Dogs and Stairs

Learn how to help a scaredy-dog get over fear of going up and down stairs. Encouragement and starting small are the keys.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #178


Every morning my dog, Juniper, and I trot downstairs — well, he trots, I sort of flail, because mornings are not my thing, so I make sure to either send him ahead of me or ask him to wait at the top till I’m safely at the bottom. Juni’s attitude toward stairs is as casual as his attitude to most other things in life. But just the other day I had clients whose newly adopted young dogs would not willingly descend a steep flight. It’s far from the first time I’ve encountered this problem, and it won’t be the last. This week, how to help your puppy or dog overcome a fear of stairs.

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Fear of Stairs

Many a puppy finds stairs daunting, especially small-breed puppies and especially steep stairs. This should come as no surprise if you compare the height of the puppy with the height of the riser; now imagine being that small and looking down a flight of a dozen stairs. It must be like looking over the edge of a cliff. You may have noticed how human toddlers often hold onto the banister posts as they learn to navigate staircases. Minus those convenient opposable thumbs, puppies don’t have this option.

Giving dogs control over an anxiety-producing situation makes it easier to reduce their fear.

Don’t Force Your Puppy Down the Stairs

One big don’t if your puppy or dog is afraid to descend stairs: Don’t push or pull him. He’ll only resist and get more scared, and if he falls off that first step he may go ass-over-teakettle all the way down. This won’t do much for your goal of teaching him to descend stairs happily.

Start at the Bottom

Instead, start with Puppalini at the bottom of the stairs. If he’s afraid of all stairs, start with the lowest available riser. Make sure the surface offers traction; if the stairs aren’t carpeted, it may be wise to set down some rubber matting.

Now, encourage Puppalini to climb onto the first step, no higher, and then let him just hang out. It’s okay if you have to lift him onto that first step, better if he chooses to get up there himself. We trainers are finding more and more that giving the dog control over an anxiety-producing situation makes it much easier to reduce the fear.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).