The German Shepherd dog is the second most popular purebred dog breed in America today.
You won’t find a more loving or loyal canine than the German Shepherd, a dog that has literally been bred to herd, protect, serve and love its people.
But German Shepherds are also highly intelligent, sensitive, and sometimes high-strung. They are nicknamed the “velcro dog” for these exact reasons. Wherever you go, your German Shepherd wants to be with you – this is what protection and herding dogs do.
So if your German Shepherd is circling you repeatedly, while it may be sweet at first this behavior can quickly get annoying. Is there some specific reason why your German Shepherd circles you? Is there a way to get the behavior to stop?
In this article, we tackle the top frequently asked questions many owners have about the German Shepherd dog breed behaviors.
Why Does My German Shepherd Circle Me
There are several different possible reasons why your German Shepherd could be circling you. The simplest explanation is that German Shepherds are a herding breed and circling is a natural herding behavior.
But there are a number of other factors that could also be influencing circling behavior, as we will discuss in the remainder of this article.
Learn from a K-9 Trainer How to Stop GSD Circling Behavior
In this YouTube video, you can watch a professional dog trainer teaching a German Shepherd to walk without lapsing into circling behavior.
It is important to use only positive reinforcement dog training methods, especially when you are working with a highly sensitive and intelligent dog breed like the German Shepherd. This trainer used a regular collar, praise, commands, and treats.
Understanding GSD Circling Behaviors
Circling behaviors are not limited to the German Shepherd dog breed.
For example, according to VCA Animal Hospitals, many dog breeds circle as part of their bedtime rituals.
For canines, circling at bedtime is thought to provide the dog with important information that can protect them during sleep.
Circling helps a dog pick up scent-based as well as visual information. Circling can also aid in choosing just the right spot and position for maximum camouflage and protection.
And circling can help create a more comfortable resting place for the night, softening the ground, removing the still-warm topsoil layer, arranging a comfy bed of leaves to lay on, or arranging themselves around their puppies (for nursing mother dogs).
Why Does Your German Shepherd Specifically Circle Your Legs?
While watching your German Shepherd circle a few times before bed can be sweet, navigating daily life with a large dog who insists on circling repeatedly around your legs can quickly turn hazardous.
Why does your dog do this?
The reigning theory among German Shepherd owners and GSD trainers is that this is a herding behavior and possibly also a greeting behavior.
GSD circling as a herding behavior
According to Leerburg dog trainers, the circling behavior has some roots in a newer style of sheep herding that has come out of Germany.
This herding style is called Herdengebrauchshund, or HGH (“tending style”) for short.
HGH herding style is quite different style from how Border Collies herd sheep. Collies are used to round up the sheep and drive them in the desired direction.
But with tending or HGH style, German Shepherd dogs are used instead of Border Collies. And the GSD’s job is to become a living fence of sorts, nipping at the heels of any sheep that are tempted to break formation.
These dogs are trained to control flocks of as many as 800 sheep using this exact type of circling and nipping behavior (always nipping the fluffy part of the sheep and never the vulnerable extremities).
In many ways, when your German Shepherd dog repeatedly circles you, your dog is simply creating a living fence or protective perimeter around you to keep you from being harmed.
GSD circling as a greeting behavior
If your German Shepherd gets over-the-top excited to see you when you return home, this rush of energy may translate into a fit of circling behavior, either around you or simply around and around and around.
There is some evidence that circling behavior can be a part of the greeting process for wild canids, along with face licking, tail wagging, and postural changes that indicate dominance and submissiveness among pack members.
Should You Worry About Your German Shepherd Circling You?
In this popular German Shepherd owners forum, owners point out that German Shepherds that are allowed to circle, circle, circle their owners may start to do it with other people too – including total strangers!
While this may be hard to wrap your head around as it is for so many dog lovers, not every person enjoys being circled by a friendly and enthusiastic German Shepherd. Some people might even be frightened by this experience.
You don’t ever want your dog to end up in an interaction with another person or another animal that is unwanted or unwelcome.
This is one of several reasons to consider training your German Shepherd to engage in less up close and personal forms of greeting.
Health Reasons Your German Shepherd Might Be Circling
In addition to instinctual and behavioral reasons for a German Shepherd to circle their people, there are some age and health-related reasons to consider.
Past trauma or abuse
As Vetstreet points out, some dogs may choose to circle or walk between your legs because they want to greet you but are fearful of being petted.
This may apply if your German Shepherd is a rescue dog that has experienced prior trauma or abuse. Your dog wants to greet you but is afraid of standing still and being touched for fear it won’t be a loving interaction.
Onset of canine dementia
If you have a senior German Shepherd, it is important to know that circling behavior can also indicate canine dementia.
As Dog Dementia points out, an inner ear condition called canine vestibular disorder can cause dogs to circle.
Senior dog cognitive decline
Cognitive decline can also cause changes to the spatial processing center of a dog’s brain. This in turn causes difficulties with navigating and moving around.
Problems in the tail area or hindquarters
Yet another commonly overlooked medical reason for why a German Shepherd might be repeatedly circling is a problem in the hindquarters such as impacted anal glands, a yeast or bacterial infection, or stiffness/joint pain.
A German Shepherd who is uncomfortable may be trying to reach around towards the hindquarters or tail area to lick, bite or otherwise examine the area to ease their itching, discomfort, or pain.
When to Get Professional Help for GSD Circling
Some German Shepherd owners love that their dogs circle them and see it as a sign of love and protection.
But if this doesn’t describe you, it may be time to seek out professional help to redirect your GSD’s behaviors in a more desirable direction.
First, you want to make sure to schedule a visit to the canine veterinarian just to rule out any health or life stage issues that may need treatment.
The next step would be to consider hiring a professional K-9 trainer to help your German Shepherd learn a new way of greeting and guarding you that is easier for you to manage.