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Have you ever heard of Rin Tin Tin, from the old black and white TV show "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin"? Rin Tin Tin was the original Hollywood canine hero. He was a heroic German Shepherd that was brave, regal, and brilliant.
In addition to Rin Tin Tin, German Shepherds, in general, have a reputation for being serious, brave, loyal, and intelligent. They serve as Police Dogs, Military Canines, Service Dogs, Schutzhund Champions, and Bomb Sniffers. If your Shepherd is very excitable, then you may feel disappointed or frustrated when you see other German Shepherds on TV or in real life acting so composed. Most of the German Shepherds that you see were at one time or another excitable though, especially when they were puppies and adolescents. Most Shepherds that serve in such impressive roles had to be taught to focus, obey, and tune out distractions. Even if your Shepherd will never be the next Rin Tin Tin, he probably has a lot of potential and can learn many new things once you teach him how to be calm enough to focus.
Being calm is an extremely useful skill for your German Shepherd to learn. Not only is calm behavior an important part of training other behaviors and commands, but it can also make living with your dog more enjoyable. It can allow your dog to participate in more of the family's activities. It can make finding pet sitters and dog walkers easier. It can make your dog safer around elderly people and little kids. It can even increase the number of guests that you can have over to your home.
Because dogs have different temperaments and different levels of mental and physical maturity, how long this will take to teach will vary, depending on your dog. On average, expect it to take between four months and twelve months to train. Teaching calm behavior is an ongoing process as your dog mentally and physically matures with age. You should see the training begin to help during the first two months, but expect the improvement to be a gradual process that will continue to get better with practice and time.
When teaching your dog how to be calm, it is beneficial to educate yourself on canine body language so that you can tell when your dog is truly calm and be able to reward his mental state in addition to the more obvious physical indicators, such as being quiet and laying down.
When you interact with your dog while you are teaching him to be calm, be aware of your own body language and tone of voice. The calmer, less excitable, and less frustrated that you are while interacting with your dog while training this, the better your dog is likely to respond.
To get started you will need lots of small, tasty treats, that are easy to eat. You can also use your dog's own kibble if your dog is very food motivated. If you are using the 'Go Crazy and Stop' method then your dog will need to know the 'sit' command. You will also need a leash, as well a goofy and excitable attitude to get your dog to "go crazy", and then a boring and serious attitude to get him to "stop" and calm back down.
If you are using the'Capture' method then, in addition to treats, you will need good timing and attentiveness toward your dog. An understanding of canine body language, so that you can spot when your dog is mentally calm, will also help.
If you are using the 'Obedience' method, in addition to treats you will also need to learn how to teach your dog 'sit', 'down', 'place', and 'heel'. Teaching your dog additional obedience exercises also might be helpful, but these four are the most essential. You will also need to recreate or take your dog to places with a variety of different types of distractions, gradually increasing the difficulty of the distraction as your dog improves.
The Go Crazy and Stop Method
To begin, teach your dog how to 'sit', and practice until your dog is very good at it.
Get your dog excited
When your dog knows 'sit' and will do it consistently, then tell your dog "go crazy", and get him a little bit excited. To get him excited, jump up and down, clap, talk in a silly voice, or pet him excitedly, if he likes to be touched and has never shown any forms of aggression. Do this until he gets a little bit excited and into the game, but not too crazy.
Stop the game
After five seconds of your dog being excited, command "Stop!", and freeze. Wait for your dog to settle down while you stand completely still and quiet. When he settles down, then command '"sit", and when he sits, praise him and offer him a treat.
After your dog has received his treat, then resume the game by telling him "go crazy" and getting him excited again. Repeat having him 'go crazy', 'stop', and 'sit', until your dog will immediately stop and sit as soon as you tell him to during the excitement. As your dog improves, the 'stop' and the 'sit' should get closer together, so that you are telling him to sit immediately after telling him to stop, because he is responding so quickly.
When your dog is responding right away to your commands at the current excitement level, then increase your dog's excitement level, so that he is very excited when you tell him to "Stop". Practice getting him excited and then telling him to Stop and Sit, until he will respond right away to your commands while in the more excited state also.
