I need your opinions/advice on an issue I'm dealing with with my 18 week old GSD pup, Whisky. He is a big boy, weighing approx. 40-45 lbs at 18 weeks old. His Dad is 120 lbs and his Mom is ~85lbs but produces much bigger than herself (Royal Air Shepherds, she breeds for big boned, family dogs). I'll start off by saying I've grown up with shepherds all my life (although I'm only 24..) so I am used to their strong wills and "challenges" as they develop and grow. My girlfriend and I have lived together for 8 months and we've had Whisky for 2.5 months. She has grown up with small dogs and currently has 2 female miniature poodles that also live with us. Whisky does pretty well with them, we take him to a puppy playgroup at a local obedience club once a week so occasionally he will come on to the poodles a little strong trying to play but other than that does very well with them. He has never shown aggression to anyone, he has his tantrums/fits where he may bark or try to mouth our hands (darn needle-sharp puppy teeth!) but my girlfriend has asked several trainers we've had interactions with if it is aggression (out of worry) and they all have said definitely not, its typical puppy behavior. His tantrums are also only limited to my girlfriend and I, he does phenomenal with strangers, wagging his tail furiously when approaching, ears back, and licks their hands and lets them pet him.
My girlfriend works from home and I work 30min away 8-5. The current issue we are having is that my girlfriend will be sitting in our office or on the couch at home working and he will approach her, mouth her feet/legs or mess with her in general and then when she pays attention to him, bark at her. When she tries to correct him he usually continues to bark/nip air and misbehave. He also will mouth her hand when she attempts to correct him with a collar snap. We've used everything we can think of for corrections: coins in a can, prong collar, giving him a toy, giving him a chew, taking him out to potty, a firm no, the alpha rollover. We have used primarily the prong collar. All of them he usually responds to for a day or so then is unaffected by them. I have never had any issues with him trying to boss me around or throw fits at me but I also refuse to take any crap from him and have a much more dominant voice and body language than her. I will mention, because I think it is very important, that throughout these episodes of his he does not show what I consider aggression (and probably why I have brushed it off lately as puppy behavior) because he has NEVER raised lips/showed teeth, raised the hair on his back or really shown any aggressive body language. His body language during it is upright, almost playful, tail commonly wagging, but it is still a problem behavior.
He knows basic obedience and we have begun formal obedience with him in private lessons with a very reputable trainer in our area. The trainer is the training coordinator for the Iowa Dept. of Corrections and has been a K9 unit handler for 20 years (very experienced with GSD's!). His methods use a Dogtra E-collar which I have some experience with from growing up and my parents using one with one of their shepherds (who had fear aggression issues, hence my girlfriend's worry of our own shepherd's behavior being aggression). Also, disclaimer to those of you who think E-collars are inhumane/cruel, I'm sorry you feel that way, I believe when used correctly and responsibly they are a very valuable training aid. Our trainer also made us feel a nick at the 20 setting on our bare hand (not a double coat like our pup) and it didn't hurt whatsoever. I would describe it as a strong vibration, maybe like one of those prank/gag hand buzzers.
The worst part of the problem is that whenever I am home, he acts very well-behaved with none of these tantrums. I believe the underlying issue, and a reasonable explanation for it all, is that he does not respect/see my girlfriend as a leader of our pack and so thinks he can boss her around. She is not used to dogs that require this much leadership, and when he gets going in a tantrum she is a little intimidated by him. I've asked our trainer what exercises can we do to help teach her leadership over him, and help him learn to respect her and he suggested to keep working on the obedience we began with him (only had 1 lesson so far) in which he is learning to loose leash walk at our left side, sit and remain sitting until released (trainer does not teach stay, it should happen with sit/down), and to come when called. All of the training has been on-lead.
Our trainer's recommendations for her handling this problem behavior are to stand up when he barks at her and give him the "off" command (general stop what you're doing, I don't like it command) and to "nick" the collar once. If he doesn't stop the behavior, continue tapping the collar every other second for 3-4 nicks, and if he doesn't respond/back down to increase the strength a few points, from say 20-23. Our trainer also instructed her to try getting him out in our fenced backyard if he starts acting up and let him run some of his puppy energy burst off.
Yesterday hit a climax in this behavior in that my girlfriend got up to a setting of 40 on the collar before he backed down, and it appeared he backed down from distraction/boredom. The max setting on the collar is 137 I believe, so still not an incredibly high, cruel correction as some may think. Through a call with our trainer last night, he said, judging by our dog's personality, he was surprised she had to go to 40 already with him and to check the tightness of his collar to ensure the collar was making good contact. When we mentioned Whisky has never yelped from a "nick" as a result of too much correction with the collar, our trainer said if that's the case it might very well take a higher correction for him to understand that behavior is unacceptable but at the same time only correct him when he is coming at her and when he stops praise him immediately. I would also remind you, at this point, of his size because although I'm calling him a puppy, he's 45 lbs and probably 18"-20" at his haunches so he's already a big boy. I'll also attach a picture form just this week for reference.
My girlfriend is very frustrated with him to the point where she thinks we should consider a doggy day camp because she can't get her work done. I am very impressed with our trainer but I guess I'm on here writing this much down because I'm asking for reassurance that it will get better and maybe immediate things we could try to calm him down when he does this. He is in the height of teething so that can't be helping either.
Thank you all in advance, sorry for the lengthy report but I wanted to be very thorough!