Downeast Dog News
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Stairway to Injury

Are the stairs your dog’s personal racetrack?
By www.dianalogan.com | Nov 01, 2020

The puppy came to us at 4 months old thinking that stairways were a combo racetrack/high jump. Any time anybody started using the stairs, Skipper was there, determined to be first up… or down. In addition, he would leap down from the 4th or 5th step, skipping all those boring lower steps. “Skipper” has turned out to be a very fitting name for him!

Stairway to Injury

I didn’t want to risk falling by way of a puppy collision, nor did I want our aging Astro to be knocked off-balance and injured. In addition, it’s not safe for a young puppy’s bones to be making such grand leaps, especially onto hard surfaces. I needed to do something before one of us got hurt. Though Skipper was only 4 months old at the time, he’d had enough experience on stairs to establish a solid racing habit. Stairs were his cue to FLY! Despite his agile appearance, he had not actually learned to coordinate his body to take stairs properly and control his hind end.

Putting “Obedience” behaviors on the back burner

Forget about teaching “sit” - I wanted to focus on safety with our new family member. We dog owners tend to give too much attention to teaching “obedience” behaviors with our dogs and not enough to building day-to-day habits that help make living together peaceful and safe. The great thing about the day-to-day stuff is that we can easily weave it into the day; we don’t always need to set aside a “formal” training session. Repeated, these short, consistent training moments quickly add up to success!

Identify the Behavior(s):

First things, first, I wanted to clearly identify the problem behavior(s).

• Running on the stairs

• Passing people on the stairs. This isn’t about being “alpha.” It’s about safety and keeping him from getting underfoot

• Jumping from 4th step up

Goals:

• Short-term: Skipper stays behind me when I’m taking the stairs

• Longer-term: Skipper waits until given verbal release cue to take the stairs if somebody else is on them.

• Use ALL the stairs, even if the ones at the bottom.

 

Prevention Plan

I knew that my biggest challenge would be how to consistently prevent him from racing on the stairs and from passing me. I also needed to be sure other members of the human household knew what to do.

 

Large pieces of cardboard to the rescue!

I took the stairs multiple times at an agonizingly slow pace while holding a large piece of cardboard behind me, blocking Skipper’s path. He was forced to take the stairs slowly, and behind me. I repeated this over and over (good exercise for me!). If I didn’t have the cardboard, I had to be sure that I could use my body to block him from passing me. I didn’t need to say anything! Sometimes I would turn and face him, which also slowed him down. It was crucial that he not be able to pass me, though. I also occasionally tossed treats behind me so that he would, in theory, be more interested in what was behind me than in front of me. This didn’t work so well for him, but it might for your dog. What Skipper wanted the most was to get all the way down.. or up. First.

If Skipper got to the stairway first, anticipating I’d be using them and wanting a head start in his race, I turned around so that he would not be racing me. (I was saying, “so you think you are going to win? Well, I’m not racing. This is not a race.”). He was allowed to take the stairs on his own, however. This was my compromise. I knew it would be impractical for me to control his access 100% of the time.

Barrier at the bottom

I placed a barrier too tall for him to jump over about 2’ out from the last step, blocking his usual landing zone. Poor guy - he now had to actually place his tootsies on the lower steps and carefully walk around the barrier.

It took a lot of practice, but Skipper is no longer a hazard on the stairs. Phew!

If you have a dog like Skipper, see if you can slow her down and make your household a bit safer!

Release Cue

What’s the first verbal cue I teach a puppy? It’s not “sit,” or “down” or “come.” It’s the release cue!! Tune in next month to learn about it.