Stairs can often be the plight of any pet owner when Fido is scared to use them. What might seem like a mundane method of getting up and down to us can be a terrifying endeavor for a dog!
Dogs are afraid of stairs because of lack of exposure, medical conditions that stairs exacerbate, learning that stairs are scary unintentionally, or a traumatic experience. Teach a puppy with a slow introduction at their own pace, using treats and praise. If you have an older dog, start by identifying what is causing fear and remedying that, such as a vet visit or counterconditioning.
From your dog’s perspective, stairs are very large and uncertain (especially if your pup had a poor experience on one). Biologically (and geometrically), they look like the edge of a cliff!
In this article, I am going to offer you methods to help teach your puppy and senior dog how to go up and down stairs so that fear can be a thing of the past!
Ready? Let’s go.
Understanding where the fear comes from can help fix the problem.
Many dogs are afraid to go down the stairs because of four key reasons: lack of exposure, medical issues, learned behavior, or a bad experience.
If you live(d) in a single-story home, your dog may not have seen stairs before. For some dogs, the uncertainty of something is scary!
Stairs are unusual from a dog’s perspective, so having not seen one before can be fear-inducing. Think of it this way: stairs are the floor chopped up; this is bizarre to Fido! Plus, the self-preservation instinct states that stairs are like cliffs, and you shouldn’t jump off them.
If your dog suffers from medical conditions that cause pain, the stairs can be scary because your pup will associate them with something that hurts. This is especially prevalent for dogs that face arthritis or bone problems, as the pressure of going up and down stairs can cause discomfort.
For some dogs, being fearful of stairs is an unintentional learned behavior. If you disallowed your puppy from using the stairs, you could have indirectly trained fear into them.
The dog doesn’t understand why the stairs were forbidden, but your efforts to scold the dog for using them made them afraid (and they may not even be sure why they’re afraid, they just are).
Lastly, if your puppy suffered a fall or injury on stairs, the traumatic experience is what will cause continuous fear of the stairs. This happens to humans as well!
If you have a puppy, it’s a good idea to start teaching them how to use the stairs as soon as it is safe.
To start, you should understand what kind of puppy you have on your hands. Some puppies are very bold and confident, eager to tackle new things by diving right into the deep end first! Others are more restrained, preferring to dip one paw in at a time. The third kind is fearful, needing much coaxing to get into the water.
If you have a bold puppy, then your main concern is to ensure they don’t try to dive into the steps too fast and injure themselves!
Start slowly, sitting down with your puppy at the top of the steps and encouraging them to move down each step slowly, with lots of praise. If your puppy attempts to leap down the entire flight, use your hand to try and slow them down. At each step, offer a treat!
If your pup is more restrained, congratulations; you got the easy one! Have your pup test each step out on their own, offering treats and lots of verbal praise with every step they go down. If your puppy hesitates to do another step, place the treats a bit further from one another.
If you have a fearful puppy, then you’ll need to meet the puppy at their level. Trainers use a technique known as counter-conditioning, which means that you are changing the fear response into something more positive.
Stand beside the stairs with your dog’s favorite toy or treat, with praise and encouragement given as your dog approaches. Give your dog a toy or a reward when they positively engage with the stairs. You keep doing this until the result is your puppy approaching the stairs with confidence rather than fear.
If your puppy starts to slip or fall, quickly mitigate the scared reaction by catching your puppy and offering extra love, treats, toys, and praise! You want to catch the puppy in the moment so that their fear response is quickly replaced by something super happy. This prevents them from becoming scared in the future.
In all three instances, once your puppy uses the stairs well, you need to start fading out the treats and toys (as you can’t use these for the rest of your dog’s life!).
Instead of praising at every step, start only praising at the full ascent or descent, and then only once in a while. Eventually, treats will not be necessary, and your dog will enjoy the freedom of being able to choose to go up and down the stairs as they please!
For an older dog that may not have been exposed to stairs before, it can take a little bit more patience to get them to respond positively to the steps.
You can certainly teach an old dog new tricks, but it takes a bit more time than a young puppy.
As you might expect, there are differences in the brains of young and older dogs, which might affect how you approach training. Puppies are more like sponges than anything else; they are eager to learn new things and build routines. Adult dogs can also be sponges, although they don’t absorb water in the same way or to the same extent.
Start at the first step. Reward once your dog has gone down the first step, then add the second step and reward. Keep repeating until you’ve made it down the full flight, throwing a big praise party at the very end!
The next time around, start rewarding your dog when they take two steps rather than one, then three steps rather than two until you eventually only reward them for using the full flight. Once your dog realizes this allows them to have the freedom of movement in the home, they’ll be further encouraged to use the steps.
For an older dog that has used the stairs and suddenly is scared to use them, this is likely caused by either a medical condition forming or a poor experience you may not have noticed. Your dog may have slipped on the steps, and it scared them, or your dog needs a visit to the vet to see what may be happening.
If your dog slipped on the steps, it could be a good idea to go back to basics, treat them like a puppy, and follow the steps in our earlier section. Lining your steps with carpet or material with lots of traction can prevent slippage in the future, so securing the stairs for safety should also be a big part of resolving the situation.
If you suspect a medical condition, take Fido to the vet and see if something is amiss with the joints, bones, muscles, or more. If everything here is ruled out, you can suspect it may be a fear response to something that happened while you weren’t watching. If it’s a medical condition, it’s best to consult your veterinarian about what to do next.