Why Is My German Shepherd So Reactive? (And What Can I Do?)

Many German Shepherds seem to live in a hypervigilant state and overreact to things by barking, lunging, panting and pacing. Let's find out why.

Why Is My German Shepherd So Reactive? (And What Can I Do?)

Many German Shepherds seem to live in a hypervigilant state and overreact to things by barking, lunging, panting and pacing. Let's find out why.

Reactivity in German shepherds is not uncommon.


Why Is My German Shepherd Dog So Reactive?

Whether you already own a GSD or are doing your research before welcoming one into your home, you may be wondering why they are often so reactive. Reactivity in dogs is something that can stem from several underlying reasons. For instance, the quality of a German Shepherd's training, his upbringing, genetics and age are all variable facets to factor in.

To deal with this problem, we must therefore consider each of these factors individually. Let's take a closer look into reactivity in German Shepherds and what can be done about it.

What Exactly Is Reactivity in Dogs?

What exactly is a “reactive dog?" The term is often used interchangeably with the word "aggression," but do the two really go hand in hand?

In general, we use "reactive" for dogs who exhibit excessive arousal, reacting to normal events in their environment with a higher-than-average level of intensity. It's as if these dogs live in a hypervigilant state and overreact to things by barking, lunging, panting, pacing, and acting generally restless.

When in this state of mind, these dogs are over threshold and enter an irresponsive state where you can tell them to sit, call them or even dangle a slice of baloney over their nose and they couldn't care less. The technical definition is the "dog being over threshold."

There are several causes behind a German shepherd's reactive behavior. Genetics is one of them.

8 Reasons German Shepherds Are Reactive

If your German Shepherd is reactive, you are likely frustrated by this behavior, considering that you cannot take him to the park with you or join a group training class.

You may feel like you're always walking on eggshells to avoid critical encounters, but what makes this dog breed prone to being so reactive? Following are several possible causes of reactivity in German Shepherd dogs.

1. A Matter of Genetics

It's unfortunate, but many dog trainers and behavior consultants are seeing an influx in fearful and reactive German shepherds, along with bad conformation and medical issues.

Are the days of the calm and confident German Shepherds gone? Many dog owners remember growing up with wonderful dogs, but today these gems seem to be increasingly rare.

We know that fearfulness and reactivity can have a genetic basis. Pups who are born to fearful mothers are likely to enter this world in a state of stress that can impact them in life.

However, genes are only a partial portion of the problem. We need to consider the environment as well.

Did you know? According to a study, it took only took 5 generations to obtain lines of dogs that were more nervous than usual. These dogs were shy, less active, less curious and sometimes catatonic when approached by people (Source: Murphree et al. 1974)

2. Early Removal From the Litter

According to a study (Pierantoni et al., 2011), puppies removed too early from the litter was a significant predictor for excessive barking, fearfulness on walks and reactivity to noises.

3. Lack of Socialization

Many pups who grow up to become fearful and reactive are puppies who weren't properly socialized.

Lack of exposure to people, other dogs and sights and sounds of everyday life during the critical socialization period (which ends by 12 to 16 weeks of age) may lead to skittish puppies and reactive adults.

However, even "socialized" puppies can become reactive. The problem is when socialization is done wrongly, putting too much pressure on the pups, which has the opposite effect.

Fearful German Shepherd pups need to be socialized at their own pace. Forcing interactions when they aren't comfortable may aggravate things.

On top of this, remember that dogs are always learning, so don't stop socialization abruptly at the 16-week mark. Socialization needs to be maintained throughout your German Shepherd's life. Yes, in case you are wondering, there is such a thing as "de-socialization."

Continue exposing your puppy to his world in a positive, non-overwhelming way to lay a solid foundation for the rest of his life.

4. The Issue of Territoriality

Many dogs show signs of reactivity to some extent, especially when a stranger or another dog approaches their perceived territory.

This behavior appears to be more intense when the dog's space is limited because they are in the car or confined to their house, or they are on leash or tied.

