German Shepherd Behavior: Why Do They Do This!!


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Most German Shepherd owners have plenty of knowledge about their dog’s behavior. But there are also many German Shepherd behaviors that owners observe in their dogs that they cannot explain. They wonder why exactly they act in that way and try to guess what their dog is trying to tell them.

Common German Shepherd behaviors include licking, howling, whining, nibbling, biting, mouthing, rolling on their back, laying at your feet, or sitting on top of you, tail chasing, and staring at you. There are also many other behaviors that all have an explanation in the world of dogs. 

There are many reasons why German Shepherds manifest certain behaviors. These can be to show and seek attention, express joy or anxiety, show dominance, take a defensive position, show excitement or aggression, seek or give protection, find relief from pain, or mark their territory.  

Because understanding your German Shepherd’s behavior and body language is key in creating a lasting connection with your dog, this article explains the most common behaviors that some German Shepherd owners may find hard to understand.

German Shepherd rolling on her back. German Shepherd Behavior
My German Shepherd Willow rolling on her back!

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Read on to find all the reasons for your German Shepherd’s behavior and how he tries to communicate with you!

Understanding Your Dog

Before we dive into the world of German Shepherd behavior, check out this really fun video from “Bright Side,” highlighting many of the dog behaviors detailed in this article:

Understanding Your Dog Better: 10 Dog Behaviors Explained

Why Do German Shepherds Love to Lick? 

Licking is one of the most common German Shepherd behaviors, and most dog owners will enjoy a lick from their furry friend. But have you wondered exactly what your GSD is telling you when they lick your face, lick a fellow dog, or lick themselves?

Why Does Your German Shepherd Lick You?

The most obvious reason your GSD will lick you is to show affection and joy. When you’ve been away and your German Shepherd has been all alone, your arrival is a cause for jubilation, and your dog will want to tell you how much they love you and show their immense joy at your homecoming.

Your German Shepherd will also lick you to investigate you and give information. Since your dog cannot ask you with words how you are or what you’ve had for lunch, they will lick your face to detect the smell of what you’ve eaten. They will also lick you after their lunch to tell you they are grateful, kind of, “lunch was good Mom, thanks!”

If your visual expression tells your dog that something is amiss, your German Shepherd will lick you to calm and soothe. They will come to the couch where you are lying down and lick you to say they are sad you’re unwell and want you to be up again. 

But dogs will also lick you to seek attention. If you have ignored them or not given them a treat all morning because you are busy, your dog will lick your face to draw your attention. 

But your German Shepherd does not just lick you. They will also lick themselves.

Why Do German Shepherds Lick Themselves?

Have you ever seen German Shepherd behavior where your dog licks his mouth just after looking at someone? If yes, check the person for an angry face. 

Researchers in animal behavior in the UK and Brazil have discovered that dogs will lick their mouths in response to angry human faces. So, don’t think your dog likes your angry face if he licks his mouth. He is just trying to communicate with you!

But dogs will also lick themselves for medical reasons, especially pruritus. You should, therefore, seek the intervention of your dog’s vet if you notice the first signs of excessive itching in your dog. 

Some of the medical conditions that will cause your German Shepherd to lick his paws and other parts of his body include:

  • Allergies (seasonal allergies, atopy or contact allergy, and flea allergy dermatitis)
  • Gastrointestinal issues (food allergies)
  • Sarcoptic mange (mites) and bacterial/fungal/parasite infections
  • Injury and arthritis pain (as pain-relief behavior)
  • Some prescription drugs 
  • Hormonal imbalance

Note, however, that dogs will often lick their paws as part of self-grooming, and those who are obsessive groomers may do so a bit exaggeratedly. 

Why Do German Shepherds Lick Other Dogs?

The affection and communication reasons discussed earlier why your German Shepherd Dog licks you also apply to his licking other dogs and pets. Below is a photo of my female German Shepherd “Willow” licking the face of her Boxer dog friend. Looks like he was more interested in the forthcoming treat!

German Shepherd licking the face of a Boxer dog. Why Do German Shepherds Lick Other Dogs?
“Hey! Stop looking when I’m kissing!”

But did you know that in the doggie world licking behavior also has a dominance element?

