If you ask me about German Shepherds I have nothing but great things to say. However, I owe it to this wonderful breed to be completely honest with you: An untrained German Shepherd can be dangerous. It’s in their genes to be protective and they are most likely to become aggressive towards what they consider a threat against themselves, their owner, or their area of responsibility. It is therefore vital to properly socialize German Shepherds while they are growing up and properly train them in order to become calm, composed and balanced adults.
In order to properly coach a puppy, one should take a step towards understanding the different stages of development that dogs go through while growing up. So, here is a guide of puppy developmental stages and what you should (and shouldn’t) do in each case. Small deviations in the following periods are natural, since each puppy has his own growth pace and experiences. Nevertheless, we can roughly define the following critical stages in the life of the puppy:
- Neonatal period: birth to 12 days
The puppy feeds and tries to stay warm.
- Transitional period: 13 to 20 days
The puppy’s eyes begin to open, but sight will not be refined until the 21st day. The puppy is capable of crawling forward and backwards, and slowly begins to walk. Around the 20th day the puppy begins to wag his tail from side to side and the first teeth start to appear. The puppy also starts to react to sounds around the 19th day, but cannot locate the source.
- Awareness period: 21 to 28 days
It’s the first week the puppy can actually use his eyes and ears. This transition is so abrupt that it is really important for the puppy’s environment to remain stable. The puppy is currently in great need of his mother and a familiar environment and if he is transferred to a new location at this time, he may be traumatized. Learning also begins at this stage, starting with “what it means to be a dog.”
- Canine socialization: 21 to 49 days (3 to 7 weeks)
The puppy begins to behave in the manner that makes him a member of his kind. He starts experimenting on various body postures, facial expressions and vocal drills, observing their effect on his siblings. He starts playing chase in order to improve the coordination of his movements, engages in small fights with his siblings in order to learn how to control his body, and keeps testing body postures in order to improve his greeting techniques. At this time, he also learns to accept punishment and discipline from his mother, learning which behavior is unacceptable through gentle bites and whining. His mother is primarily responsible for all these lessons, so it is very important for the puppy to be among his siblings.
- Human socialization: 7 to 12 weeks
This is the best time to bring the new puppy home. The puppy’s brain at this age resembles that of an adult dog. It is a period of rapid learning and anything learned at this time is permanent knowledge! Furthermore, during this period the puppy explores the world around him with no fear at all. It is therefore the best time for you to get acquainted with the puppy and get him slowly familiar with all the situations and things he will encounter in his life such as sounds made by cars and home appliances, people, objects and noises in general.
- Fear imprint period: 8 to 11 weeks
Any traumatic, painful or intimidating experience at this time will have permanent effect on the psyche of the puppy. You must avoid anything that might frighten or hurt the puppy, such as loud noises, long journeys, unnecessary surgery, or any other upsetting experiences. Any activity you choose to do with the puppy in this period must be free from any form of stress. This stage is very critical especially for German Shepherds, since any form of trauma can make them unpredictable as adults.
- Seniority classification period: 12 to 16 weeks
This is the time when the puppy tries to find his place in the “herd” and starts to test who will be the leader. At this point, the German Shepherd puppy starts playing games which include violently biting your legs, hands, etc in an attempt to dominate. This sort of behavior must be discouraged, always keeping in mind that the puppy is not doing anything wrong; all he is trying to do is resolve the issue of leadership. So, this is the best period to set limits and ground rules. The best way to do that is by stopping the game every time the puppy bites or generally gets out of line. This way, he will associate bad behavior with “losing you” and gradually stop it.
- Flight Instinct Period: 4 to 8 months
This period could easily be described as the dog’s adolescence, since the puppy begins to test his wings and starts to openly challenge authority. The puppy seems to forget everything previously learned and may even stop responding to his name. What’s more, his adult teeth are growing and he needs to chew things constantly. This is the period when most of the problems between a dog and his owner appear. It is therefore really important that the puppy receives intense obedience training, while he must also learn that he has to “work” for everything he gets. For example, teach your dog that he has to sit before you put on the leash to take him for a walk. The same before he eats, plays, gets a toy, etc. During this period it would be a good idea to also consult a professional, especially if you do not have prior experience with German Shepherds.
- Second Fear Period: 6 to 14 months
During this period, which is similar to the first fear period, the puppy begins to fear things that did not scare him before. At this point, repetition in training is very important for the dog to regain his confidence and overcome his fears. You should not welcome such a behavior, and never comfort the dog, because that way you teach him that it is ok to be afraid. Instead, try to make an example by remaining calm and ignoring the “threat”, so that the dog understands that there is nothing to it. Use treats and other positive learning methods systematically to help him overcome his fears. Again, every activity should be enjoyable and fun. You should never push the dog to confront a situation he is terrified of.
Especially with German Shepherds, the two fear periods are extremely important, since anything that the dog associates with fear as a puppy will be considered a threat when he becomes an adult. For example, if the puppy is terrified of the garbage truck, he is likely to want to attack the garbage collectors later as a grownup.
- Maturity: 1-4 years
The dog reaches maturity but this does not mean that you are done. On the contrary: The period can be characterized by increased aggressiveness and an attempt for repositioning in hierarchy. Here, German Shepherds are likely to have unfavorable reactions towards unfamiliar people and animals, especially other dogs, which is particularly dangerous since they are capable of causing serious injuries to others. So, socialization and training should continue now more than ever. It is always a good idea to consult a professional or a good book on German Shepherd care and training.
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