5. Attentiveness to Surroundings

German Shepherds are described as being vigilant dogs who remain poised, but when the circumstance demands, they switch into being eager and alert.

These traits have made German Shepherds cherished guardians of the home and farm. These dogs are not the average Golden or Labrador retriever who, as "social butterflies," rush to greet and befriend anyone they meet.

Rather, as GSDs mature, they edge more on the reserved side, and their standard clearly states that their aloofness "does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships."

With this breed's innate predisposition, it is therefore important recognizing how, without proper socialization, training and guidance, one is walking on a fine line.

A German Shepherd's natural aloofness can easily morph into suspiciousness, mistrust, and even excessive territorial aggression.

6. The Age Factor

In general, young German Shepherd pups are happy and eager to greet people. As they meet and greet, they are all wiggly and may solicit attention and petting from people.

Things may start to change, though, nearing the second fear period and when German Shepherds reach the adolescent stage, a time when their attitude about people being near their property shifts into territorial behaviors.

At around 8 months, you may therefore notice how strangers or other dogs approaching have now become potential threats. Once wiggly, your young teenager may now bark or even growl upon noticing intruders. As pups turn into teenagers, they are more likely to make poor decisions, and they’re also more emotional and reactive.

While it's normal for German Shepherd pups to act this way, you want your puppy to engage in these protective instincts later on, as he develops so that he's mature enough to make better decisions.

7. The Impact of Spaying

Even spaying a German shepherd dog plays a role in this breed's predisposition for reactivity. A study looked at the effects of ovariohysterectomy (the technical term for a dog's spay surgery) on a German Shepherd dog's reactivity.

The behavior of German Shepherds that were spayed was compared to German Shepherds who were left intact. The study revealed that GSDs who were spayed showed more reactivity compared to those who were left intact.

The researchers concluded that dogs may therefore undergo behavioral changes around four and five months following a spay surgery.

Another study revealed that spayed GSDs showed more offensive territorial aggression, in response to the approach of a stranger with a strange dog, with barking being the most frequent vocalization.

Indeed, in the study, the average number of barks was 45 times in the spayed group versus 26 times in the intact control group.

The study found that the risk of reactivity after spay surgery was higher if the dog had already exhibited aggression before the first birthday or if they had a history of coming from a predominantly male litter.

Did you know? If a female dog happens to be positioned between two males in the womb, there are chances her brain may be influenced (masculinized) courtesy of the diffusion of testosterone through the amniotic membrane.

8. Reinforcing Consequences

Something important to consider is the inherent reinforcing nature of acting reactive. Your German shepherd dog barks and lunges? The person or other dog likely moves away, leading to the dog getting a sense of relief.

This relief is reinforcing to the dog. Lunging and barking, in this case, is a distance-increasing behavior, meaning that the dog is asking for space.

The behavior of acting reactive therefore puts roots and establishes. The more the dog rehearses the reactive behavior, the more it repeats and becomes almost an automatic default behavior upon noticing triggers.

Barrier Frustration in GSDs

Sometimes dogs who act reactive are really dogs who are eager to meet other people and dogs.

This form of reactivity takes place when these dogs are so eager to meet and greet that they get strongly frustrated because they are restrained by the leash, and the arousal soon spills into an aggressive display.

Off-leash, these dogs are social butterflies, playing with other dogs and/or acting super friendly toward people. The name for this form of reactivity is "barrier frustration."

A German shepherd pup learning to "chill" with my "teacher" Rottweilers

7 Ways to Make a German Shepherd Less Reactive

Clearly, there can be several factors that may trigger reactivity in a GSD. So what can you do to ameliorate the situation?

In most cases, you'll find that working with reactivity requires an integrated approach to help reduce your German Shepherd's stress and teach him to become more resilient. The main goal is to provide German shepherds with many new experiences where they feel safe, relaxed, and in control of the situation.

Following are several tips to make a GSD less reactive. If your German Shepherd is aggressive, please seek the help of a dog behavior professional using force-free behavior modification.

