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Scared of Stairs?

Do you know a dog who is afraid of steps and stairways?

Perhaps past experiences led to the dog to associate steps with something unpleasant, frightening and/or hurtful. Perhaps the dog was yelled at for going up or down a stairway, or had fallen down stairs during his formative weeks, or was pushed down steps. Or the dog recalls that steps once led to a place in which he was frightened, yelled at, or physically abused. Or the dog just never encountered steps before.

Some people respond to such fears by forcing the dog up and down the steps. But this approach often doesn't provide the dog with an opportunity to overcome his fear. (In addition, a fearful dog may try to nip or bite as a means of expressing "I'm terrified of steps!"

Instead, many canine behavior specialists recommend to help the dog work through her step-phobia through use of positive reinforcement (including verbal praise, treats and other positive, nonpunishing motivators) and counter-conditioning.

Before attempting any of the exercises suggested in this Dog Tipsheet, visit your vet to rule out the possibility that the step-shy dog does not have an injury or medical condition that is making it painful to walk up and down steps.

Preventing the development of fear of steps:

Take the time to properly socialize your puppy. Make sure that by age 16 weeks, the pup is exposed to the various things, people and situations (such as stairways) he will eventually encounter along the course of life. Do your best to keep all experiences during these impressionable weeks safe, secure and happy.

If you've adopted a more mature dog, remember that socialization continues throughout the dog's lifetime. Practice the same exercises as for puppy socialization. (See other Robin's Dog Tipsheets on socialization, accessible via the links listed at the end.)

Training your dog to climb and descend steps without fear:

When introducing your pup or dog to steps, work to gradually build her confidence. Start with just approaching the stairway. Reward her for making baby steps - any show of progress, no matter how small. Slowly introduce treats and, of course, verbal reinforcement into the training scenarios. Besides food treats, positive reinforcement tools include playing with your dog and providing a favorite toy for quick romp sessions.

You can use tasty treats or a favorite toy as a lure, placing one on the "target" step as you work with your dog.

After the dog shows signs of comfort with approaching the steps, practice going up one step. Then turn and go back down the step. Practice this several times, praising the dog for any sign of progress and any sign of reduced anxiety.

Note: some trainers suggest advancing on the steps beside the dog. Others suggest staying just behind the dog, since a shy and/or fearful canine will usually find this less intimidating than having someone towering over him.

Next, ascend and descend two steps. Again, praise and reinforce for any progress. Repeat until the dog is willingly managing the steps. Add a few more steps at a time.

When you're ready to climb to the top of a stairway, make sure you have several particularly high-value, appealing treats on hand. You want to give your dog the idea that contrary to being scary, or leading to a scary place, steps lead to good feelings and things...such as tasty treats.

Take care not to rush the process, or else you will risk a setback.

Be patient. You might aim to devote 2 or 3 days to working on each "step" (approaching the stairway, touching the first step, climbing the first step, climbing a couple more steps, etc.).

When the dog is comfortable heading in one direction (such as down the steps), reverse direction...again taking things slowly. Note: many dogs are more scared of going down steps, so their people often start working with them on going up steps.

When the dog is comfortable going up and down that flight of stairs, practice the same exercise on a different stairway. Remember, dogs do not generalize well on their own.

Another approach, which can be blended with the previous counter-conditioning strategy: instead of feeding your dog in the kitchen or wherever you usually feed him, put the dog's food bowl at the top or bottom of the stairway in your home, whichever is closest to the dog's regular feeding area.

When the dog exhibits comfort with eating in this new area, move the food bowl to the first step. As soon as the dog seems relaxed and accepting and willing to eat at this step-side spot, move the food bowl to the next step. Keep going, gradually, so that the dog will learn that the steps are not a scary place after all.

Here's another technique. While we do not advocate forcing a dog up or down steps, some dogs will respond to a combination of firm physical encouragement and happy talk, which conveys to him that you, the leader, are not at all afraid of the steps and to trust you. Before attempting this exercise, teach your dog to move forward in response to the command "heel" or "let's go" in a nonthreatening situation, such as when out on walks. For the stairway exercise, place the dog in a harness, so that you are not pulling on his neck. Firmly grasp the harness at the point between the dog's shoulders. Then, use the command "heel" or "let's go" and descend the steps with your hand on the harness, firmly navigating the dog down the steps by your side. Move steadily forward, without pauses, so that your dog doesn't have a chance to contemplate his anxiety.

As you descend together, praise your dog verbally (GOOD DOG!), then provide a treat at the bottom of the stairs. Work to keep your dog's eyes focused on you, and not on the steps or the space beyond you. A key goal is to help your dog learn to trust you, and to help him realize that you're not going to let him get hurt. Repeat several times. If the dog continues exhibiting fear, follow the first technique described above.

After the dog becomes comfortable going down the steps, reverse direction.

Even after your dog appears to lose his or her anxiety about steps, make the effort to provide continued opportunities to ascend and descend stairways to reinforce the new association that "stairs are OK and even lead to good things."

These exercises can be adapted to entering and exiting cars and other motor vehicles.

Another smart, novel technique:

Liz Dietz shares this smart technique that helped her foster dog, Bubba. Having always lived in a single-story house, Bubba didn't know how to navigate stairs. When Liz first took him to her home, instead of descending her back deck steps to do his business, he jumped off the top step. "When it came time to get back into the house, I couldn't get him to go up the stairs," said Liz.

Liz came up with a great idea. To disguise the steps, she draped a blanket over all of the steps of the staircase. "With a little encouragement, Bubba stepped on the blanket rather gingerly but made his way right up," recalls Liz. This visual trick worked.

She needed to use the blanket only three or four times before he was willing to climb the stairs without it. Stepping down the stairs came more gradually, but he learned.

Liz's back deck steps presented what some dogs would perceive as an additional challenge: the stairs were built without vertical panels, so you can see through the staircase. "This might have scared or confused Bubba, but with the blanket there, he couldn't detect any puzzling patterns."

Dogs typically have trouble generalizing between different situations, so it's not surprising that Bubba had trouble transferring his newly acquired step knowledge to the indoor stairs, which did have vertical panels. The indoor staircase was also taller, included a turn at a landing, and led to a narrow hallway, which might seem somewhat intimidating to a dog inexperienced with stairways.

Bubba's step story has a nice surprise ending. After leaving his foster caregiver's house to go to his permanent home, Bubba figured out the indoor staircase. He navigated the stairs all by himself, apparently determined to be with his owner. As Liz says, "Not a bad leap of learning for an eight-year-old dog!"

Related reading:

Safer Stairways

Helping a Dog Overcome Fear

Socialization for Adult Dogs

Socialization: What it is, basic principles, socializing young and new dogs

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Last Updated: April 26, 2018 (LET) PawSupport