People who have lived in a multi-dog household know that one dog may lord it over the other and will access things first, (e.g. food or toys), always win fights, go for attention first from the owner, and receive more licks from their subordinates.

In a study on dog dominance, licking their subordinates less was one of the indicators of dominance in 83% of dogs rated as dominant by their owners.

Why Do German Shepherds Nibble?

Nibbling is the gentle bite your dog will make on your body, especially on your toes! This German Shepherd behavior is generally considered an instinctual behavior characterizing puppies of all breeds, especially during teething.

When young puppies play, you will have noticed that they will display behavior consisting of gently biting each other as part of the game. Your doggo can transfer this nibbling behavior to you or your furniture if no other puppies or pets are around, which is why teething toys such as the KONG Puppy Toy from Amazon are essential. You can even stuff it with treats or peanut butter to keep your GSD entertained.    

But German Shepherd Dogs tend to bring this “growing up” behavior into their adult life. Naturally, newborn German Shepherd puppies will explore their world with their mouths before using their sight and smell. And it appears that this instinct is maintained throughout life for important reasons, as shown by some studies. 

A study investigating the meaning and emotion associated with nibbling in dogs concluded that the behavior is not related to negative personality traits. Instead, nibbling has two functions:

  1. It manifests the highly positive emotions of one dog towards humans or other animals.
  2. It is a special form of communication used to create and strengthen emotional bonds between animals, irrespective of their social status.

My German Shepherd will display nibbling behavior when she is having fun playing with other dogs. She will nibble at the other dog’s ears during play especially when running alongside them.

Despite these facts, nibbling behavior in German Shepherds can also be triggered by several other factors:

  • The itching and soreness that come with teething.
  • A “doggie way” of telling you that you are not giving them enough attention or doing something they are not pleased about.
  • An expression of extreme excitement. 
  • A sign that they are unhappy about something (nibbling may graduate to nipping).

Other ways to control your dog’s nibbling are by avoiding jerking when your pet nibbles on you (acts as learned behavior), keeping your dog well exercised, and most especially, by training your German Shepherd pup against the behavior.

If your German Shepherd has become a destructive chewer, you will need to curtail this behavior sooner rather than later. Don’t worry, though, as I have this article that tells you 16 ways how to stop your German Shepherd chewing.

Why Are German Shepherds So Vocal?

As a herding breed that tends to be protective and territorial, the German Shepherd can be excessive in barking, groaning, whining, and moaning. But these German Shepherd behaviors may also be triggered by positive situations and other breed-related temperament traits such as its friendly family-dog nature. 

Also, leaving your dog consistently alone at home and for long periods may cause him to be vocal. The German Shepherd is among the top 10 dogs most prone to separation anxiety. As such, your GSD may also groan, whine, or moan to express his loneliness. 

As a rough guideline, your German Shepherd may manifest any of these behaviors for one or more of the following ten reasons shown on the table.

German Shepherd BehaviorBarkGroanWhineMoan
German Shepherd is happy 
German Shepherd is seeking your attention
German Shepherd is relaxed
German Shepherd is enjoying something
German Shepherd is being territorial
German Shepherd is resisting 
German Shepherd is lonely
German Shepherd is anxious or afraid
German Shepherd is injured or in pain
German Shepherd is under-exercised and bored

Why Do German Shepherds Howl? 

Most people will associate howling with the wolf-like Siberian Husky. You may realize that German Shepherds look like wolves but did you know your German Shepherd also manifests this wolf-ancestry behavior once in a while? 

German Shepherd Dog howling. Why Do German Shepherds Howl?
“I need someone to come and play with me!”

Usually, howling is a form of communication that dogs will use with you and other dogs outside their usual barking, groaning, or whining. And unless it is incessant, you have a normal dog, and you need not be worried. 

Here are some reasons your German Shepherd will howl:

  • You have not had time for him all day, and he’s looking for attention.
  • He’s sensing some danger, and he wants to warn you about it.
  • Another dog in the neighborhood is howling, and he is responding as the pack dog that he is.
  • He’s reacting to high-pitched sounds like an ambulance siren. 
  • He’s alone and lonely at home and suffering from separation anxiety.
  • He has medical issues that are causing him pain or itching, and he wants you to know and do something about it.

