Does your puppy or dog whine, cry, tuck their tail, and turn away when it comes to using a set of stairs? You're not alone. It’s not uncommon for puppies or adult dogs to fear climbing or descending the stairs. There are reasons for such reluctance and “steps” you can take to get them over stairs phobia.
Why Is My Dog Afraid of the Stairs?
There are three main reasons when a dog afraid of stairs won't use them: a medical condition, a lack of early exposure, and learned behavior. This happens with large house stairs and even the small dog stairs for beds, cars and other elevated surfaces.
1. Medical Issues
Dogs with pain (like arthritis, hip, knee, or joint issues) can develop a “fear” of the stairs simply because of the discomfort it causes them when climbing or descending. If this fear may have come on relatively quickly, ask your veterinarian to examine the dog for other signs and symptoms of pain or illness, and treat accordingly.
Dogs may also develop a fear of the stairs if they have fallen from them before. Whether your puppy or adult dog was left with an injury/pain, or just a fright, it could be enough to cause a reluctance to do it again.
2. Lack of Early Exposure
Puppies experience many new things in their first months of life. If the stairs were not one of them, they may view the elevation and the maneuvering of the staircase intimidating.
Adult dogs that were not provided the opportunity to experience climbing and descending the stairs (e.g. they were raised in a one-level home, or animal shelter) can also be afraid to try them. This obstacle can be nerve-wracking to an “old” dog.
3. A Learned Behavior
Although an unintentional action, we may accidentally teach our dogs to be afraid stairs. For example, if Fido isn’t allowed on the second floor when you’re not at home, and you use a barricade like a pet gate or punishing them for going upstairs, you may have inadvertently put the fear of the stairs into your dog's mind.
What NOT to Do With a Dog Afraid of Stairs
If you have a puppy or a small breed dog, you may be tempted to simply pick them up and bring them to the second floor or onto the porch. However, this tactic – albeit a simple solution – is only a temporary fix that won’t help your pooch get over the fear of stairs.
Neither will the action of taking a larger dog by the collar and dragging them up the steps. This strategy will only be perceived as threatening, which can cause mistrust between you and your canine companion, and potentially stronger phobia of stairs in the dog.
3 Ways to Overcome a Stair Phobia in Dogs
Dog trainers use a technique called counter-conditioning to train the dog to react to a situation (like staircases) in a different manner than their current one (i.e. fear to fun).
To counter-condition your dog, stand by the stairs with your pet's favorite toy or food treat in hand. Encourage your dog to approach, while giving them encouragement and praise. When your dog follows the command correctly, give them the toy or a treat.
Rinse and repeat this process until your puppy or adult dog is willingly approaching the stairs without a fear reaction.
2. Desensitization of the Steps
Desensitizing your dog or puppy to the fear of the stairs goes along with counter-conditioning.
Once your pooch is no longer afraid to go near the stairs, hold a treat or toy in your hand whilst standing on the first step. Encourage the dog to meet you there to receive the first reward.
After the dog approaches, praise them. Continue this process until your dog is comfortable climbing the very first step, then move up the staircase by adding one extra step each time, all the way up.
Tip: This very same principle can also be applied to meal times. First, place your dog's bowl of food near the staircase. When your pup doesn't show any fear, gradually move the dish to the first step, then the second step, and so on, until your dog is no longer afraid to climb the stairs without the food bowl.
3. Patience and Praise
Depending on how strong the phobia of a dog afraid of stairs is, this may take several training sessions to get them phobia-free. Be patient and shower your pup with praise. Positive reinforcement will always work better than a lost temper or forcing the dog into an action they are not ready to perform yet.
3 Tips for Helping a Dog With a Stair Phobia
Before trying these tips, be sure you have ruled out a medical condition that may be causing the fear of the stairs in a dog.
Tip 1: Clear away the clutter. Remove any items that may be on the stairs (kids toys, books, etc.) so your puppy doesn't trip or knock it over. The sudden noise or movement of an object toppling down the stairs could create even more fear in a dog.
Tip 2: Dealing with mild fear. If your dog's fear is mild, you can pick them up and place them on the first step. Wave some food treats in front of the dog's nose while luring them down to the floor. Use plenty of praise. Once a puppy has mastered the first step without incident, continue up the staircase.
Tip 3: Going up the stairs. Use the above technique, but start your dog on the floor by the first step. Toss some treats on the first step and encourage your dog with plenty of praise. Once they are on the first step, toss treats onto the next step (and so on).
At the Tail's End
A dog afraid of stairs is a phobia many owners are familiar with. Sometimes, it could be a medical condition which you need to address with a vet. Most times, however, it's just a simple fear like others that can be fixed. Use the above methods, do not rush, give your dog praise and rewards, and have patience throughout the process.