My Dog is Afraid of Stairs
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At home, on the street, on public transport... In the daily lives of our dogs, it is almost inevitable that they encounter stairs. Yet how many times have we seen a frightened dog on a flight of stairs being dragged by force or carried up and down by their guardian? Or perhaps you have seen dogs paralyzed by fear at the very sight of the stairs. In fact, a fear of stairs is surprisingly common among dogs of all ages, sizes and breeds.
If you have adopted a new dog or puppy that is afraid to go up or down stairs, or if your dog seems to have suddenly developed a fear of stairs, you have come to the right place. In this AnimalWised article, we provide instructions for what to do if your dog is afraid of stairs, looking at possible the causes and solutions that you can apply. We also include a step by step guide to helping your dog overcome its fear of stairs and gain the confidence to use them.
Why is my dog afraid of stairs?
The fear of going up or down stairs is very common among dogs and there are several factors that can cause it. These can be genetic or health related, but are most often linked to the dog's socialization and experiences they have learned to associate with stairs.
A dog that is afraid of stairs often has the seed of this fear planted when it is still a puppy in the socialization stage - from 4 to 12 or 14 weeks of age. It is important to accustom a puppy to all kinds of stimuli during this phase of its life, such as different people, noises, objects, animals, and spaces. This helps prevent the puppy from developing negative emotions such as a fear of the unknown. A dog that was never exposed to stairs as a pup and suddenly sees comes across them will often experience fear because the stairs represent an ‘unknown’. Many dogs grow up without ever seeing stairs, and this is often the primary cause of their initial fear.
Another reason your dog may be afraid of stairs is because it associates them with a traumatic experience, such as falling. This may have happened when the dog was a puppy, or it may be a more recent experience. There are different associations that can trigger a phobia of stairs in a dog or puppy. They may have taken a tumble or even injured a leg or perhaps hooked a nail in the wood which caused pain when they tried to climb the stairs. Your dog may may also be frightened by the noise they once heard while on the stairs.
Perception of stairs
Sometimes, it is simply the way the stairs appear to the dog that can cause fear. To a dog, a flight of stairs can appear terrifying, either because of its height, the steepness of the steps or the size of the gap between each slat, if the stairs have slats. If the dog perceives the stairs as dangerous, it will be reluctance to go up or down the steps. In fact, you may notice that your dog can climb up the stairs but is afraid to to go down them, or vice versa. This is because, to the individual dog, the stairs may look more frightening from one angle than from the other.
Genetics and personality
Genetics may also play a role in dogs that are afraid of stairs. Some studies suggest that there is a genetic component to fear behavior in dogs, and this could include fear of objects such as stairs. Puppies also tend imitate and reproduce the attitudes of their mother. Being raised by a fearful mother (or an over-anxious human who forbade the puppy from going near stairs) could lead to a dog being more likely to fear stairs, either based on a learned negative response to stairs or because they are genetically predisposed to be nervous about the new and unknown spaces.
Why is my dog suddenly afraid of stairs?
It may be that your dog normally climbs up and down the stairs with no apparent difficulty, but becomes suddenly afraid of stairs. If this is happens just once, or in relation to a staircase that may look particularly dangerous to the dog (very wide slats, extra steep steps or stairs that go very high), then you probably need not worry. In such cases the dog is just showing caution, as a human might, when confronted with what looks like a tricky staircase.
However, if your dog is suddenly afraid of all stairs, or seems reluctant to go up or down the stairs it usually climbs, you should try to find the cause of this behavior and take the dog to see a veterinarian as soon as possible. The reason may be physiological or psychological. The dog may have developed a new phobia to stairs based on a traumatic experience like the ones described above, and which you did not notice. Another possibility is that the dog has an internal injury or is unwell. If you suspect this is the case, keep an eye out for other signs that your dog is in pain. If you have an elderly dog, a sudden fear of stairs could indicate canine arthritis developing.
If the vet has ruled out health-related causes, the fear is probably psychological. Try the methods and steps we explain below and see if they help your dog overcome its fear and get back on the stairs. Of course, if your dog seems to have other anxiety issues or is often stressed, it is best to consult a canine behavior specialist or ethologist. They will be best able to advise you on how to deal with your dog's anxiety, including its fear of stairs.
How to help a dog that is afraid of stairs
As the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day”. There are no miraculous or instant solutions that will have your dog going up and down stairs in a flash. You could carry them, but that is hardly an effective long-term solution. It is also impossible if you have a large dog. Training your dog to overcome its fear and teaching it to go up and down stairs is the best way to resolve the issue. It is a process that takes some time, but with love and patience, your dog's stair nightmare will soon nothing but a bad memory.
