Why Is My German Shepherd Suddenly Aggressive Towards Me?

When your GSD suddenly becomes aggressive towards you it can not only be terrifying, but heartbreaking.  German Shepherds are loyal and often predictable family dogs who are part of our day-to-day lives, so experiencing sudden aggressive behavior towards you can be difficult for everyone involved.

The German Shepherd Dog can suddenly show aggressive behaviors towards us if they become sick, after an injury or when guarding an item or a person that they deem to be of high value.  The German Shepherd can also become suddenly aggressive towards us to avoid punishment, which can sometimes be specific to only one member of the family.

Sudden aggressive behavior from your GSD is not normal; there is always a reason for the behavior, both good and bad.  Whether this is the first time you’ve experienced this or perhaps it’s happened a few times, how do we prevent it from happening again?

What Does an Aggressive German Shepherd Look Like?

German Shepherds communicate with body language to tell us and other dogs how they’re feeling – they are born with these abilities, we do not have to train them to do this!  The signs and signals that you want to watch for, include:

  • Yawning (while wide awake, not after sleeping)
  • Nose licking (the tongue comes out and over the top of the nose)
  • Ears pinned
  • Whale/half-moon eyes (head is usually lowered and to the side, seeing whites of the eyes)
  • Lips tightly pulled back
  • Piloerection (hackling aka doggy goosebumps – although this doesn’t always mean aggression)
  • Rigid body posture

How Do I Protect Myself if My German Shepherd is Showing Aggression Towards Me Suddenly?

Your first reaction may be to punish your GSD in an attempt to be the “alpha” to show him who the boss is, but doing so can make the situation worse. 

Your German Shepherd is already escalated – he now needs you to be calm so that he has a chance to calm down as well. 

The best initial reaction to your GSD suddenly showing aggression towards you is to calmly stop what you’re doing, do not enter into his space, and be sure to allow him to escape the situation.  Your GSD is contemplating fight or flight at this moment and flight is the best choice.

Why Has My German Shepherd Suddenly Become Aggressive Towards me? 

There are 4 important components that makeup behavior – it’s a myth that a GSD shows aggression simply because of “bad breeding”.  Each component plays a role in behavior as a whole.

#1 Learning History

What has he learned from you during training and during downtime?  What kind of training methods or tools have been used and what kind of association has been created to your presence? Are there particular activities that you do together that your GSD may not enjoy but is forced to engage in any way? 

GSDs learn through association and via consequence, at the same time – they learn from their whole environment, all day every day, so what does your GSD’s environment look like?

#2 Environment

A German Shepherd’s environment is his whole world – the inside of the house, the outside of the house, the backyard, the fence you have or may not have, the neighbors, the wildlife, friends or family’s dogs, your kids or lack thereof, anything and everything that happens in his world, in his environment, plays a significant role in his behaviors.

He may feel comfortable in your friend’s backyard playing with you and a tug toy, but show aggression in your backyard – what happened in your backyard that has caused him stress?

#3 Genetics

The genetic component of a GSD’s behavior is certainly a factor, but it is not everything.  The most well-bred litter can leave the breeder confident and stable, but because each pup will enter into different environments and experience different methods and styles of training, one pup may show aggression while the others may not.

It is uncommon but not impossible for an entire litter of puppies to show aggression early on in life and in those cases, we look to exploring neurological concerns – that breeding pair should then be pulled from the program.

#4 Self

Your GSD is as unique as you are from your siblings – each GSD has his own emotions, his own likes, and dislikes.  He has his own allergies or digestive complications, and his own nutritional, physical, and mental stimulation needs. 

Your GSD is not just a dog, he is a sentient being with all of his own quirks and characteristics so we can’t expect since your last GSD was trained the same way, was from the same breeder, and lived in the same house, that he will have the same personality.  

Why Does the Aggression Happen All of a Sudden?

In most cases, aggressive behavior from a German Shepherd does not happen all of a sudden or “out of the blue” unless he is suffering from illness or an injury, or if there is a neurological concern. 

