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Rex is his owner's pride and joy. Not only is he a great companion, fun to play with, and snuggles on the couch, but Rex’s owner feels safe when she goes running through the local park early in the morning with her faithful Rex by her side. Rex is a big, beautiful, and somewhat intimidating looking German Shepherd. Besides being a great family companion, he is also a great guard dog, who gives his owner a sense of security.
But as a guard dog, he is prone to vocalizations that have developed into an annoying habit, howling! If he hears other dogs barking in the distance, coyotes at the local green space howling, or a siren from the hospital a few miles away, Rex starts howling. At first, it was cute, but the behavior has increased, and is now becoming a problem to the neighbors when he is outside, and to his owners when he starts howling in the middle of the night, two feet away from their bed! This has got to stop, training their German Shepherd not to howl has moved to the top of Rex’s owners' list.
A German Shepherd dog (GSD) is a guard dog by nature. This means they are prone to vocalizations, usually barking, but sometimes howling as well. In addition, German Shepherds are high energy dogs that can suffer from heightened emotional states. These heightened emotional conditions can lead to boredom and anxiety howling in a GSD. Reducing your dog’s emotional state by addressing his physical and emotional needs can reduce howling. Also, putting vocalizations on command is useful for controlling howling behavior. Although this may sound counterintuitive, by teaching your dog to howl when you ask him to and rewarding him, you can also teach him that howling when he is not asked, does not result in a reward, which usually has success in extinguishing a behavior. Suddenly it’s not fun if you don’t get a treat! You can also reinforce quiet to stop your GSD from howling. Your goal will be to get your GSD to ignore stimuli that set him off howling, or to be calm when left alone and not start howling as a way to release pent-up nervous energy.
If boredom or anxiety is a factor in your GSD's howling behavior, you may need to use some creative solutions to provide activities that engage your dog's mind and body to meet his needs and alleviate stress. Putting vocalizations on command will require positive reinforcement, this usually means lots of treats, but a favorite toy and play for your high energy GSD may also be a suitable reward. Time will play a big role in resolving the behavior; you will need to be consistent and not allow howling to go on, as it is a self-rewarding behavior that provides comfort to a stressed dog, or communication with other canine friends, thus getting a social reaction. Be prepared to spend some time capturing and correcting the behavior.
The Howl on Command Method
Introudce command when howling occurs
Supervise your GSD. When a howling trigger occurs, such as a siren in the distance or another dog vocalizing, provide a command such as “howl”. When your dog starts howling, let him howl for a while, then produce a high value, smelly treat.
Your dog will stop howling to get the treat. Repeat for several days.
Start practicing giving the "howl" command when no trigger is present. When your dog responds by howling, let him howl for a minute then reward him with a treat or play with a toy.
Introduce 'quiet' command
To add a quiet command, ask your dog to howl, let him howl for a minute, then say “Quiet”, and provide the reward.
Establish reward for command only
When your dog howls and you did not ask him to, do not provide a reward. Continue to practice the 'howl' command even after your dog stops howling on his own so he has an outlet for the behavior at an appropriate time, and continues to recognize that he only gets rewarded for howling when asked.
The Reduce Boredom Method
Give your GSD lots of exercise, run with him while you skate or ride a bike, play fetch to wear him out. Make sure you give him plenty of activity in the evening before bed or before you will be leaving him alone.
Do not respond to your GSD if he howls. Ignore howling and when your dog stops howling and is quiet for several minutes, approach your dog and offer affection and attention.
When you are leaving your dog unsupervised, provide him with a favorite toy or a blanket that makes your dog feel secure when you leave him alone.
Distract your GSD from howling when alone by providing a puzzle feeder or chew toy to keep him busy.
Provide a job
Give your GSD a job, preferably a breed-appropriate activity like herding or guarding, but you can also teach a job like pulling a wagon, carrying a backpack, scenting, or agility work. These activities combine physical activity and mental engagement that your intelligent, active GSD needs to be well-balanced and avoid anxiety and boredom.
The Teach Quiet Method
Supervise your dog and have treats available. When your dog starts to howl, say “quiet” and hold a treat in front of him.
When your stops howling to investigate the treat, repeat the 'quiet' command to establish it and provide the treat.
Increase 'quiet' requirement
Continue supervising and providing the "quiet" command. Start increasing the length of time your dog has to wait after he stops howling before you provide the treat.
Only reward when quiet
If your dog continues howling, ignore him, do not provide the treat or attention of any kind. Only provide treats and attention for quiet.
Gradually start replacing treats with praise and attention for being quiet.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 03/16/2018, edited: 01/08/2021