a few exceptions, however, and that's where your veterinarian can offer good advice."
The juvenile period marks a time of steady growth and maturation. Your puppy knows how to use his faculties and generally understands the world around him, and he now sees things with older eyes, though he's still a puppy.
"You have these young, sexually mature dogs who are the equivalent of 12-year-old children," Dodman explains. "Everything is all about exploration in a quasi-adult way, but dogs are not fully mature — with all behaviors intact and operational, with all the savvy of an adult — until 2 years old. The adolescent period is very long for a dog, lasting from six months to two years."
Working GSDs, such as police dogs or assistance dogs, typically enter into their more focused training at the six-month mark. They reside with a foster family during the early developmental stages and finish their education with skilled trainers.
"The military, for instance, uses various foster programs that last up to six months," Battaglia says. "Then the dogs go back to the military where they get their final training before they're placed with bomb detection units, border-control officers or sent abroad for mine detection." It's the versatility of the GSD that makes him so desirable with different protective agencies.
The typical puppy owner, however, should continue to hone his or her pet's skills. Owners should improve on their dogs' obedience training but still allow them to be puppies.
"German Shepherds are highly intelligent dogs who need a job, whether it's visiting the infirm or simply protecting the house," Gleason says. "As your dog matures, I strongly recommend puppy kindergarten and obedience or agility class with a professional trainer to raise a well-mannered dog."
If you're prepared to guide your German Shepherd puppy through his developmental stages and support him through his formative first months, you'll be well on your way to raising a healthy, happy, well-behaved dog — and a lifelong member of your family.
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