Gradually increase your dog's excitement level, and practice at each level, until your dog can exhibit self-control whenever he is told to stop and sit. Once your dog can respond to your commands no matter how excited you get him during play, then practice around real life distractions, such as squirrels, other dogs, human visitors, and birds. For example, with your dog on a leash in your fenced in yard, allow him to get excited about a squirrel he sees in your yard. When he is excited, tell him "stop" and "sit". When he is sitting and focused on you, then tell him "go crazy" and take off the leash so that he can chase the squirrel. Practice often, until your dog will respond to your commands in any exciting circumstance.
The Capture Method
Observe your dog
Place lots of small, tasty treats into a Ziploc bag, then place the bag into your pocket. Watch your dog carefully throughout the day. Anytime that you see him exhibiting calm behavior, especially when he is tempted to get excited, then reward him calmly with a treat.
Reward lying down
If your dog chooses to lie down on his bed in your home, or to lie down at your feet when you stop to take a break while out on a walk then calmly place a treat between his feet. While you do this, either tell him "good boy" in a soft tone of voice, or do not speak to him at all. Keep your interactions calm. It is important to place the treat on the floor so that he will look downward and stay down, rather than look up and stand up.
If your dog chooses to sit when he sees something interesting, while he is waiting for something, or while he is greeting someone, then offer him a treat from an open hand under his chin. Doing so will encourage him to sit in response to those things, without having to be told, more often.
If your dog is quiet during something exciting or something that you know he would normally bark at or be tempted to bark at, then offer him a treat and calmly praise him. Do this to encourage future quiet behavior.
Reward calm body language
If your dog remains calm when he encounters something exciting, such as another dog, someone entering your home, a squirrel, the mailman outside, or children running by, then softly praise him and offer him a treat. If your dog gets excited but then calms himself back down, also praise him softly and offer him a treat. To tell whether or not he is calm, watch for not only the absence of barking and excitable behaviors but also for the presence of calm body language. Body language such as: turning his hips out or laying his face down while laying down, relaxing the hair on his back, relaxing his ears, his tail, his mouth and jaw muscles, or generally relaxing his body and stance.
The Obedience Method
Teach obedience exercises
In order to teach your dog calm behavior, practice having him do obedience exercises in the presence of distractions to build self-control and focus.
Train your dog to 'sit', then practice having him 'sit' and 'stay' for a couple of seconds before he is allowed to go over to something exciting. When he stays for a couple of seconds, then tell him "OK", and allow him to go over to the source of excitement, or have the source come over to him. For example, when your dog sees someone he knows and likes approaching while you are out on a walk, have your dog sit and stay while the person approaches. If your dog gets up, have the person stop approaching until your dog is sitting back down again. Do this until the person reaches your sitting dog. This type of training will both motivate your dog to be self-controlled and will reward him when he is being self-controlled. As your dog improves, you can gradually increase the amount of time that he must 'stay' for.
Teach your dog 'down', then practice having him stay down in the presence of distractions. Start practicing around easy distractions, and gradually increase the difficulty of the distractions as your dog improves. Do this until your dog can remain in the 'down' position around something very exciting, such as a child running by or another dog walking by.
Teach your dog the 'place' command and then practice having him stay in his place for long periods of time. His place can be a dog bed, an open crate, a floor mat, or anything else that is comfortable to lay on and familiar looking to him. When your dog can stay in his place for long periods of time, such as two hours, then practice having him stay in his place during exciting events, such as a family member's arrival home at the end of the day, or a visit from friends. Start with easier events, such as a family member's arrival, and then gradually work up to more exciting events.
Teach your dog the 'heel' command, and then practice having him heel when you pass by distractions. Utilize changes in direction and speed to keep his focus on you while the distraction passes by. Praise him and reward him with treats for maintaining his focus on you and staying by your side when he is tempted to leave..
By Caitlin Crittenden
Published: 02/13/2018, edited: 01/08/2021