Why Do German Shepherds Lay on Your Feet? 

German Shepherds are pack dogs and, therefore, have remnants of the tendency to stick close together. German Shepherd behavior consisting of lying or sitting on or next to your feet can have 3 different meanings.

1. Seek and Offer Protection

Your German Shepherd will sit at your feet to feel safe and offer you protection at the same time. Among pack dogs, the alpha has a prominent position. So, laying at your feet shows that your dog recognizes you as the alpha. But your dog also feels safe and secure close to you. 

2. Be Warm

Ever wondered why dogs will tend to lie close to each other or on each other most of the time? Especially in cold weather, most pack dogs would lie close to each other to preserve the warmth. Whether it’s cold or not, it is warmer near your feet, and your GSD seeks that natural doggie closeness that is wired into their nature.

3. Seek Affection and Attention

Your German Shepherd may lie on or close to your feet to simply seek affection and attention. German Shepherds enjoy a warm cuddle and sometimes they can even become extra clingy.

If you are sitting at a chair tapping at your computer’s keyboard for an hour or two, your furry friend will take what he can of your closeness, hoping to remind you that he exists. 

Why Do German Shepherds Lay Down to Eat?

Some people will say fatigue, aging, pain, and injury are reasons for this German Shepherd behavior. While these are valid, there is one reason that seems to be a more logical explanation of why your GSD lays down to eat.

In their wild nature, before we domesticated them, dogs had to hunt their food and protect it from intruders. This meant that keeping sight of their prey from the hunting stage to when the prey was ready to eat was important. Hence, dogs lie down to eat so they can see who is approaching from the front while they enjoy the fruit of their labor. 

Below is a photo of my German Shepherd displaying this dog behavior.

A German Shepherd laying down eating from her bowl. Why Do German Shepherds Eat While Laying Down?
“Just checking no one is coming for my dinner!”

What is most interesting is that a dog’s natural laying position while eating is better for his health.

Feeding your German Shepherd from his usual bowl can affect your dog’s oral and spinal health. This is because eating involves not only a dog’s teeth but also other bones and muscles.

Eating the unnatural way can cause misalignments in these bones and muscles and disrupt the body’s acidic pH, which explains the health risks to the spine and the tartar, gingivitis, and loose teeth. 

Next time your German Shepherd eats lying down, just smile and say, “Well, my dog is being natural today!”

For a more in-depth article on this behavior, check out my article, 5 Reasons Why German Shepherds Lay Down to Eat.

Why Do German Shepherds Sit on You? 

If you noticed that your German Shepherd likes sitting on you every time you sit or lie down, what would you make of that? Here are 4 different reasons to explain this behavior:

1. Dominance

It seems that dogs tell their owner that you belong to them by spreading their scent on you. To do so, they’ll need to be close to you as much as possible. So, sitting on your lap whenever you sit down or on your belly when you lie down may be their way of labeling what is theirs with their scent. 

2. They Are Initiating Play

If you tend to react to every one of their behaviors, German Shepherds may sit on you to simply get you to send them away and give them a chance to climb back and be sent away again – a bit like kids do! 

If you’re laughing or showing signs of enjoying this back-and-forth game, you’ve succeeded in rewarding your German Shepherd with some playtime. Expect them to climb on you the next time you lie down in a similar position!

3. They Seek to Cuddle

German Shepherds have a warm temperament and love to cuddle. They are a very affectionate breed and will even follow you to the bathroom! Climbing on your lap may simply be a way of reaching out and getting a warm hug.

4. You’ve Let Your GSD Have His Way With You!

A study comparing dogs’ behavior showed that dogs would choose to be closer to people who are nicer to them, play with them, talk to them, and stroke them. So if your German Shepherd likes sitting on you, it might be you’ve let him have his way, and he’s become used to sitting on you!

Why Do German Shepherds Circle Before Lying Down?

Many will wonder why their dog will circle their bed or a spot on the carpet before lying down. Here are some suggestions:

1. To Make a Nest

The first reason is that dogs would circle a spot to trap grass or shrubs and create a little nest for themselves in the wild. This innate behavior seems to linger in their system despite centuries of domestication. 

