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Many older dogs suffer from painful arthritis, failing joints or hip problems, turning stairs they once bounded up and down into a health hazard. Fortunately, training a senior dog to use a ramp is very easy in most cases.
The rare exceptions are those situations where a dog may have developed a phobia of ramps. Our training methods, detailed below, include a training option specifically designed for dogs that may have ramp phobia.
In the vast majority of cases, teaching your dog to use a ramp will only take a few 10-15 minute training sessions. In addition, it may take a week or so of monitoring them to make sure to teach them that any alternative routes are no longer acceptable.
In the case of a dog that is very resistant to using a ramp, you should plan on spending more time on this behavior – up to a few weeks of regular training sessions.
This is not a behavior you need to put on any specific command. By using the blocking and proofing techniques provided in our training methods below, your dog will learn that the only appropriate way to cross the barrier is to use the ramp.
You will need:
- Ramp – Make sure the ramp is mounted properly for stability and safety.
- Boxes, baby gate or other material to block alternative routes
- Treats cut into pea-sized pieces
- Collar or harness attached to a leash
Some dogs can find ramps confusing or frightening at first. For these dogs, it may take a little longer, but be sure to be patient with them. If you start to get frustrated, just give up on the training session and try again later. Look for small progress and give lots of encouragement.
The last thing you want to do is confirm your canine’s ramp phobia by allowing your frustration to confirm their suspicion that ramps are awful!
The One Person Method
Practice leash walking
If you are planning to be alone when training your dog to use a ramp, this is a great method for training. Start with your dog on the leash on the same side they will be on to use the ramp with assistance. Walk them around in a comfortable setting near the bottom of the ramp. Praise and reward with treats for staying at your side while on the move.
Walk over to the bottom of the ramp and, without pausing, start walking next to the ramp. If your dog starts walking up the ramp without hesitation, praise and reward several times as they continue walking up the ramp. Some dogs will simply prefer the ramp and take to it automatically. In such cases, a few daily sessions with 5-10 repetitions may be all you need to train this behavior.
Some dogs may hesitate at the ramp. If that is the case, do not pull your dog up the ramp with force on the leash. Take a treat and position it just out of reach along the ramp, which will encourage your dog to take a step on the ramp. Praise and allow them to have the treat if they take a single step on the ramp.
Raise the bar
Repeat the last step until you sense that your dog has gained some confidence with the first step. Start holding the treat further up the ramp and luring them to take a second step before rewarding. Continue to increase the number of steps before giving a reward, until you have successfully raised the bar to the entire ramp before treating. Be patient and move at a pace that is comfortable for your dog.
Going up ramps is easier for most dogs than going down. That is why we suggest you start training your dog to go up the ramp until they are confidently going up every time. Repeat the steps above, adding a trip down the ramp. Obviously, in cases where there is ONLY a ramp option, such as on and off a bed, you will have to work on both at the same time.
After your dog is confidently using the ramp with your guidance, you will need to get them to use it on their own. Start by blocking off alternative routes, then go to the opposite side of the ramp and call your dog to you. Praise and reward for successful attempts. Add to your distance away from either side of the ramp until you are calling your dog from out of site of the ramp to really give them confidence. Keep the blockade in place when you are not able to supervise your dog.
Proof the behavior
After your dog has practiced using the ramp on their own for several days, you will want to “proof” the behavior so that they use the ramp instead of other less desirable options, without the blockade in place. This will involve using some corrections for making the wrong choice. You will need to be vigilant and consistent at first, making sure to continue to praise and reward for proper use of the ramp. Suggested corrections include a squirt with a water bottle, a harsh “No!”, or a 4 minute time out after using the stairs instead of the ramp.
The Two Person Method
Block the alternatives
The easiest way to train your older dog to use a ramp is to have two people working together. This will save you the effort of having to guide your dog over the ramp, and climbing the stairs each and every time. Start by blocking any alternative routes such as stairs with large empty boxes or other barriers. Make sure each trainer is on opposite sides of the ramp, with a bag of treats your dog really enjoys.
Call over the ramp
The person on the other side should excitedly call the dog to them. Make sure to be exciting and inviting. Try using a favorite toy or treat to entice them to cross the ramp. For many dogs, this will be enough to get the hang of the ramp. Make sure to continue to give praise and reward for at least 10 repetitions each training session.
Assist if necessary
If your dog is not immediately willing to use the ramp when called across, have one person guide them gently by walking next to them with the dog on the leash. As soon as you can, return to calling them over the ramp to build solo confidence.
You want your dog to know they can use the ramp even when you are not there to guide them over it. Do this by gradually increasing the distance the two trainers are from the end points of the ramp, ideally until you are both out of sight but still within hearing distance to call the dog over the ramp.
Proofing the behavior
If you want your dog to use the ramp reliably instead of an alternative route, then you will need to add some correction for using the other route. Only add correction once your dog is already reliably and confidently using the ramp with the alternative route blocked off. Then, remove the barrier and start correcting them for using the wrong path. Try a spray with a water gun, a stern “No!” or a quick 5 minute “time out” in the kennel to let them know it is no longer okay to use the stairs.
The Ramp Phobia Method
Recognize the phobia
In some cases, dogs develop a fear of new things. This can be especially true for older dogs that are used to doing things a certain way, and are suddenly being asked to do something new. If your dog is resistant to even trying the ramp, tries to pull away on the leash as you approach it, or shows other anxiety around the ramp... chances are they have a phobia. In such cases, the absolute key is to be patient as you progress through the following steps. Take whatever progress you can in each training session. Keep sessions short, fun and rewarding for your dog. Look for every opportunity to praise and reward. Never correct your dog during training sessions.
Reward near the ramp
The first step for dogs with ramp phobia is to just reward them for being near the ramp. Start working on the bottom side of the ramp since going up a ramp is always easier than going down. Put them on a leash, walk them around the room, and praise and reward each time they are close to the ramp. Repeat 10-15 times.
Treats on the ramp
Then, start placing treats your dog loves on the ramp. At first, at the very bottom, gradually increasing the distance up the ramp to where your dog has to take a single step on the ramp to get the treat. Repeat this as many times as you need to until you see your dog’s hesitation around the ramp decrease significantly.
Block alternative routes
Now it is time to block off any alternative routes, and start to encourage a little more effort on the ramp. Keeping your tone positive, walk a little further along the ramp with your dog on a leash next to you. With a treat in one hand, try to get your dog to walk the entire length up the ramp. If they hesitate, apply a little tension to the leash and use inviting tones. Do not yank hard on the leash to muscle your dog over the ramp. This is likely to deepen their phobia by making the ramp seem even more traumatic. Instead, if they are too resistant, return to a previous step and keep your cool.
It is never a great idea to add any corrections to a situation where your dog is already showing some fear. Instead, block off all alternative routes once your dog is using the ramp without needing to be guided over it. When they have no other options, most dogs will start to regularly use the ramp at this stage. Keep alternative routes blocked until your dog has had time to gain confidence on the ramp.
Proofing the behavior
Only after your dog has been using the ramp up and down on their own for a few weeks is it time to remove the blockade and give them a choice. Be sure you are there for the first several attempts so that you can let them know right off the bat that using the old route is no longer allowed. Continue to praise for great use of the ramp, and keep alternative paths blocked off when you are not there to supervise them. Eventually, with time and practice, your dog will choose the ramp consistently.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 01/04/2018, edited: 01/08/2021