Dog Afraid of Stairs

A Border Collie rescue is afraid of a staircase.

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Q. I just saved a 6-month-old Border Collie from being euthanized. He’s very timid, but friendly. We are in the process of housetraining him, which I am sure will be fine. I’m a little concerned, though, that he will not climb the steps (12 of them) from our basement to the first floor. He seems scared of them. I have four steps outside from the ground to the deck, which I can get him to climb with a lot of praise, but he’s deathly afraid of the inside steps and will not even attempt them. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

A. Your Border Collie may have lived outdoors and never even ventured inside a house before you adopted him, so stairs are a new phenomenon for him. A set of stairs looks like a steep platform from the dog’s eye view. Get down to your pup’s eye level and observe this for yourself.

Dogs who haven’t learned to go up and down steps often take a while to get used to them. If your dog is now navigating those four outdoor steps, that’s good progress for him and after he becomes more comfortable with those stairs (as in, trying them himself without needing you to cheerlead) he may then be more willing to attempt the indoor staircase.

What type of surface do your indoor steps have? If they’re smooth wood or thickly carpeted, they’ll be slippery for a dog. If that’s the case, it may be another reason your dog is afraid to try them. See if you can find a way to improve the traction, so he doesn’t slip and scare himself worse.

After he’s confident on your deck steps, you could try helping him get over his worries about the indoor stairs. Carry him to the third step from the bottom, set him down (pointing downhill) and let him walk to the bottom. Support him with your hands or let him hug the wall on one side and support him on the other side with your hand or leg. Reward him with praise and treats when he gets to the bottom. It’s best to do this with him on a leash, so you can protect him in case he suddenly panics.

When he’s handling that confidently, carry him up the steps to the third one from the top, point him uphill, support him for balance and let him walk up to the top. Reward with praise and treats at the top. Do this several times a day until he’s confident enough to navigate those three steps to the top and three steps to the bottom without needing your physical support. Then try four steps up to the top and four steps down to the bottom. Then five, then six, and so on, until you can place him midway up the stairs and he’ll go either up or down. Around that time he’ll realize he knows how to use the steps and he’ll be willing to try them on his own.

It’s important not to rush his progress on stairs because he may panic and his fear of the stairs could become very long-lasting. Confidence builds at its own rate, which is different for each dog. Respect your dog’s level of confidence, support him physically as long as he seems to need that, continue to praise and reward his efforts, and before long he’ll be racing up and down the stairs and you’ll marvel that he was ever afraid.


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LL   CLINTON, Ohio

9/26/2013 12:17:06 PM

This is a great idea to help a dog overcome fear of steps, but what if your dog is too large to be carried? My dog weighs 147-lbs. Hopefully we'll be moving soon and may not end up with a one-story home. Any suggestions, please??

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Ron   colorado springs, CO

5/30/2011 6:07:21 PM

I have the same problem with my new sevenmonth old german shephard. I got her from the humane society and she isvery smart and alert. She concurd the deck stairs by just jumpimg to the grass from the deck and finally this morning as I was taking for a walk and with the leash on her she went down the fron entrance with a little bit of hesitation but did fine. I will try her on the basement stairs again but won't push her too fast. I now she will do it soon if I just let her do it on her own without pressur.

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