Are German Shepherds Aggressive Or Threatening? (Causes and Solutions)

German Shepherds, like any other breed, can become dangerous without proper training. A mature German Shepherd has an extremely strong bite. However, with proper training and upbringing, you stand a good chance of growing into a loving and calm dog.

German Shepherds are a naturally protective breed towards their owners. If they don’t get enough socialization, they can become overly aggressive toward strangers. They are more likely to bite a stranger than a Labrador Retriever, but they are far from the aggressiveness of Pit bulls and Rottweilers.

Still, caution should always be maintained when approaching a German Shepherd. Shepherds are strong dogs that will instinctively defend their territory and family.

Character Traits of the German Shepherd

The German Shepherd is descended from herding dogs, so it has several traits that one would expect from them. And while these traits may be ideal for use on farms, without proper training, they can be potentially dangerous.

German Shepherds are remarkably athletic and reactive. In addition, because of their herding instincts, they tend to run and chase after moving objects.

They can also act as high-class guards and military courier dogs, as well as police or security dogs. To perform these specialized tasks, they had to exhibit protective and territorial qualities, while maintaining a certain distrust of strangers.

German Shepherds were also bred for use in search and rescue operations, drug and bomb detection and as guide dogs for the blind. In the world of service dogs, there are few dogs as versatile and indispensable as German Shepherds.

These dogs are not only strong but also smart. German Shepherds exhibit high intelligence. They are easy to train and can focus on the most crucial tasks under pressure.

There is no doubt that German Shepherds are impressive dogs with exceptional physical and mental strength. But do these traits indicate that it is a dangerous and aggressive breed?

Can you trust a German Shepherd?

German Shepherds have a reputation of being gentle family dogs and most loyal protectors and guard dogs. Such loyalty can make German Shepherds seem more reserved with outsiders. And it takes them some time to gain the trust of other individuals and house pets.

Is the German Shepherd Aggressive?

Aggressiveness begins to appear in German Shepherds at about 3 to 6 months of age. It intensifies during puberty from 6 months to 2 years, when they reach sexual maturity and hormones constantly change. This aggression is part of hormonal development but can be intensified by inadequate training, bad socialization and neglect.

Puppies go through phases of aggression that are part of their natural development. With that said, puppies take advantage of this in play, where certain rules apply.

There are certain behaviours and body language during puppy play which indicate that he wants to play a little more feisty:

  • Leaning on the front paws with a raised rear,
  • Tail wagging with a relaxed expression,
  • Laying down and rolling around,
  • Barking with a mix of growling,
  • Placing in the mouth or trying to chew, for example, your hand or other objects,
  • Running around and jumping forward.

While these behaviours are natural in puppyhood, they can escalate as the dog grows up and does not receive proper correction or direction. It is during such playtime that puppies get invaluable feedback that makes such a difference in later development. When they bite too hard, the other dog will squeal, we will say something like „bad!” „no!” or „ouch!” to them. When they get bit, they will learn that that behaviour brought pain. This is why proper socialization is so important in a puppy’s life.

So, how do you recognize that a dog is exhibiting aggressive behaviour, even before it bites someone?

Here are some examples of the most common aggressive behaviours in German Shepherds:

  • Growling – a German Shepherd that growls harmlessly while playing has its ears up and is wagging its tail. However, aggressive growling is commonly accompanied by low-set ears, retracted lips and a low-set tail.
  • Barking – when he chases other animals or when you admonish him to stop some behaviour.
  • Snapping teeth – this is NEVER appropriate behaviour, even when playing.
  • Biting – even puppies should be discouraged from excessive biting. Do not allow biting during play, as it can trigger aggressive behaviour.
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A situation where a dog’s failure to control its emotions and behaviour creates a health and safety hazard is unnatural, and you want to avoid such situations in the future.

What can cause a German Shepherd to be aggressive?

A bored German Shepherd carrying excess energy can become whiny and even destructive. Physical and mental activity can prevent aggression from occurring.

Insufficient physical activity

German Shepherds were purposefully bred to be able to work all day long. They need plenty of physical and mental stimulation to be fully satisfied.

Provide your shepherd with a minimum of 2 hours of physical activity each day. Running is a better option than walking, but walking alone is better than no exercise at all. Dog sports activities can be a great way to give your dog exercise while challenging his psyche to learn something new.

Playing together, such as throwing a ball and fetching or wrestling with a string/rope, is also a great way to use up some of his energy reserves, while also building a bond together.

The problem of lack of physical activity can be particularly troublesome if you live in a block of flats – I’ve written a separate article on the subject, which I’m sure you’ll be interested in:
„Can a German Shepherd Live in a Block? (Shepherd Needs And Advice)”.

