How to Train a Scared Dog to Go Up and Down the Stairs
Plus, an animal behaviorist explains why your pet develops this fear in the first place.
At some point in a dog's life, they will have to contend with going up and down the stairs, whether at home or out and about on walks. The experience can be new and frightening to a puppy or an older dog who's unfamiliar with it, but the good news is that you can train a scared dog to go up and down the stairs. Here, we asked an expert how to help them ascend and descend a flight of steps without issue.
Identify why your dog is afraid.
It's worth understanding why your dog is frightened in the first place. According to Andrea Arden, professional dog trainer and Animal Planet's pet expert, your dog could be afraid of the stairs for any number of the following reasons: It's a novel experience and your puppy isn't sure about the results, your dog may have had a previous experience with stairs that was traumatic or created a negative impression, or the surface of the stairs may be too slippery for your dog or make sounds that startle them (like metal stairs or wooden ones with loose boards).
An underlying medical condition could also be the cause of their trepidation—hip dysplasia could make going up and down the stairs painful. If the reason your dog is afraid is due to a medical condition, your veterinarian can help you find ways to accommodate your pet for navigating the stairs such as installing a pet lift in addition to any treatments for their symptoms.
Use positive reinforcement.
Rest assured, your dog can overcome their anxiety. "Assuming the issue is not based on a medical condition, you can help a dog overcome this fear by focusing on counterconditioning and desensitization," says Arden. "Hang out near the bottom of the stairs with your dog and feed them part of their meals, give them tasty treats, and play with them with their toys."
Your dog will begin to associate their favorite things with the bottom of the stairs. Next, it's time to move up to the second or third step on the staircase. "Reward them and then help them to turn around slowly and step off," Arden says. "This way, they are getting your attention as well as treats when around the stairs, and at the same time learning how to feel comfortable going down them one step at a time starting from the bottom." Keep repeating this all the way up the stairs until your pup is going up and down the stairs without fear. Instead, your dog now sees the stairs as an achievable feat that comes with rewards like your attention and food.
Arden recommends that these training sessions only last about three to five minutes at a time, but you can practice this exercise several times a day. Make it a natural part of your day so that your dog is also able to get into the routine. Not only will it help your pup overcome this fear of the stairs, you'll have additional bonding time with your canine companion.