By Karen A. Soukiasian
Consider how much a dog’s perspective of stairs is different than ours. It is the same feeling some people have, climbing up and down a ladder.
To several dogs, especially smaller breeds, looking down a flight of stairs is like climbing a mountain, or standing on a ledge, looking into a black hole.
This is one of the reasons why it is so important to train a young puppy how to go up and down stairs; while they are still fearless, rubbery and bounce.
First of all, never carry your dog down the stairs if they are barking. You are only reinforcing an inappropriate behavior. Wait until they stop. Only them, should you “rescue” them and only if you must.
There are factors you must take into consideration when dealing with your dog’s fear of stairs. They are:
1. How do YOU react? Do you get angry? Do you get frustrated? Do you encourage the fear? Do you always “rescue” them?
2. Has your dog ever had a negative experience with stairs? Have they ever fallen? Were they ever been dragged up or down? Have they ever been kicked down a flight of stairs?
3. Were they ever taught how to go up and down stairs?
4. Are the stairs slippery?
5. Are the stairs noisy? Do they creak? Do they vibrate?
6. Is there something upstairs or downstairs they are afraid of and want to avoid? Do they associate stairs with being punished, crated or isolated?
7. How steep are the stairs?
If you have had your dog, since it was a puppy, you should know the answers to those questions. Unfortunately, if your dog is a rescue, they cannot sit down over a cup of coffee and discuss their stairs issues. You will have to be objective, and patient while you work on this predicament.
To help your dog overcome their fear, a positive association must be made. The more positive their association, the quicker they will overcome their fear.
This can be done, by making the stairs a fun place to hang out. Bounce a ball. Place treats on the stairs. Speak calmly and encouragingly. Move up or down the stairs. Call your dog. Make it look like fun. Pet your dog, each time they reach you. Reward them with a very special treat.
It can be as simple as taking them someplace where there are wide, low steps. Practices having your dog “climb” them, by encouraging them with lots of praise and treats. Someone should stay behind them, to support them if needed. When they reach the top or bottom, reward them with that special treat.
Next, try steeper stairs. If need be, and possible, carry your dog up the stairs, leaving them only 2 or 3 stairs to climb, before reaching the top. Have their favorite treat or toy waiting for them at the top. Either you or someone else they trust, can be waiting at the top, encouraging them to make the climb.
Someone should stand behind them, to support them if needed. Repeat this exercise by placing the dog further from the top, one step at a time.
Reverse the exercise for dogs that fear going down the stairs. Carry them to the last 2-3 stairs. Have a treat or toy waiting at the bottom. You can guide them down the last few stairs and give them lots of praise when they hit the bottom. When going down the stairs, once they get their front paws on the lower step, the back end isn’t far behind! Continue this exercise by placing the dog further from the bottom, one step at a time.
If the stairs are slippery, carpet them, or put anti-slip tape strips on them. The solution may be as simple as that!
If the stairs have no risers (open backed), keep your dog’s head up. Encourage them to focus on you, and not the stairs.
Another straightforward solution; ignore them. Odds are, you will never find your dog’s skeleton at the top or bottom of the stairs. For the most part dogs will do anything, even if they are nervous, just to be with their person.
Bottom Line: Be patient, stay calm, use only very special treats and resign yourself to the fact this may take some effort on your part. Keep the exercises short and positive. Do it often. By being supportive and providing your dog with confidence, their eagerness to please you, may soon have them racing up and down the stairs.
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