GSDs are very sensitive to our moods and our body language expresses those moods, so if we are having a rough day, the body language we are showing can trigger our GSDs to become uncomfortable as well. 

The thing is, dogs do not understand revenge or guilt and cannot show vengeful or guilty behavior as we can – they can, however, communicate stress with body language and it’s our job to understand what it all means before it becomes aggressive.

Are German Shepherds More Aggressive Towards Their Owners Than Other Breeds? 

Aggression, in most cases, is learned behavior with a heavy emotional component and is not specific to the German Shepherd Breed.  Any breed is capable of showing aggression towards their owners, but the GSD is a very common breed for many households so they have involved aggression cases statistically.

More about German Shepherds

Can I Train My German Shepherd from Showing Aggression Towards Me?

Aggression is typically a learned behavior. If your German Shepherd has learned that yawning or nose licking won’t make you leave him alone with his bone, he has to use his teeth instead. 

Likewise, your GSD has learned that while on leash he tried to communicate that he was uncomfortable walking towards the kids on the bikes by whining, pulling or jumping up on you and he was then corrected and forced to continue rather than being able to move away. 

With a proper behavior modification plan and some adjustments to his environment and learning opportunities, we can rebuild your relationship with him and stop the aggression.

How Do I Stop My German Shepherd from Showing Aggression Towards Me?

If your GSD is showing aggression towards you, it is possible to make it stop by learning what TO do and what NOT to do:

What TO do:

  • In the moment, stop what you’re doing and allow your GSD to escape the situation to prevent escalation
  • Book a visit with your vet to rule out any underlying medical or neurological condition 
  • Assess the environment in which the aggression is occurring – perhaps the area is too small, too loud, too cold or hot.  
  • Reconsider training methods – ensure that you are reinforcing wanted behaviors and training new behaviors to replace the ones that you don’t want, to prevent unnecessary stress

What NOT to do:

  • At the moment, do not try to assert yourself as the “alpha” or “boss”.  This can escalate the situation
  • Do not grab his collar or pin him to the floor, also escalating the situation
  • Do not punish unwanted behaviors – he’s only doing what has worked for him in the past

Conclusion

Aggressive behavior is complex and highly emotional, for both you and your GSD.  We feel betrayed by our best friend when he seemingly becomes suddenly aggressive towards us – this doesn’t mean that your GSD cannot be a member of the family anymore, it means that we have to take a look at why it’s occurring and make some appropriate changes.

Further Questions

Should I Use a Shock Collar if He Shows Aggression Towards Me? 

Several peer-reviewed studies over several decades have proven that shock collars are not only inhumane and unethical, they can cause aggression in otherwise friendly dogs and also cause increased aggression in already aggressive dogs. The German Shepherd is no different and can very easily redirect onto his owner after experiencing the pain from the shock.

When Should I Bring My German Shepherd to a Trainer if He Shows Aggression Towards Me?

If the aggression that your GSD has shown towards you has resulted in forcing you into a corner, standing over or close to you while growling and not moving or if it has resulted in a bite that has caused a bruise or torn skin, it is recommended that you contact a qualified, professional canine behavior consultant.

(See the Pet Professional Guild’s Pet Professional Accreditation Board or International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants)

When Should I Decide to Rehome My German Shepherd if He Shows Aggression Towards Me?

If after you have worked with a qualified professional and there has been no progress, they should have then referred you to a Veterinary Behaviorist who is qualified to assess and possibly prescribe anti-anxiety medication.  If after this, both professionals are able to determine whether the aggression is specific to you or your home, rehoming could then be an option. 

Written by Sheila Gunston

Sheila Gunston holds a Canine Behavior Science and Technology Diploma, is an Accredited Professional Canine Behavior Consultant with the PPAB, and a Doggone Safe “Be a Tree” Presenter.  Sheila specializes in aggression and other complex behaviors and continues to further her education regularly.