Insufficient Mental Activity

In addition to physical exercise, German Shepherds also need mental stimulation. A good example of a mental exercise would be obedience training, which is arguably the easiest and best way to provide mental stimulation. In fact, German Shepherds are among the most receptive dogs when it comes to obedience.

Although a German Shepherd could probably be engaged in obedience training all afternoon, 30 to 45 minutes a day should be enough. If you are staying indoors, training your dog in tricks can help engage their minds. When you’re away from home, leave your dog a toy ball with treats and logic toys. This will allow him to keep his mind occupied.

Some of the best dog puzzle games that I found:

  • Dog Brick puzzle game by Nina Ottosson – Your dog will love solving simple puzzles to get its desired treats.
  • Large sniffing mat with a tugger – This type of mat will occupy your shepherd for a long time. In addition, you can put treats inside it. It provides fun and stimulates innate food-seeking skills.
  • Trixie Flip Board – A great logic toy for your dog. Develops your dog’s intelligence, encourages learning and rewards with treats.

Insufficient Socialization

With proper training, it is much more likely that a German Shepherd will not exhibit aggressive behaviour.

The key to the development of these dogs is socialization. Take every opportunity to let your puppy play with unfamiliar adults, children and dogs. The more often, the better. And the earlier they start, the less fearful they will be of encountering both strangers and other dogs.

The most important thing in socialization is for the dog to have contact with as many people as possible. This way it will be able to distinguish between „good people” and „bad people.”

There might be cases when a puppy does not react well to strangers and dogs from the beginning. Nevertheless, due to its young age, it is unlikely that it could cause significant harm to someone.

However, it is important to remember that even if a mature dog is well-trained, it can become aggressive once ailments and pain occur. If this happens, a visit to the vet can help discover the cause of the aggression.

You can also read my article about proper nutrition for German Shepherds:
„What to Feed a German Shepherd? (Tips, Advice, List of Suitable Products)”.

What percentage of German Shepherds are aggressive?

According to a study made by VetCompass™ Programme at the Royal Veterinary College, only 4.76% of German Shepherds displayed aggression. Interestingly, male German Shepherds were more prone towards aggressive behaviour than females (6.75% versus 2.78%). And it may be that families that have kids should consider a female, while males are more suitable for a watchdog role.

Different Causes of Aggression

Hostile reactions can result for several reasons. Often the behaviours are fundamental and need to be addressed before they get out of hand.

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An aggressive German Shepherd will require an entire training program to adjust its behaviour to behave in a socially acceptable manner. However, you must first understand what underlies your dog’s reactivity.

The following table shows the various manifestations of aggression in dogs and the behaviors you can expect:

FearMakes the dog feel threatened or anxious; he becomes reactive
TerritorialityMakes the dog overly guard what it considers to be its home/territory; they guard their property
PossessivenessMakes the dog defend its prey from potential danger; this includes a sense of possessiveness toward humans and is known as resource guarding
FrustrationCauses the dog to react when constrained or under arousal.
RedirectionCauses the dog to become frustrated with its inability to reach the object or person that is causing its aggression. He throws himself at the nearest object.
SocialThis causes the dog to be hostile when there is a lack of contact in social interactions.
DominanceThis makes the dog challenge his owner’s authority and seek control over him and the prevailing situation.
PainTriggers the dog to snap and bite when it feels pain; it may think that the loved one is the perpetrator of its pain.

When it comes to investigating the cause of aggression, the source of aggression is not so important when we use a reward-based approach. The most important thing is that the dog doesn’t like something and thinks it’s wrong. Your job is to get the dog to stop seeing that something as bad.

The most common signals of a dog experiencing fear/stress:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Stiff body posture
  • Lowered head and tail
  • Horizontal retraction of the lips
  • Ears pointed to the side or back and downward
  • Yawning or licking of lips
  • Contracted body posture
  • Urinates and/or defecates
  • Has slow movements or freezes in place

Typical stressors can often be overlooked

In addition to typical aggression triggers, there are also many overlooked life stressors. Remember that dogs perceive the world and their surroundings differently than we humans do.

These stressors can contribute to increasing or triggering aggression. Usually, providing your dog with the right conditions (meeting all basic needs) will help bring aggression under control.

It is still important to pay attention to other potential stressors. Sometimes it’s worth adjusting your behaviour and daily rhythm to create the least stressful environment for your pet.

