Stair phobias are relatively common in dogs. If a dog slips, falls or hurts himself climbing a set of stairs, it’s highly likely that he’ll form a negative association with the stairs. Once he’s formed this association, he’ll be very reluctant to approach, let alone climb those stairs again. Fortunately, you can train this phobia out of your dog using a combination of techniques.
The first step in helping your pooch make peace with the stairs is desensitization. The process involves gradually exposing your dog to the fear stimulus and helping him to see that there is nothing to fear. It is a technique that works very effectively for dogs with noise phobias, such as fireworks. Put your dog on a leash and calmly guide him toward the bottom of the stairs. Act as calmly and naturally as possible. Don’t make a fuss. After a brief period of exposure, lead him away and play with him. With sufficient repetition, he’ll learn that nothing bad actually happens when he approaches the stairs.
You can carry out counterconditioning alongside or after desensitization. It is the process of helping the dog form positive associations with the fear stimuli. During exposure to the fear stimulus, give the dog a positive stimulus, such as a treat or a toy. Over time, he’ll begin to form positive associations with the stairs because every time he is near them, he gets a treat.
Once the dog has learned not to fear the stairs, it’s time to get him to climb them. Target training is useful here, as you can get your dog to put his paw in a specific place. Start off by using your hand as the target, to get him into the habit of touching with his paw. Conceal a treat in your hand to get him to touch it. Once he’s got the hang of that, use the bottom step as the target and get him to touch that. Each time he does, give him a treat.
Now that Fido is happy and confident enough to touch the bottom step, use his fondness of treats to lure him up to the middle of the staircase. Simply sit a few steps up with a treat in your hand and call him to you. Place a couple of treats on the steps below and wait. It may take a while and you may initially need to go to the bottom of the steps and guide him up to the treats, but eventually he’ll realize that the stairs are a good place to be. Once he’s climbed to the middle a few times, place a treat at the top. Once he’s at the top, place a treat at the bottom. Use a leash to guide him for the first few ascents and descents, in case his trepidation makes him a little wobbly on his feet.
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