Has your dog suddenly decided he will no longer walk down the basement stairs? Perhaps he’s been like that ever since you moved into your new house, or rescued him. Does he also resist going up stairs?
If this is a new behavior, did something spook him? If he’s been this way since you adopted him, you will find helpful training tips below. If your dog is older, I suggest a vet visit to determine if he has arthritis or other painful mobility issues.
Why Your Dog Won’t Use the Stairs
- Too slippery
- He may have had a bad or scary experience in the basement, and is now too afraid to go back down
- The previous owners may have discouraged the dog from going upstairs/downstairs. If they don’t allow their dog upstairs for example, the tactics they use to discourage him may have inadvertently caused a shy or nervous dog to fear steps
- The dog may never have been exposed to stairs, so has no idea what to do
- If a dog fell climbing up or down stairs, he likely developed a fear of them
- Mobility issues are making it too painful to go up or down stairs
- Your dog may associate the stairs with going somewhere he doesn’t like. For example, if the only time he uses the stairs is to get a bath, it’s no surprise he’s not interested in making that climb (up or down!)
- Your dog may have been going up or down the stairs, got startled by a very loud noise and now has a negative association when he sees them
How to Help an Old Dog With Stairs
♦ If you know stairs are an issue due to your dog’s age and health issues, I recommend you schedule a vet appointment sooner rather than later. Once you have a diagnosis you can work on finding treatments that help. From medication and hydrotherapy, to slings and Green Lipped Mussels, there are lots of ways to help a dog use the stairs more comfortably.
♦ If your dog is small enough, why not put him in a carrier and transport him that way!
♦ If your dog is too big to carry, a harness may be the perfect solution.
♦ Depending on where the stairs are and how many, a ramp could work well. There are plenty available to suit your budget, or build your own.
♦ It’s possible your dog simply isn’t able to use the stairs, in which case it’s best to leave him be. Just be sure to keep the door closed or have a baby gate at the top and bottom.
Never Pull Your Dog Up or Down the Stairs
Does it really matter if your dog won’t use the stairs? Whether it’s pain or fear/anxiety, he should never be punished for it. Subjecting him to something he’s already afraid of or can’t physically manage is not fair and yes, even cruel.
Preparing to Help Your Dog Get Over a Fear of Stairs
Before we get to the actual step by step training, here are a few things to know/prepare.
Carpet the stairs
If your dog is finding stairs too slippery to navigate, adding carpet can make all the difference. Don’t forget to carpet the landing at the top and bottom too!
Keep your stairs clear
Your dog is already anxious, you want to do everything possible to help him get over it. Start by ensuring they’re clear of trip hazards.
Are your stairs easy to climb?
If your staircase is narrow or has very steep steps, you’re better off finding one that is wider with shorter steps for the training. Whether that’s a park or a friend’s house, make it as easy for your dog as possible.
Get the treats ready!
Get a treat pouch that’s easy to put your hand into, and fill it with small pieces of a food he loves but rarely gets. Alternatively, keep them in a bowl close by, a pocket or your hand.
Short and sweet
Keep each session short, around 5 minutes. Too long and they’ll stop paying attention.
Tire him out first
Practice after he’s had a walk. Dogs that have been exercised often respond better to training, since they’re not dealing with pent up energy.
Slow and steady
I was going to say “slow and steady wins the race” but I didn’t want to sound like a cliché…but it’s true!
Don’t progress too quickly up the stairs, take the training slowly because that tends to yield the best results.
If at any point during the training your dog appears anxious, you’ve gone too quickly. Go back to the point where your dog is fine and take it slower.
You may need to spend a day or a few days on each step, depending on your dog’s level of anxiety.
One step at a time…literally
Training is most effective when broken into small, manageable steps, no pun intended. It’s no different in this case where you will, literally, try one step at a time.
Please be patient, and no getting angry or annoyed at him. It’s not his fault, he’s doing the best he can.
Helping Your Dog Overcome His Fear of Stairs
Only give treats when he’s calm. If he gets them when he’s anxious, you’ll be rewarding that behavior, and we definitely don’t want to do that!
Going Up – Method One
- Standing in front of the first step and with your dog watching, put a treat down on that first step. When he eats it, praise him like crazy and repeat a few times.
- The next time you practice, put a treat on the first step, and one on the second. Remember to praise him when he gets on that step.
- The next time you practice, put a treat on the first step, the second and then the third.
- You’ll do this until he’s comfortably walking up the stairs.
- Remember, don’t rush.
Going Up – Method Two
This method is more about distraction.
- In a very enthusiastic tone of voice, talk to your dog, give him tons of attention, and see if he’s distracted enough to go up one step with you, then down again. Reward him with treats and praise.
- Next time try going up two or three steps with your dog following you, then back down.
Note: You may want to put a leash on your dog for this, and perhaps even a harness.
- If your dog is okay going up the stairs, but nervous about coming down, try this exercise. It’s similar to Going Up Method One.
- Go up one step with your dog, then with a treat in your hand, place it in front of his nose and lure him down that one step. How did that go? If it went well, give him the treat and repeat.
- For many dogs, going down stairs can be a lot scarier than going up, so take your time with this exercise.
- When you’re sure he’s comfortable going down one step, walk up two steps with him, then lure him down with a treat.
- Repeat until you’re able to get him down all the stairs, and back up again with little or no stress.
That’s it. The training isn’t difficult, it just requires consistency and patience.
Do you have a dog that’s afraid of stairs? What advice do you have for dog parents in a similar situation? Sharing helps others so please leave your helpful tips in the comments below.
I’m a dog trainer specialising in working with senior dogs. Whether you have health & wellness concerns, or you’ve just rescued an older dog and need training tips, I can help! Sessions are conducted via Zoom and I offer a FREE 15 minute no obligation chat. To book, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit https://greypawsandall.com/support-service-packages-and-rates or visit my website.