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Dog Fearful of Going up the Stairs

Updated on December 18, 2012

From a puppy's perspective, stairs can be a tad bit intimidating especially if he has never climbed them before. Stairs are often included in confidence-building obstacle courses to help fearful dogs gain some self-esteem. But if your dog who has always climbed the stairs has become a bit reluctant, consider the chance of a health problem. This guide will help you understand why Rover may refuse to budge in front of the stairs and give you hints on the best ways for troubleshooting the issues.

Possible Causes for Fear of the Stairs

So why is Scruffy refusing to go up the stairs? For starters, you should ask yourself a few questions. Do you have a new dog? Is this a rescue? Did you just get a new puppy and he is afraid of going up the stairs? Is this a dog that previously has never had problems climbing? How old is your dog? Is your dog going through a fear period? Does your dog have any particular health problems? This should help you sort down a bit the possible causes. But let's take a closer look at some common causes for fear of the stairs, shall we?

  • Plain and Simple Fear

In simple words, in this case we are focusing on fear of the unknown. If you recently rescued a dog who perhaps never lived in a home before, or if you just brought home a puppy who won't budge in front of a ramp of stairs, the most likely reason why he won't attempt to climb them is fear. These dogs simply have never been exposed to stairs before or may have had a negative experience and now associate the steps with it. For instance, a puppy may have no clue how to go up and a small breed dog may simply have a hard time. If you don't have the history on a rescued dog, it could be he once fell off the stairs or got hurt some way. Regardless of the cause, with patience, these dogs can be taught to go up and down the stairs again.

  • Pain or Medical Problem

It's always a good idea to have a dog evaluated by a veterinarian for medical problems when sudden, unusual behavior changes take place. If your dog has always been confident going up the stairs and now is suddenly reluctant, consider the chances for a health issue. Joint pain is often a cause for stiffness especially in older dogs, but any form of pain affecting the elbows, shoulders, back and hips can cause a dog to become reluctant going up or down a flight of stairs. In some cases, weakness of the hindquarters or other balance problems may be a part of the problem.

If you own a senior dog and you have also noticed some behavioral changes, consider the chances for Canine Alzheimer's Disease. In this case, your dog needs to see a vet to assess if this may be the cause for suddenly being scared of going up and down the stairs.

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How to Solve the Problem

Always start with a veterinarian appointment if your dog has never been fearful of the stairs. In some cases, the pain may be chronic and not much can be done to completely alleviate it. In such cases, dogs can be helped going up and down a flight of stairs with special harnesses and sling-style carriers purposely crafted to assist and help lift them. In severe cases, you can install a dog ramp so your dog can easily go up and down without having to use the stairs.

If you have ruled out medical problems, and your dog turns out is simply scared of the stairs, then you can try a step-by-step method to hopefully help him overcome the problem. Following is a step-by-step guide on how to deal with fear of the stairs. First of all consider that dogs fearful of stairs need to confront their fears gradually; in these cases, literally one step at a time. Positive reinforcement is the best way. Forcing the dog up the stairs and flooding him won't work. Encourage your dog, praise lavishly for any progress and reward. It may take a few days to just go up one step, but it's much better than rushing through the process with the risk of overwhelming the dog and only making things worse. This method uses a clicker.

  • Step 1: Place a toy on the first step of the stairs in a way that it's easy to reach. Click your clicker and give a treat the moment your dog goes near the stair to try to get the toy. If your dog is too fearful, break this step in further steps and click and treat for simply looking at the stairs, sniffing the stairs and then touching the stair. End the session with a jackpot of treats for interacting with the stairs.
  • Resume training a day later. Do the same, but this time place the toy farther inside the step so your puppy or dog will have to move more towards it. Clicker and treat for interacting with the stairs, moving closer towards them and putting a paw on them. End the session with a jackpot of treats.
  • Resume training a day later. Next, place the toy on the next step, so your puppy will have to climb it to get the toy. If your dog is reluctant, try with something more valuable such as a bone. Continue clicking and rewarding this time for climbing up the first step. Give a jackpot of treats for this.
  • Continue increasing your criteria, this time placing the toy farther up the stairs, so your dog will need to do two steps this time. Continue this exercise, every day, until your dog can do the whole flight of stairs. Get in the habit of having your climb up the whole flight and then calling him back down and giving him his food bowl full of food. Great things happen when doing the stairs!

If you have a difficult case, you can try clicker training your dog to walk over a long rug. Click and treat for walking on the rug, and then after your dog gets good at this, you can move the rug over the steps and increase criteria. Some dogs are less frightened of steps if you place a rug over them.

Alexadry© All rights reserved, do not copy.


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    • GiblinGirl profile image

      GiblinGirl 5 years ago from New Jersey

      Interesting article. My dog is afraid of many, many things, although stairs don't seem to be one of them. Still - good info to know if she ever changes her behavior.

    • bodylevive profile image

      BODYLEVIVE 5 years ago from Alabama, USA

      Thanks for sharing. I have two and they're not afraid to go up stairs, especially if they see me.

    • Lastheart profile image

      Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill 5 years ago from Borik√©n the great land of the valiant and noble Lord

      Great article. Voted up and across (except for funny) I will also share. I love animals.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 5 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks for this, Alexadry. I have an older dog who has exactly this problem and will use these on her. She has a neurological disorder, though, so it will take time. Thanks for sharing, and I am passing this on.