Dogs have trouble with stairs because stairs are something they instinctively find intimidating.
When those instincts kick in, there is often no amount of coaxing that will convince dogs that the stairs are something they should come to trust
So avoid pushing your dog or pulling your dog on the leash as this will only cause your dog to want to put on his breaks even more.
As the saying goes "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar" so give your dog some time and use baby steps making sure to create lots of positive associations with every single step.
Similar to a Cliff
One reason why dogs have trouble with stairs is that the stairs somewhat reminds them of a cliff. And yes, dogs fall off cliffs in case you are wondering.
In a natural setting, dogs (and other animals) have an instinct to put on their breaks when they get too close to the edge of a cliff.
After all, nobody wants to plummet down several feet into great depths!
Interestingly, this was researched some time back. The visual cliff reflex was first studied by psychologists Eleanor J. Gibson and Richard D. Walk at Cornell University.
The researchers created a special visual cliff apparatus which allowed them to study how humans and animals react to a simulated cliff so to investigate their depth perception.
The first visual cliff-avoidance reactions were seen in young puppies after 28 days of age. This reflex is seen prior to the puppies experiencing any actual falls, explains Steven Lindsay in Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training.
Now you know why many puppies are super hesitant about walking up and down stairs for the first time. This is because puppies perceive a ramp of stairs as a dangerous cliff, rather than several ledges leading through the “abyss.“
When you try to convince your dog to therefore go down a flight of stairs, these ancient instincts may kick in and nobody will convince him that something he instinctively fears is innocuous.
At least, not until the dog is given time to learn to fear the stairs less at his own pace and comfort level!
Did you know? See-through steps as seen in porches and decks can be particularly intimidating to dogs considering that they may be appear visually confusing. Also, some dogs are fearful of walking on certain surfaces.
Lack of Exposure
In a perfect world, reputable breeders will expose their puppies to a whole lot of stimuli and situations before they are sent to their new homes.
This practice is very wise, considering that when puppies are very young, they go through puppy critical periods during which their brains are very plastic and particularly tractable to novelties.
Along with exposing puppies to children, other pets, the sound of vacuums and dish washers, conscientious breeders will also gradually expose their puppies to steps, so that, if they happen to encounter them in their new homes, the puppies will be already acquainted to them and think about them as no big deal.
Puppies who have missed out these important life lessons, are more likely to be tentative in approaching novelties, hence the importance of sourcing puppies from reputable breeders versus questionable sources such as pet stores or irresponsible breeders who breed dogs just for profit in their backyards.
A Negative Experience
There are then cases of dogs who had no issue with stairs until they took a scary tumble that left quite an impact.
These dogs might not have been necessarily hurt, but at an emotional level, the event may have left "a bitter aftertaste" so to say.
No amount of coaxing these dogs to ascend or descend may convince them to trust stairs once again.
However, not all dogs fearful of stairs have necessarily endured a negative event.
A Matter of Aches and Pains
As dogs age, they tend to develop painful orthopedic or spinal issues. A dog who senses pain upon ascending or descending stairs may start associating the stairs with the pain.
This is often a cause for older dogs who start avoiding the stairs out of the blue.
Possible health problems may include back injuries such as intervertebral disc disease (a pinched nerve in a dog's neck or back) and joint problems such as patellar luxation, a ruptured cranial cruciate ligament, or arthritis affecting the hips ad sometimes even abdominal pain.
Dogs suffering from severe anal gland issues might also avoid steps as the movement necessary to ascend or descend stairs pulls on the skin in the rectal area causing pain.
At times, older dogs may develop cognitive disorders that are similar to the Alzheimer's disease seen in humans. Among the signs of senility, getting lost in the home, stuck in corners or not wanting to go up or down stairs may be just some signs of the loss of cognitive function these dogs suffer from.
Last but not least, dogs with vision problems may also become reluctant to navigate stairs for obvious reasons.
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs have their own little reasons for not wanting to use stairs. It is up to us dog owners deciphering what may be up with them. Following are some tips for owners of dogs who have trouble with stairs.
Schedule a Vet Visit
Schedule a visit to the vet. If your dog's fear of navigating the stairs has popped up out of the blue, it's best to exclude medical reasons.
Dogs can be stoic beings and their signs of pain may be very subtle.
A reluctance to climb or go down stairs, may therefore be due to pain or something else going on such as vision problems.
Create a Tempting Trail
Place some low value treats on the first steps, then as the steps go higher, increase the value of the treats, and then, reserve the top for a super valuable goody such as long-lasting safe dog chew or your dog's food bowl filled with a variety of goodies.
Sooner than later, your dog's nose will lead him to the jackpot.
A Step-By- Step Approach
For difficult cases, your dog may not be interested in the food enough to want to put any effort to climbing up the steps. These cases need baby steps.
Encourage your dog to just take one teeny step and praise and reward that lavishly calling it a day.
Next day, try asking for a little more. Fearful dogs are more adept to focusing on a single step rather than a whole staircase.
Once your dog is comfortable going up, consider practicing as well getting your dog to come down, considering that, from a dog's perspective this may be quite a different experience.
Try Back Chaining
Back chaining is a training method where dogs are trained to perform behaviors in reverse order.
Basically, carry your dog up to the top and place him on the last step. He may figure out what to do. Make sure to praise lavishly if he goes up that step.
Then, carry him to the top and place him on the step prior to the last. Praise lavishly for going up those two steps.
Then, carry your dog and place him in the middle of the stairs, and then finally aim to place him on the first step.
The goal is to work your way up gradually so that at some point your dog will be confident enough to climb the steps on his own.
Use a Confident Dog
Enlist the help of a confident dog who doesn't hesitate to go up and down stairs. Sometimes, that's just the boost fearful dogs need.
"If he can do it with such ease, I can do it too!"