Help! My Dog Refuses to Climb Our Open Staircase
When your dog won’t climb stairs, take training one step at a time.
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We have a seven-year-old, 45-pound Lab/Husky mix and live in a condo with a spiral staircase. Our dog does not like the spiral staircase and will not use it. We tried training her ourselves, and we even hired a trainer, but no dice. Because she likes being close to us, we eventually started carrying her up and down the stairs every day, but recently, she’s become increasingly unhappy about being physically transported. Is there another way to approach this?
The openness of a spiral staircase frightens many dogs (and people, too). But often, you’re stuck with them. Luckily, most dogs respond well if they are taught how to negotiate stairs in an (appropriately named) step-by-step process. Here are ways to work toward that goal.
First, make the stairs less frightening.
The terrifying view from an open staircase can be improved by covering the gaps between the railings and the risers with poster board or cardboard. When dogs can’t see the open space or the floor below, it’s easier for them to be more confident and to overcome their fear. Adding non-slip treads is also helpful; spiral staircase steps vary in width, so treads make slipping less likely and the stairs less scary.
Associate being picked up with feeling happy.
You can train your dog to handle spiral stairs, but first, she’ll need to be comfortable with being picked up. Begin by taking a step toward her and tossing treats. When she seems happy about your one-step approach, take two steps and toss treats. Treating all the while, progress gradually until you’re able to walk right up to her, touch her and then pick her up. Don’t bring your pup upstairs during this training interval; a negative experience will undo all your hard work. Some dogs respond well to having a cue that alerts them to being lifted up, making it less of a surprise. A phrase such as “Up we go!” or “Time for bed!” lets them know what’s happening.
Be sure you’re lifting your dog safely.
There are several ways to safely lift a medium-sized dog, and it’s worth figuring out which way your dog is most comfortable with. Never lift a dog by their legs, collar, tail, or by reaching under their armpit area (like you’d pick up a child). Support their entire body, with one arm under their chest and the other under their back end. Some dogs feel more secure being carried while wrapped in a towel or blanket, but others squirm and are hard to hold onto when wrapped. If you don’t already know, see how your dog reacts to that approach.
Investigate the possibility of pain.
It’s possible that your dog’s recent objections to being carried relate to a feeling of pain or discomfort. At seven, she’s no longer young, which makes this more likely. Check with your veterinarian to see if the pain may be making her object to being carried.
Next, give training another try.
Even though your earlier training attempts were unsuccessful, you should revisit training. Set her up for little successes as you work toward the goal of a dog who confidently navigates stairs. If your dog is not already good at going up and down regular (non-spiral or open) stairs, start by helping her become comfortable with them. Only then should you work on training her to deal with spiral stairs. Here are some tips on training your dog to use stairs.
Start with just a single step.
Once your dog is comfortable with regular stairs and with being picked up, carry her up the spiral stairs but set her down, so there’s just one more step to climb. (Keep her on the outside of the step, which gives her more paw room.) Lure her up the last step so that she succeeds in getting herself to the top “by herself,” even if it is just from the second-to-last step.
Build on their success with each step.
When she can do this confidently, set her down two steps short of the top. Keep working on adding steps as she becomes adept at the previous level of difficulty.
Going downstairs can be scary too.
Once she can go up the stairs, repeat the process going down. Start by setting her down with only one more step to negotiate. You can also begin this part of the process while you are downstairs by lifting her and putting her on the bottom step, so she’s heading down toward you. Don’t attempt to teach her to go down from the very top (where the view seems a bit scary) until she has mastered starting at the bottom.
There are multiple ways to help your dog so that the spiral staircase is less scary, associating pick-ups with treats and training her to go up and down the stairs herself. As is so often the case, the key concept to dog training is patience. Work slowly within the dog’s physical and emotional comfort zone to avoid falls. Be patient, only progressing to the next task when the dog is clearly comfortable with the current one.
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Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.