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Monday, May 25, 2009

Teach Your Dog to Negotiate Stairs

Dear Jan,
We just rescued an 18-month-old Lab mix who's afraid to go down the stairs into the family room in the daylight basement. We want him down there with us, but he won't come. We've tried treats and encouragement, but he just stands at the top of the steps and whines. Is there anything we can do?


Dear Sheilah,
Whenever someone tells me their dog won't do stairs, I say, "What do you mean, they won't do stairs? There's no option. You want the dog to do stairs, just take him downstairs with you."

Assuming the dog is sound and doesn't have any lameness or pain issues, there's no excuse for not learning to do stairs. But if you stand at the bottom and call the dog to you, it might be a long wait.

To get your dog up and down stairs for the first time, be a leader and act like one. Leaders are courageous and confident, and they don't drag their pack members into unsafe conditions. (The stairs are not unsafe, because you're there to help.) Your dog will soon know that about you and, in fact, will learn even quicker if you lead him down (and up) his first steps. Pick up your dog's DRAG LEASH (dog attached) and approach the top of the staircase. Say something nonchalant like, "Let's go downstairs, Braveheart." Look ahead and proceed. Your dog will probably slam on his brakes and skid. So be it. Don't tug or jerk the leash, don't scold, and don't apologize. Just pull lightly but steadily toward the steps. Do the steps one at a time, slowly and carefully, but without any long pauses or interruptions in your motion. The dog will come along for the pull because he has no choice. He'll have one short, quick moment of panic when his feet descend to the first step. The first and second steps are the hardest. The rest are just repetitions of the second step. He'll quickly catch on, learn to balance and coordinate, and sort of flump/plop/hop down the remaining steps, one at a time. Say nothing other than, "All rightee, that's WONDERFUL, keep it up!!" When you get to the bottom, offer him a treat. He'll look up at you as if to say, "Wow, mom, I really did it, didn't I!! Wow, I can't believe it. Is THAT all there is to it??" (Wag, wag, wag.)

Now you can try escorting him back up. This will be emotionally easier but physically tough, particularly for a young pup. Let him take his time finding his footing and using his hoisting muscles. Hold the leash with the slightest tension, just to keep him moving up and forward instead of changing his mind and bailing out backwards.

If at any time your dog starts to tumble, you'll be close enough to catch him. But refrain from apologies and sympathy. Just get him right back on the steps to finish his project.

By day's end, your dog will be trotting up and down the stairs, having a great time on his own indoor playground equipment!

There are well-intentioned folks who will say this is too much too fast. Hogwash. Life is short, too short to spend unnecessary time on something as elementary to your dog (if not to you) as steps. Get on with it!

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