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There are lots of exciting things to think about when you get a new puppy... so much in fact that it's easy to forget that one day they will be a full-sized adult dog. And when that puppy is a German shepherd or an even bigger breed, then it pays to think about the practicalities of getting around with them once fully grown.
For example, if you live in a ground floor dwelling, then the puppy may be an adult before he experiences a long flight of stairs. When the dog then puts the brakes on and refuses to put one paw in front of the other, then you're stuck. It's not physically possible to carry a dog of that size up steps (and if you did manage it then you'd hurt yourself.) So it's vitally important to teach steps as a skill when the puppy is still young enough to take them in his stride (pardon the pun.)
Take advantage of the puppy's socialization period where he learns rapidly, and introduce stairs before he reaches 18 weeks of age (ideally, much earlier than this, at around 12 weeks.) That way the puppy will learn that stairs are a regular part of life and grow up confident in going up and down.
We've been doing it ever since we were children, and so it's easy to take the ability to walk upstairs for granted. However, put yourself in a pup's paws and instead of a staircase you see a set of vertical cliff-faces, each one of which is impossible, let alone a whole flight of them.
It might be when he's fully grown he'll be too big to pick up, so climbing stairs in a calm, controlled manner is a vital skill for a pup to learn. This is best done by encouraging him, so that he links stairs to good things, rather than seeing them as something to be fearful of. It's also salient to remember that the commonest causes of dogs being fearful on stairs is that they had a bad experience in the past or they plain haven't been exposed to stairs during their socialization period.
Avoid this situation and by incorporating training on steps and stairs from a young age.
Training a puppy to go up stairs takes time and isn't something that can be rushed. With this in mind, try to incorporate the training into part of everyday life, with strategies such as placing his food bowl on a low step.
You don't need special equipment when building a pup's confidence and coordination to use steps. However, a few things such as tasty treats are going to help make the task fun.
- Small bite-sized treats are best so the pup doesn't spend ages eating each one
- A no-spill dog bowl from which to feed the pup on the stairs
- Plenty of enthusiasm with which to reward the pup
- A toy so that you can have a game to reward pup when he reaches a target
- A long towel or a scarf, to use as a supportive sling if the puppy is unsure of his footing.
The Stairs are Fun Method
Understand the idea
Young puppies have a mind which is impressionable and they learn quickly. This can be both a good and a bad thing. It means when a puppy learns to like something at a young age they will accept it as normal, which is obviously great news when it comes to stairs. However, the downside is that if the puppy has a bad experience with stairs then he'll become frightened of them. This method teaches you how to build positive links to steps in your young pup's mind.
And adult dogs too!
If you have an adult dog that is anxious around stairs, use the same principles in order to re-educate the dog. However, take things very slowly and be sure to build the dog's confidence at each stage, before moving on to the next part.
Dinnertime and treats
Place a treat on the bottom step of a staircase. Let the pup discover it (or call him over if he's slow to catch on) and show him the treat. When he sniffs and eats it, then praise him big time and tell him how clever he is. Likewise, offer him meals from the bottom step, so that the staircase is something he associates with good things.
Step two... literally
Once the pup is readily running to the step to look for a treat or his meal, you can add another treat on the second step (or put a treat on the first step and his dinner on the second.) Again, praise him when he makes the 'jump' to the second step.
And so on....
Eventually, you'll create a trail of treats going up the stairs (like breadcrumbs to a gingerbread house!). Praise and encourage the pup as he goes. If he gets to the top of the staircase then give him his dinner or reward him with a game.
The Baby Steps Method
A Great Dane puppy is going to have different problems on a staircase than a teacup Yorkie. Whereas the former is going to find it awkward to fit himself onto just one step, a teacup Yorkie is faced with a sheer surface much like a mountain to him. Take a look at the size of your pup and make adjustments to the stairs used according.
Chose the steps carefully
You don't necessarily have to start training on a specific set of stairs. If you have a choice, then opt for a staircase that's best suited to your puppy's physical size. For example, you may wish to create a set of stairs with books (for a tiny pup) or use low flat steps for a Great Dane. Once the pup has mastered the general idea, then you can introduce different staircases for the puppy to get used to the variety.
A pile of books
For toy dogs, a full-size step is going to be too big to learn on. Make it easier for him to access that step by laying some books on the floor to create low steps for him to learn on.
Use a sling for safety
For a large gangly dog, such as a Labrador or even a Great Dane, they may feel unsafe because they are too big for a narrow step. Try to start him out on a wider step, but if this isn't possible, then use a sling to give him a sense of security. This means passing a scarf or towel under his belly, in such as way that you can take his weight. This helps to steady him and gives him more confidence.
Try a blanket
If your dog is struggling to get to grips with stairs, try placing a thick blanket over them. This works especially well for low wide steps, as it makes them appear more of a slope. Encourage the pup up this slope several times and move the blanket down slightly so the top step is exposed. Most pups will then happily take this single step and the battle is nearly won.
The Do's and Don'ts Method
Don't: Force the puppy
While it may be tempting to force the puppy to face his fears, pushing him upstairs will only make him more anxious about using them. Never force him up.
Do: Use lots of rewards and treats
Build those positive links to stairs by being lavish with praise and treats. This helps him understand that steps are a good thing and build his confidence using them.
Do: Choose your time to train
Avoid times when the puppy is already tired. Climbing steps is physically demanding for a puppy, and is best done when he is fresh in both mind and body.
Don't: Punish the puppy
Never smack or chastise the puppy for hesitating. Again, this runs a significant risk of making the puppy fearful. At best, he may climb the steps out of fear for the consequences if he doesn't. But far from overcoming any anxiety, this compounds it and makes it worse.
Do: Check with a vet
If the puppy is really struggling and seems unusually slow to catch on to how to climb stairs, get him checked by a vet. It may be a physical problem is holding him back, and if so this needs to be identified and treated.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 03/12/2018, edited: 01/08/2021