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There's something that tugs on the heartstrings about seeing a puppy whimpering at the top of a flight of steps. The pup may hug the wall or approach the edge of the stair and then back off again. However, there is a serious side to this because to a puppy, a flight of stairs must look like he's expected to jump off a cliff.
Just think about the relative size of the puppy and the step. For an averagely sized pup, a single stair is going to stand higher than his shoulders. How would you feel about being asked to jump (repeatedly) off an object that is taller than you? Intimidating, isn't it!
Teaching a puppy to use stairs is a vital skill, especially if the adult dog is going to be too heavy to comfortably carry. Be aware that a puppy's mind is open to learning new skills and so take firm advantage of this by educating him from a young age about the safe way to tackle stairs.
Each pup is different and has a different confidence level. For some, coming downstairs will seem a hugely frightening thing and they will hesitate, refusing to move. For other pups, they don't know how to coordinate their legs to tackle stairs and will attempt to jump or 'fly' down them all at once. Neither of these options is desirable, so your task as an owner is to teach the pup a safe and appropriate way to come down.
Teaching a dog to use the stairs should be done slowly, and it's best to teach going 'up' independently of going 'down' so as not to overwhelm the pup. Where necessary, teach the pup to go up and then be prepared to carry him back down rather than face him with another intimidating task, which may be a step too far.
Always be mindful of the pup's safety, so that he doesn't tumble down a flight of steps, and as with any dog training make sure the pup has fun and gets a sense of achievement out of what he's done.
Chose a training time when the pup isn't bouncing around with unspent energy, but neither is he tired and wanting to sleep. It's best to work in short 5 to 10-minute sessions, but to repeat this two or three times during the day.
You need little by the way of special equipment, but if your dog is a toy breed then you may wish to mock up some steps using books, in order not to overwhelm a tiny pup with a full-scale staircase. Conversely, if you have a large or giant breed dog, a narrow step can be difficult for a large dog to physically fit on and makes him more likely to tumble off or attempt to jump down the whole flight. This being the case you may wish to start with wide shallow steps (such as found in garden terracing) in order to build his confidence.
In addition, you will need:
- Tasty bite-sized treats that are scrumptious but don't take long to eat
- A pouch or bag to keep the treats handy at all times
- Books from which to mock up a staircase for a toy breed pup
- A scarf or towel to use as a sling to support the dog
- Collar and leash
The Encourage and Reward Method
Getting the idea
Stairs are scary for dogs. If you aren't convinced, get down on floor level and look at the drop from the top of a staircase. While you could force a dog down the stairs, this could well make the dog fearful, especially if he then slips and scares himself. Instead, it's best to start small, working on a single step, and use encouragement and reward when he takes a bold step.
Start on one step
Pop the puppy on the first step on a staircase. Make sure the surface is non-slip so that he has a grip both on the step and on the landing zone. A carpeted stair is ideal for this, rather than a polished laminate floor.
Lure the puppy
Hold a treat near the pup's nose so that he can smell it. Then slowly move the treat just out of reach so that the puppy stretches to get it. Aim to keep moving it just out of reach so that the pup jumps down off the step to get the reward. Once the pup's attention is firmly on the treat, you could drop the treat. Sometimes this sudden movement is enough to trigger the pup to jump if he was previously hesitating.
Praise and reward
Verbally encourage the pup by telling him how clever he is and bolstering is confidence. When he does make it down the step, praise, pet, and reward him. Repeat this lots of times.
Add in another step
When the pup has the hang of one step, then place him on the second step from the bottom and repeat the procedure. As the pup becomes more accomplished you can place a treat on each step, so that he jumps down to get each one.
Lay a trail of treats
And finally, start with the pup at the top of the staircase and lay a trail of treats, one on each step. The treats help motivate the dog and act as a reward, thus making him think stairs aren't so bad after all.
The Do's and Don'ts Method
Don't: Force the dog downstairs
if the pup hesitates and it seems he's never going to get the hang of things, don't become impatient and force him down. Most likely the feeling of being out of control will increase his anxiety and make him more reluctant to use stairs, rather than giving you a head start.
Do: Carry the puppy down
Take things slowly. If training isn't going too well then it's best to carry puppy downstairs and try again another day. If you are worried about rewarding his refusal by picking him up, then have him do a simple action such as 'sit' or 'look' before picking him up. That way you reward this action rather than the refusal.
Do: Be mindful of the dog's size
A toy puppy on a full-scale staircase is going to feel hugely intimidated, while a giant breed may struggle to physically fit on the stair. When starting out, adapt the size of the step to suit the puppy's stature. Once the dog has learned how to coordinate his legs you can then introduce more regular types of stairs.
Don't: Punish the pup
If the pup hesitates, never scold or punish him. This is likely to make him fearful of you and obey only because he's more scared of you than the stairs... which is not something a caring pet owner wants.
Do: Get a vet checkup
If the puppy seems unusually clumsy or poorly coordinated then get him checked by a vet. Problems such as poor eyesight or physical issues could make stairs even more of a challenge than they are for a regular pup.
The Lead by Example Method
What's the idea?
If a puppy has slipped or had a bad experience on stairs then he may be more hesitant to give it a second go. It can bolster his confidence if you physically support him on the stairs so that should he slip, he won't fall. As his coordination improves so will his confidence, so that ultimately he becomes less dependent on the physical support.
Control the front end
A good way to support the dog is to have him on a collar (or harness) and leash, to give you control of his front end. A harness helps spread the force over his chest, rather than pulling on his neck, so you may prefer this as more comfortable for the pup.
Support the back end
Now create a sling that is passed under his belly, with you holding either end. The idea is not to lift him off the ground by the sling, but merely to support his weight so that if he loses his footing the pup won't fall. If you have a long leash, you could pass this under his waist to make a long loop and hold either end. Alternatively, use a scarf or a large towel to form the sling.
Encourage the puppy down a step
Now stand beside the pup on a step and encourage him down. It may help to step down ahead of him in order to show him what you want. Be liberal with the praise when he acts boldly, and reward him with a treat when he takes the plunge.
Take things in stages
Add in more stairs as the pup's coordination improves. If at any stage the pup becomes fearful or overwhelmed, then stop. Have him do a command he knows such as 'sit' or 'look', reward him, and then carry the pup the rest of the way.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 03/13/2018, edited: 01/08/2021