1. See the Vet

If your dog used to be rather chill, and now he's suddenly reactive, give him the benefit of doubt and see whether there may be an underlying medical disorder.

There are certain conditions that may lower a dog's threshold for reactivity, making them more likely to react. This is more likely if the reactivity came out of nowhere.

The dog may be suffering from some kind of pain, or perhaps there's an underlying thyroid problem.

2. Manage the Environment

The more your dog rehearses reactive behaviors such as barking and lunging, the more it establishes and becomes habit-forming.

In order to help a reactive dog, you will therefore need to do everything possible to prevent him from feeling overwhelmed. In other words, you'll need to prevent him from going over threshold as much as possible.

Consider that if your dog is too reactive or hypervigilant on walks, stress hormones will flood his body, and this stress will carry over to the home, increasing potential reactivity to things.

And vice versa—if it's stressful at home, that stress will be carried over to walks. So it's important to carefully manage things both on walks and indoors to prevent them from becoming stressful events.

This may mean walking your dog at hours when there are no people or dogs around, creating distance from his triggers or even skipping walks altogether until your dog is better equipped to face his fears.

Did you know? After a stressful event, your dog’s cortisol levels may remain at high levels for days or even weeks. Back-to-back stressful events may lead to the phenomenon of trigger stacking, where the dog suddenly "explodes."

3. Use Counterconditioning

Counterconditioning is a powerful method used to treat fears and phobias in both humans and our four-legged companions.

Counterconditioning entails creating associations of the fear-inducing trigger with a stimulus that evokes a positive emotional state, such as food or play. From a safe distance, you can therefore feed your dog high-value treats every time he sees a trigger. The "look at that dog" exercise can be helpful.

The goal is to repeatedly present the fear-inducing triggers with something perceived by the dog as pleasant, to the point where the fear-inducing trigger becomes a predictor of great things, creating what is known as a positive conditioned emotional response.

4. Start Training

Once your dog is calmer, you can start asking for some behaviors that will come in handy in various circumstances. For instance, you can train the emergency u-turn. If you notice a dog or person coming too close for comfort, make an about-turn so that your dog doesn't get too stressed.

You can also train attention-heeling. Once your dog reliably looks at the trigger and then at you for a treat, train your dog to look up at you as you are walking.

5. Invest in Calming Aids

Highly-stressed dogs may benefit from calming products such as calming supplements, DAP collars, Thundershirts or Calming Caps. Some dogs may need prescription medications. Consult with your vet.

6. Avoid Punishment-Based Methods

You may feel tempted to use shock collars or other types of corrections to stop your dog from acting reactive, but in most cases, these methods risk backfiring, causing more problems down the road.

Since the state of reactivity is driven by emotions that cannot be corrected by punishment, punishing your German Shepherd won't do anything to change the way he feels internally.

Instead of punishing your dog for carrying out inappropriate behavior, aim to change his emotional response and train him how you would rather have him behave when faced with his triggers.

7. Get Professional Help

Look for a professional dog trainer or behavior consultant using force-free training and behavior modification.

He or she can confirm whether your GSD is truly reactive or just acting out for another reason, such as protective behavior or barrier frustration. They can then help you implement behavior modification correctly while keeping the safety of you, your dog, and others around you in mind.

You may also want to look into Reactive Rover classes. These are special classes run by dog trainers that tackle dog-to-dog reactivity.


  • Kim HH, Yeon SC, Houpt KA, Lee HC, Chang HH, Lee HJ. Effects of ovariohysterectomy on reactivity in German Shepherd dogs. Vet J. 2006 Jul;172(1):154-9. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2005.02.028. PMID: 16772140.
  • Acoustic Feature of Barks of Ovariohysterectomized and Intact German Shepherd Bitches Hyeon-Hee KIM1), Seong-Chan YEON1)*, Katherine-Albro HOUPT2), Hee-Chun LEE1), Hong-Hee CHANG1) and Hyo-Jong LEE1)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli

(Excluding for the Headline, this article ("story") has not been edited by MiBiz News and is published from a web feed or sourced from the Internet.)