Potential Stressors for the German Shepherd

  • Punishment for something
  • Boredom
  • Lack of chew toys
  • Lack of sufficient time to relax or sleep
  • Other animals harassing the dog
  • Lack of positive attention from the owner
  • Inconsistent or unclear behavioural rules taught by owners
  • Insufficient physical or mental activity
  • Inappropriate attention during displays of agitation

Deficiencies in physical activity can be easily addressed by introducing new games into your typical day. Ensure that your dog’s energy needs are met each day – and your German Shepherd needs plenty of activity. Boredom caused by a lack of mental stimulation is also easy to satisfy.

Other situations that can stimulate excessive aggression in a dog can be, for example, motherhood, hypothyroidism and any physical pain. While maternity passes, other conditions will require treatment.

Before attempting to deal with aggression in your dog on your own, talk to your veterinarian, as it may be related to a medical condition.

Aggression Triggers in Dogs

Triggers are direct actions or behaviours that increase or start the manifestation of aggression in your dog. You should determine what triggers aggression in your dog by observing your dog’s body language and environment.

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Some triggers may include:

  • Young children who behave in unpredictable ways
  • Unusual or loud noises
  • Passing cars, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters or skateboards
  • Strangers
  • Threatening behaviour from other dogs or people

Observe what might act as a potential trigger. This will allow you to continue working with your dog to minimize bad behaviour.

What can I Do to make a German Shepherd less aggressive?

To reduce aggressiveness, training will be required to replace old habits and reactions, with new, gentler and socially acceptable ones. This involves creating a kind of „training program” to instil new, correct behaviour in the dog to certain stimuli.

This process requires identifying the trigger for the negative emotion, getting rid of the stressors and creating a training program that will allow the shepherd to learn the new behaviour.

  1. Eliminate any potential sources of stress

Properly adjust your immediate environment to eliminate any potential sources of stress that may increase unwanted aggression in your dog. These are written in a bit more detail above.

  1. Identify the triggers

Pay close attention to what triggers may be causing hostile reactions. Make a note of what triggers your dog to be aggressive, and try to avoid such triggers during further training.

  1. Training and avoiding negative triggers

If you already know what your dog reacts badly to, try to avoid any stimuli that upset your dog. Triggers can vary. Choose a new walking route, don’t meet strangers, and don’t take away all the toys if they are things he may react to. Also avoid tugging on the leash, raising your voice, sudden movements or pulling on the leash.

  1. Create a new training plan

At this stage, the best thing you can do is contact a behaviourist. Although it is best to seek professional help, I realize that not everyone can financially afford it.

  1. Take precautions to prevent accidents

You can try control tools such as a muzzle or collar. It’s best to prevent bites before they happen, and a collar gives you better control during training. Still, dogs should be kept on a leash and muzzled in public places.

Challenging situations and some solutions

First of all, beware of punishing your dog for undesirable actions. Never hit your dog or yell at it. Such behaviour does not help and only worsens an already existing problem. Tugging on the leash also solves nothing, but only increases frustration and anger.

Such behaviour rarely brings long-term benefits, and if it does, it is very short-lived. Better to use positive reinforcement that encourages and rewards the desired behaviour.

Here are some examples of problems and solutions to help prevent an aggressive response:

  • Other dogs – you can use counter-conditioning and desensitization to associate the other dog with something positive (such as a valuable, tasty reward).
  • Dog bites something it shouldn’t – try giving him a treat out of your hand, pulling the unwanted item out of his mouth. Use the 'NILIF’ method (aka „Nothing in life is free”). Require that the dog has to ask to get the treat every time.
  • Responses to the doorbell/intercom/telephone – use the desensitization method, try to make the doorbell associated with something positive.
  • Claw trimming – You can teach your dog to use a scratching post or use the desensitization method if you want to use claw clippers or a claw grinder.
  • Car rides – This is where the counterconditioning and desensitization method will be helpful if your pooch is panic-stricken about driving in the car. Reward your dog for approaching your car or for getting in and out of it.
  • Pedestrians outside the window – You can limit his view and lower the blinds or keep him out of a particular room or balcony. Responding badly to passersby can be especially problematic if you live in a ground-floor apartment building. In a detached house with a fence, it should not likely be problematic.
  • Fear of the veterinarian – Use the counterconditioning method to associate the vet with something positive. When you go with your dog to the appointment or nearby, offer treats.

It may be surprising, but in fact, breeds labelled „dangerous” are no more aggressive than other dogs. The problem with „dangerous dogs” often lies with the dog owners themselves.

Incompetent treatment of the dog, lack of proper training, negligible socialization, unloading on the dog after a bad day’s work, lack of patience and love, and so on. After a while, all this accumulates and aggression is born as a side effect.