2. Security Reasons

The second reason dogs will circle a spot before lying down is to assess the spot’s security by ensuring there are no threats in the surroundings. Those who live with a GSD in a secluded home may have noticed that the dog will often make a couple of rounds around the home before settling and lying down. 

3. Assess Their Laying Spot

It seems that your German Shepherd doesn’t trust the safety of his bed or lying spot. It will also circle the spot to ensure there are no vermin or harmful objects that will make your pet’s rest uncomfortable.

There is little scientific data to prove the above 3 examples – except for the idea that dogs circle before lying down to make a nest. This small study of 62 dogs implied that dogs are more likely to circle before lying down when given a soft, uneven surface to make a temporary nest to sleep in. 

4. A Medical Issue

The last reason for dogs’ circling behavior is that they may be suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but this is a rare condition in dogs. OCD is a psychological health condition that often has a genetic predisposition in some breeds. Dogs will repeatedly perform normal canine behavior and often fail to respond to therapy.

Why Do German Shepherds Roll on Their Backs? 

Dogs may roll on their backs on different occasions. This German Shepherd behavior might occur when he is playing with you or other dogs. The dog in the below photo is clearly having a super time playing in the snow.

German Shepherd Rolling on his back in the snow. Why Do German Shepherds Roll on Their Backs?

We will often interpret a roll on the back during dog play as being submissive. However, research has shown that rolling on the back is a winning rather than a losing position. Your German Shepherd will roll over when playing with other dogs for two key reasons:

  • To avoid a nape bite (on the side of the neck)
  • To launch an attack (be offensive)

But German Shepherds will also roll over to scratch their back since they cannot reach it with their paws. This could just be normal scratching, but it could also result from a flea/tick infestation. Check your dog and take measures if you find out that they are rolling over because they have fleas! Also, ensure their flea prevention treatment is up to date.

When playing with you, dogs will roll on their back to get a scratch on their belly. Granting his desire reinforces your GSDs behavior. So, avoid it if you do not want him to always ask for it! 

German Shepherds that rest or sleep on their backs for a short while feel very relaxed with their environment and are at ease exposing their belly. They feel safe and secure in this position.

Other reasons that dogs may roll on their backs are when attention-seeking, as an expression of joy, or a show of confidence. They may also display this behavior to regulate their body temperature as it helps them to cool down.

Why Do German Shepherds Pee When Excited? 

Excitement urination in dogs is especially associated with puppies, and it’s expected that they will grow out of this behavior with age. 

When you scratch your GSD’s belly, arrive home from work, or a visitor greets them, all these can cause them extreme excitement, and your puppy may pee small amounts of urine. Of course, this is a problem if your pup is on the carpet or lying on your new couch!

According to UCDavis Veterinary Medicine, excitement urination in dogs may also be triggered by a few other causes:

  • Accidental reinforcement – this means that you sympathize with and excuse your German Shepherd’s inability to always hold their urine, and they begin to use it as a way to find sympathy from you. 
  • Bladder sphincter – this is a bladder dysfunction that comes with decreased bladder control.
  • Genetic predisposition – your dog’s parents were predisposed or had the condition.

Excitement urination should be differentiated from urine-marking (spraying) which is a behavior problem. Dogs will spray to mark their territory or communicate their belonging to you. You can learn how to deal with German Shepherd spraying here.

Why Do German Shepherds Chase Their Tail? 

Do you find it amusing when your German Shepherd chases his tail? Well, maybe, you shouldn’t! It seems that the reasons behind it aren’t at all humorous. Here’s why your dog might display this behavior:

1. Lack of Exercise

YOU are to blame for the first reason your GSD will chase his tail! If you don’t exercise your dog and he finds himself idle all day, he will eventually find a way to amuse himself, and that might mean engaging in a “chase my tail” game.

German Shepherds are high-energy dogs and most behavioral issues stem from insufficient exercise. They need at least two hours of daily exercise consisting of a variety of walking, off-leash running, frisbee, fetch, or agility.

