How to Train Your Small Dog to Go Upstairs

Medium
1-4 Weeks
General

Introduction

Stairs and a small dog aren't something you'd given much thought to until recently. However, you were forced to face up to the challenge a staircase poses, when you recently homed a rescue dog. Clearly, the little chap had never experienced stairs before (he was found in a dreadful state, roaming the streets) and the stairs in your house are blatantly a step to far for him. 

For now you've been carrying him up and down, but you're beginning to get suspicious that he's enjoying this too much and given up all attempts to conquer the stairs for himself. Since it's not always convenient to carry him and armfuls of laundry, it's time to teach him to climb up on his own. 

Defining Tasks

If you've ever marveled at how climbers scale a sheer cliff face, then spare a thought for the small dog. When the object you are trying to scale is as tall as your head and perfectly vertical, then it can be a deceptively tricky obstacle. 

Despite our familiarity with stairs (literally, taking them in our stride) they pose a challenge of Olympic proportions to a small dog. With this in mind, it's essential to foster a 'can-do' attitude in the dog's mind, by using praise and encouragement when he makes moves in the right direction. For a dog that's fearful of stairs, this can mean something as basic as praising him for approaching the stairs. 

Take things slowly and ensure the dog has mastered each part of the process before moving onwards (and upwards!) 

Getting Started

As a puppy, get your little one used to the idea of jumping up from one object to another. You can simulate a miniature staircase using a pile of books. Just be sure the books are heavy enough not to move and cover them with a non-slip surface, such as a towel. Use plenty of praise to encourage the pup and make the activity a game. 

To teach a dog to climb stairs you will need: 

  • Treats
  • A treat bag or pouch so the rewards are easily to hand
  • A targeting stick
  • Books
  • A food bowl containing a meal or else some favorite toys
  • Time and patience

The Stair Confidence Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
To a small dog, a stair can be the same height as his head and therefore very intimidating. It's easy for him to become scared and wary of stairs, but with a little care you can build his confidence. You are working towards introducing the steps gradually, one at a time, and only moving on once he has mastered that stair.
Step
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Associate the step with good things
Introduce the stair in such a way that the dog links it to good things. You could place his food bowl there, and encourage him to climb up to eat. Praise him when he jumps up. Likewise, you could place a favorite toy on the step and lure him up to it with a treat.
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Getting down
Of course, going up is one thing but getting down safely is another. You may find it helps to have the dog on a harness (not a collar, as you want the support given by a harness) and steady him as he jumps down. When the dog has the security of knowing you are there if he slips, most will master the down direction pretty quickly, especially when taught a step at a time.
Step
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The next step
Once the dog is happily popping up and off one step, it's time to encourage him onto higher things. Again, you can try luring him onto the second step with a treat, toy, or his food. Just work on those two steps, until the dog is climbing up and down like a little hero. He needs to be fully confident before tackling a flight of stairs.
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Taking the lead
When it comes to the whole staircase, it can be helpful to walk alongside the dog and encourage him on. It's super helpful if he already knows the 'heel' command. As you take the steps with the dog by your side, ask him to walk to heel. This helps him focus on you rather than the obstacle he has to climb. Likewise, going down the stairs, have him on a harness and a taut leash, so that he feels supported and safe if he slips. Give lots of encouragement and praise when he masters each stair.
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The Targeting Method

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Step
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Understand the idea
Targeting is a technique whereby you teach the dog to follow a 'target' such as a small ball on the end of a stick. You can then move the target and the dog will follow. In this scenario you move the target up and down the stairs.
Step
2
Teach the dog to target
You will need an object for the dog to target. As the dog is small, it's more comfortable for you to use a stick with a targetable object (such as a small ball) attached to the end, which helps minimize the amount of bending you have to do.
Step
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Lure to the target
Rub the end of the target stick with something the dog really likes to eat. The idea is the smell attracts the dog to the target. Let him sniff and lick at the object and praise him, saying "Good boy" in an excited voice.
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A moving target
Now practice with a moving target. Travel the target a short distance, do this slowly so the dog can easily follow. When his nose touches the target, give him enthusiastic praise or even a small treat. Practice walking around the room with the dog following the target. Then set him small challenges such following the target to guide him up onto a low piece of furniture. Be lavish with the praise (and don't forget the tasty treats.)
Step
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Target the stairs
Now your little dog is an old paw at following the target, introduce him to the stairs. Follow the same principles as before; take it one step at a time, and be super-pleased with how clever he is when he manages a stair. For the first few sessions just target a single stair, so that he's confident popping up and down, before you introduce a second step, and so on.
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The Do's and Don'ts Method

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Do: Make it easy
For the tiny teacup dog even a single step can seem a huge obstacle. Be prepared to practice on a low step, perhaps improvising with his hopping onto a thick book so that he starts to get the hang of things.
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Don't: Force the dog to do stairs
If the dog is anxious, hesitant, or simply refuses to co-operate, then don't force him to overcome his fears. This will only make him more fearful, which won't cure the problem and could end with him biting out of perceived self-defense.
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Do: Use basic obedience training
When the dog is trained to walk to heel, you can use this to create forward momentum to help him up the stairs. A combined tactic of using obedience training and praise can help some dogs overcome a reluctance to tackle a staircase.
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Don't: Punish the dog
Never punish a dog for being hesitant about using stairs. Remember, he is not being willfully disobedient but rather pausing because he is frightened or confused by the task. Instead, take your time to encourage the dog.
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Do: Consider a sling or physical support for the dog
It might be the dog slipped at some point and remembers taking a heavy fall on the stairs. It may help the dog to gain confidence if you place a sling under their belly (a towel works well, passed under his tummy with you holding either end) which provides security if he slips again. Once he realizes that he can't fall and is safe, he will be more prepared to attempt the stairs.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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