Conquering Everest: Learning Stairs the Fun Way

“Nope. Not happening. No way.” The Poodle puppy’s mind was made up. I was crouching at the base of the stairway, with the puppy on the first step. The goal: make it to the bottom of the staircase. Just one little step.

“You can do it!” I encouraged, waving a treat.

The puppy started barking at me. I’m pretty sure he was using some choice words of denial.

Stairs can be tricky for puppies (and some adult dogs as well). Going up, while a challenge, is often easier than learning how to come down. If you think about it, it must seem rather daunting – forging headfirst off a little cliff.

Puppies also don’t always have a good body sense, or coordination. They don’t pay attention to what their rear ends are doing. To go up and down stairs, they must purposely coordinate front and back legs. Have you ever seen a dog unfamiliar with stairs just hurl himself at them like a cannonball? You have to wonder what his plan is. Just hoping momentum takes him where he wants to go? Going down is even worse, with the dog depending on gravity more than anything else. He needs to learn how to properly move his front legs in coordination with his back legs in order to navigate the obstacle.

Some pet parents don’t care if their dogs ever learn stairs. For example, it’s an easy way to ensure your dog doesn’t get into an area of the house you want to keep off limits. If your puppy will never encounter steps, then this may not be an issue. Oftentimes, however, it’s helpful to teach your dog to go up and down stairs. Your pup may encounter them at veterinarian’s offices, a groomer, or if you take your puppy out and about town.

Going Up

Get some super-special treats your dog will love. Start with your puppy on the floor, at the base of the stairs. Place a treat in the middle of the first stair, at the far back. If your puppy can’t reach it, then place it closer. You want this treat easy to get. After your puppy eats a couple of treats this way, start holding a treat up, slightly above your puppy’s nose and slightly farther back than he can reach. If he stretches for it even a little bit, give it to him and praise him. (If you use marker training, you can click for this behavior or use your marker word, followed by the treat.)

The biggest mistake I see with this training is that you ask your puppy to do too much to get his treat. So he gives up, because you’ve made it too difficult. Move forward slowly and make it fun. The goal is to get your puppy to place his front paws on the first step. If he does, give him several treats and lots of praise. Then progress to the next step, holding the treat above his head and slightly farther than he can reach, so he has to stretch to get the treat. He will find coordinating those back legs more challenging, but just be patient.

This may take several training sessions, or he could figure it out in minutes. It just depends on your puppy and his motivation. You want to stop the training session before your puppy gives up. Leave him wanting more, so he will be eager for the next time you play this training game.

Coming Down

This can be harder for many puppies. Don’t start at the top of the stairs. Gently place your puppy on the last step. Then hold a treat slightly lower than his nose, just slightly out of reach. If he stretches for it, give him the treat and praise him. Again, go slowly. Once he hops down the step onto the floor, lots of praise and a couple of treats! Then gently place him on the second step and repeat. Gradually work up to the entire staircase.

Whether your pup or older dog is learning to go up or down, having a carpet runner on stairs can help to improve traction and soften any falls. That improves confidence, which is a big part of mastering this skill.

Proceed at your puppy’s pace. Once he figures this out, you’ll find him racing up and down the stairs like a pro.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Teoti Anderson, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, is the vice president of A Dog’s Best Friend, located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A professional dog trainer for more than 23 years, she is the author of The Dog Behavior Problem Solver, Dog Fancy Ultimate Guide to Dog Training, Animal Planet Dogs 101 Dog Training, Puppy Care and Training, The Super Simple Guide to Housetraining, Quick & Easy Crate Training, and Your Outta Control Puppy. A popular conference speaker, she has given presentations to pet owners, humane organizations, and fellow trainers across the United States and internationally.