2. Attention-Seeking Behavior

If you laugh every time your German Shepherd chases his tail, you are inadvertently reinforcing his attention-seeking behavior. GSD’s love to please you and your encouragement acts as a positive reinforcement for your dog. He will, therefore, keep doing it, especially if he needs you to notice him!

3.Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

As mentioned earlier, OCD can sometimes be genetic. Check your German Shepherd for triggers to his tail chasing. If his behavior starts suddenly with no noticeable causes, then it might be that he has OCD, and it’s time to visit your vet.

4. Other Medical Problems

If your dog chases his tail and not just to amuse himself but also to bite it, you might be in for a medical surprise.

“Discomfort in the tail area can often cause dogs to nip at their tails.”

VCA Hospitals

Your German Shepherd could be experiencing discomfort from (itching or pain) and is trying to get some relief especially if this behavior starts suddenly. See your vet ASAP to rule out any medical issues. 

Why Do German Shepherds Stare at You? 

There are several reasons your German Shepherd will stare at you. Some of these stares may be sweet, others hard, some may be broken by blinking and others not.

A German Shepherd Staring. Why Do German Shepherds Stare at You?

You must be able to read your dog’s communication message from his eyes:

1. Seek Attention 

Generally, dogs will stare at you to seek your attention. It might be that you are eating a nice meal and your dog has not had his dinner. His stare serves to remind you that he needs to eat his meal too! 

When German Shepherds stare at you with eyes of pity, they want you to melt and let them have their way. It might be an undeserving or untimely treat or a nap on the couch where you never let him climb.

My German Shepherd will sit in front of me and stare at me when she wants me to play. She will do this every evening without fail when she is ready for her evening playtime!

Although German Shepherds can’t have two masters, they will often choose a favorite person to do certain activities with. So sometimes, a dog’s favorite person is not always their master.

2. Send a Reminder 

If you have forgotten your dog’s usual potty walk and are getting on with your chores or watching a football game, your German Shepherd may walk to the door, sit and stare at you to remind you that you should be attending to them!  

3. It is in Their Wolf Ancestry

In the wolf world where dogs have their ancestry, staring is rude and threatening. So, when your dog stares at you continuously, he might be manifesting an evolutionary holdover from his ancestral roots and communicating some displeasure. And if the uninterrupted hard stare is directed to a stranger, they should back away and not stare back! 

4. Guarding What is Theirs

Your German Shepherd may also give hard stares if he is guarding his food or favorite toys. Continuous hard and aggressive stares in dogs should be addressed through training or by a canine behaviorist. Remember, if you stare back (especially towards a dog that you don’t really know), make sure the dog isn’t feeling scared or threatened.

Why do German Shepherds Tilt Their Heads?

There is nothing cuter than a German Shepherd head-tilt and you will find tons of pictures and videos of dogs tilting their heads on all social media platforms. Many owners will make plenty of strange sounds just to see their pup perform an adorable head tilt. So, why do German Shepherds tilt their heads?

German Shepherds tilt their heads when they become interested in something different. They use the position of their head, and more specifically, their ears to learn the direction of the new sound. They also tilt their head when trying to understand what you’re saying and to increase visual cues.

There are a lot of other behaviors that German Shepherd Dogs portray. You can read about problematic behaviors in this breed and their solutions from my article on German Shepherd Behavior Problems.

Final Thoughts

Owning a German Shepherd is something any lover of the breed dreams about. But once your dog is home with you, you might wonder at some of his behavior. “Why is my dog doing those things, and what he is trying to say?”

Licking, nibbling, whining, barking, or howling, lying at your feet, rolling on his back, chasing his tail, laying down to eat, sitting on you, staring at you, and circling before lying are all common German Shepherd behaviors.

While most German Shepherd behaviors are simply geared at seeking attention, protecting, showing dominance, defending oneself, and showing affection among other reasons, some behaviors may be signs of underlying medical issues.

While you need not worry about most of these behaviors as they are completely natural canine behavior, you now know what they all mean. You can, therefore, identify those concerning ones where you should visit your vet.

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Sharon Waddington

I am the owner of World of Dogz. I have a female German Shepherd named Willow, and I've worked with dogs for almost 30 years. I love spending time with her, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge and expertise of all things dogs on this site!

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