Dog Stairs

Q. We have a lot of stairs in our house. How can we train our big Labrador to use them safely? Should he race up ahead of us, or wait until we are at the top of the stairs and then come? Having him try to go up the stairs with us can be dangerous.

A. Your concern about walking up the steps with your Labrador is understandable — dogs and stairs can be a downright dangerous combination. According to the Centers for Disease Control, falling over a dog or cat results in an average of 86,629 visits to the E.R. every year in the U.S. alone. Eighty-eight percent of these incidents are dog related.

I’ve seen firsthand the dangerous situation pet owners are in when they climb the stairs with a canine companion. Many times, the dog is racing up the stairs and back down again while the owner is attempting to climb the stairs. It’s also not uncommon to see a dog jumping in excitement while a pet parent clambers up or down the stairs. Still other dogs run ahead and then pause to look back, blocking the stairs. In every case, the dog’s behavior creates a dangerous situation for anyone coming up or down the stairs.

The easiest way to train your dog to safely navigate the stairs is to teach him to do a sit or a down stay at the top or bottom of the staircase, and then wait until you have finished climbing or descending to call him to you.

Teach Your Dog to Stay Until He’s Called

To teach your dog to stay, begin on a flat surface in a low-distraction area like the bedroom. Start by taking only a small step back, and if your pet stays, mark his short stay with a “good” or a click, and then reward him right in the place he is sitting or lying down. If your pet breaks the stay after one step, make it easier by rewarding him for staying in place with a simple shift of your weight back on your heels.

When your dog is readily staying, even when you take multiple steps away from him, add some distractions, such as the squeaker from a toy. As your dog gets better at staying, even with the distractions, practice in other areas of the house so that he is used to performing the stay in various places.

Once your dog has mastered the stay, it’s time to teach him to come when called. Start by standing close to your dog in a low-distraction environment in your house. Use body language that will coax your dog to you, such as a higher-pitched voice, backing up or offering a toy. As soon as your dog comes to you, reward him with a treat, toy, praise or petting.

Once he reliably comes when called, increase the distance between you and your dog. Continue to practice coming when called in other areas of your home.

Put It All Together — On the Stairs

The next step is teaching your dog to combine the two behaviors. Ask him to sit or down stay, walk out only a short distance, and then call him to you. Reward him with a treat for coming when called. If he breaks the stay before you’ve asked him to come, reset him in the original position and ask for a stay, and then go a shorter distance the next time. 

Once your dog is a pro at staying and coming when called, practice this behavior on a short flight of stairs. If needed, you can go to outdoor areas, such as your front porch or garage steps, which may have fewer stairs than the inside of your house. Ask your pet to stay at the bottom, and then walk up or down the stairs and call him to you. If he breaks the stay before you call him, it may be necessary to go only part way down the stairs when you first practice.

When your pet becomes reliable at listening to your stay and come at the stairs, phase out the treats and use petting, praise or even just the chance to be up or downstairs with you as his reward. If your dog happens to be at the other end of the stairs from you when you’re getting ready to use them, ask for the sit or down stay, climb or descend, and then reward your pooch for staying. 

With these tips, you should have less chance of trips.