Even if the dog doesn't set paw on the stairs in the early stages, don't worry. Your first goal is to help the dog build positive associations with the stairs. This will help to shift their emotional response to the stairs, making them understand that the space doesn't pose a danger or threat.
This learning should be be based on positive reinforcement and counter conditioning. Positive reinforcement involves rewarding your friend whenever they show the desired behavior, or show a calm and appropriate attitude. Counter conditioning is a type of positive reinforcement used to teach the dog to associate the stairs with happy and positive emotions, rather than fear or stress.
It is very important that you employ methods of positive reinforcement when training your dog. Using force or punishment will generate stress and inhibit the desired behavior. Since your dog is already being confronted with their fear of stairs, if you try to force them, you will only increase their stress. This may turn the dog aggressive, and one or both of you could be hurt. Using force will also cause the dog to lose trust in you. Furthermore, the dog's fear of stairs will be reinforced, which is the opposite of what you want to achieve.
Finally, to ensure that the stairs seem safer to your dog, you can take steps that ensure the dog won't trip or fall on them. For instance, cover smooth steps with strips of carpet or rug so the dog has a better grip when climbing. If you have stairs with wide slats, putting a blanket or rug over the steps also helps hide the gaps, making the stairs appear less dangerous to your dog. Some studies have even shown that painting the stairs a different color can help a dog get over its fear of using them.
How to help a dog overcome its fear of stairs - step by step
Here is a step by step guide to help your dog overcome its fear of stairs. We will follow the general guidelines mentioned in the previous section, and use positive reinforcement and encouragement to help your dog progressively lose its fear of stairs. These guidelines can be applied whether you are teaching your dog to go down the stairs, up the stairs, or both.
- Start by sitting near the stairs and calling the dog to you. You can use rewards like small treats or toys to encourage them to come closer. If you find that the dog is still very reluctant, use a stronger incentive or reward such as a piece of chicken, or something you know your dog finds irresistible.
- Once the dog goes to you, encourage them to play near the stairs, and continue to reward them for good behavior. Initially, keep the sessions short. The idea is that the dog begins to associate the stairs with positive experiences like games and rewards. You can play with a ball or other toy, or simply pet and play with them. Games are often effective at helping a dog forget its fear and in building trust with you.
- Each day bring the play sessions closer to the stairs, so that the dog becomes comfortable with being next to the object of its fear. Never force them, however, and always make sure the dog approaches of own will.
- Once the dog is willing to go right up to the head or foot of the stairs, you can proceed to the next stage. This is to get the dog to get onto the first step. Encourage them by putting down a trail of treats leading form from the floor onto the first step. If the dog progresses, reassure and praise them for doing a good job.
- Continue this exercise for a few days, encouraging the dog to climb or descend the first step. Allow them to stop there if they seem reluctant to continue, and use vocal praise to help the dog gain self-confidence.
- Once your dog begins to climb the first step without fear and or needing a reward, help them continue this progress by putting a treat on the second step. We can also use your voice to urge them on, or keep the treats in your hand to give the dog each time they advance a step.
- Continue to work progressively increasing the number of steps. The idea is to finally get your dog to climb up or down all the steps in one go. However, never force your dog to climb more steps than it wants to. Remember that progress can be slow, and that it will take several days for your dog to willingly walk the whole flight of stairs.
- If at any time you observe signs of fear or stress in the dog, or sense that you're going too fast, let them return to the previous step. Allow them to rest there and pet or reassure them so that they know they are safe.
- Once the dog can climb all the steps without fear but with you by their side, it's time to move to the final stage of training: getting the dog to walk the stairs by itself. Wait at the top or bottom of the stairs with a tasty treat or its favorite toy in your hand and call to the dog. If you see they climb the stairs towards you, egg them on with praise and reassurance.
- Once the dog reaches you, give them the toy or treat as a reward, pet them and congratulate them on doing a great job. Don't forget to repeat the exercise for a few days so that the dog doesn't lose the confidence it has gained.
Once your dog is used to the stairs at home, it will be much easier for them to overcome their fear of stairs in other environments. All the same, in case the dog is suddenly confronted with a tricky flight of stairs or its fear returns, we advise you to always carry s few treats when you take your dog out.
If you want to read similar articles to My Dog is Afraid of Stairs, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.
- Edwards, P. T., et al. (2019). Investigating risk factors that predict a dog’s fear during veterinary consultations. PLoS One, 14(7).
- ASPCA. (2016). For fearful dogs, a fresh coat of paint makes all the difference. Retrieved on 26 November, 2019.