Helping a Rescue Dog Get Over His Fear of Going Down the Stairs

By: David Codr

Published Date: July 22, 2015

Rico, Sophie and Rosie 1

For this session we worked with (From left) Rico, Rosie and Sophie. Their guardian originally called me to work exclusively with Rico who didn’t recall on command, was having some accidents in the house and refused to go down the stairs. But once I met all three dogs in person, I could tell that they all needed some work.

When my apprentice Tara and I sat down with their guardian, I noticed the dogs showed no respect for their guardian’s personal space, leaning or jumping up on her whenever they wanted her attention. Rico kept a little distance, but that was likely due to being the new dog in this pack.

As we discussed some tips on potty training, Rico had an accident on the floor in the living room. His guardian let the dog outside so she could clean it up. Once done, she went to the door and started to call the dog back in. But instead of obeying, Rico stood 20 feet away and stared at his guardian without moving as she called him and tried to coax him to come back inside.

I had wanted to incorporate a ways to help Rico start to want to literally follow his guardian. One of these was to only call or ask him to do anything once. This included calling him in from outside. His guardian had gotten into the habit of repeating  command multiple times and this allows a dog to answer or respond when they want.

I had his guardian stop calling for him, close the glass door then walk away. A minute after walking away, the dog walked up the door and started jumping on it asking to come inside. By stopping and walking away, she was able to make the dog feel like its being left out. This caused it to want to come back to the guardian or group. I suggested she continue using this technique when the dog didnt recall from inside in the future.

Once he was back inside, I went over a number of small things that their guardian can do to help all the dogs start to see and respect her as an authority figure. By communicating to the dogs that they needed to respect her personal space, their guardian can use rules and boundaries to help the dogs start to see the limits that are expected.

I also suggested that she start to try to pet her dogs for a reason rather than simply looking cute. When a dog nudges you with its nose, jumps up or scratches you for attention, its giving you an order. If you comply, you are telling the dog that you are a follower.

By ignoring these requests for attention and giving the dog a counter order like sit or lay down, we can start to change and redefine the leader follower dynamic between the humans and dogs.

To address Rico’s failure to recall on command I showed his guardian a simple recall exercise and hand motion to get the dog’s attention. Within two minutes, Rico was responding to whoever called him. His guardian and the members of her family will need to repeat and practice this exercise a few times a day for the next week or so until the dog’s recall has been sufficiently developed.

Next I had their guardian show me Rico’s reaction to the stairs. While he had no problem following her up the stairs, he wanted no part of going down them. My original thought was that this was due to the dog not being exposed to stairs before. While that was certainly the case, my apprentice Tara pointed out that the dog seemed to be trying to use the sides of the stairs which were not covered by a plastic coat. (Good call there Tara!)

I have worked with a few dogs that had the same fear of stairs and have learned that often one fear can trip another. For this issue, being left alone is worse than the dear of going down stairs so I picked Rico up and placed him in the middle of the stair case then had his guardian head out the front door which was at the bottom of the staircase.

Well round one goes to Rico as he simply went up the stairs and hung out there content to be alone with the cat who was also present.

I reset things by having the guardian remove the cat and adding a baby case to the top of the stairs blocking the dog from going all the way up. I had the guardian head out the door again after I placed the dog on the second to top step. Well wouldn’t you know it, Rico just sat there. I had the guardian leash up the other two dogs and take them with her out the front door. Nothing. Rico just laid down on the step.

To up the ante I had the guardian get into her car and drive around the block. Many dogs can differentiate between their guardian’s car and others and I hoped this would trigger a response. No luck. Rico just laid there. Rico three, Dog Gone Problems 0.

I decided to change the parameters again, placing the baby gate in the middle of the staircase and trying again. Well wouldn’t you know it, little Rico was close enough to the action that his fear of being left alone was sufficient enough to motivate him. At first he just sat there, but once his guardian opened the door, he got up and started cautiously defending the stairs.

We reset and tried it again. This time I told his guardian to not call the dog and instead just head out. As soon as she opened the door Rico started down again, even stepping on the dreaded plastic.

When Rico’s guardian went over to pick him up, I noticed he shied away form her. Because he is a rescue dog, we don’t know about his past, but small dogs often have a stronger flight instinct. When a human often snatches a dog that has this tendency, it can result in damage to the trust between human and dog. For this reason I suggested that she avoid snatching the dog when picking him up.

I showed his guardian how to use the delivery of a high value treat in a way that accustomed him to more physical contact to eliminate his backing away when people tried to pick him up. While holding a high value treat between my fingers, I let the dog nibble on it asI slowly and gently touched his cheek. As he got more accustomed to her touch, he stopped recoiling as much. With some additional practice and no further snatching, Rico’s backing away when a human reaches for him should stop.

But because we needed to be able to pick him up and the dog’s occasional reluctance to go into his kennel, I decided to create a bit of a cross training exercise with the stairs. I had his guardian go over to his kennel and toss in a high value meat treat. Once Rico went in and ate it off the floor, I had her start repeating the “kennel” command word.

With the dog inside the kennel, his guardian was able to easily pick him up and bring him out. I had her then walk up the stairs to place Rico on the highest step inside the baby gate. I had moved the baby gate farther up the stairs to make things slightly more challenging. This time the dog came down the stairs without being called and looked much more confident in doing so.

To make sure that the problem was fully resolved, I removed the baby gate and had Rico’s guardian simply walk up the stairs without carrying the dog. Rico followed her up the stairs no problem, but now that he was on the top landing, the view was certainly a little more daunting. Rico paced back and forth a bit before gingerly taking that first step. It took him a few seconds to gather up the required courage, but quickly started down the stairs on his own.

All in, we spent about 15 minutes working on the stairs. But by engaging the dog’s fear of being left alone and positioning him so that he felt outside the group, we were able to help the dog get over his fears on his own.

By the end of the session, Rico was carrying his head high, recalling on command, was accepting touch without recoiling and had a bounce to his step. It was clear his confidence and self esteem had risen due to the mastery of these exercises and commands. With some daily practice over the next week or two, Rico’s behavior problems will be a thing of the past.


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This post was written by: David Codr

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