TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
We live in a classic Tahoe house where you have to walk up a flight of outside stairs to get into the front door. Our 9-month-old golden retriever absolutely refuses to walk up them. We brought him home at 8 weeks, and when he was small we carried him up the stairs. When he got too big to carry, we started walking around the house and entering through the back. With winter coming, we don’t know what to do. He has to go up the stairs because we won’t be able to get around the house in the snow. Please help!
Dogs are often afraid of stairs that are open in the back. Because you’ve been able to find work-arounds, your pup has never had to conquer his fears. As he looks up at that long flight of stairs, it must seem overwhelming, so you will need to break the task into manageable increments. By far, the easiest way to tackle this problem is with a clicker.
In positive reinforcement training, we use a reward marker to tell the dog when they have done the right thing. A clicker, which is a small plastic box with a metal piece inside, is a type of reward marker which is especially effective. The noise a clicker makes creates lots of broadband sounds which produce energy across a range of frequencies. These sounds are good at capturing attention because they stimulate many acoustic receptor neurons in the brain. Some studies have shown that dogs learn new behaviors over 40 percent faster when a clicker is used! You can buy a clicker at any pet store.
The first step is to create a positive association between the sound of the clicker and something your dogs loves. A tasty, soft treat usually does the trick. This process is called “charging the clicker.”
Prepare about 20 small, soft treats
Deliver the reward marker (“Click”)
Pause about 1/2 second
Deliver the treat
Repeat until the treats are gone
Do not ask for any specific behavior during this process. You are just establishing the relationship between the Click and a treat. Repeat this exercise several times a day for a few days. You can test whether he has the association by waiting until he is bored or distracted. When he isn’t paying attention, Click. If he immediately looks at you and/ or comes back to you, he’s beginning to get that there is a connection between the Click and a treat. If he doesn’t respond, go back and repeat the above sequence.
Now you are ready to train him to go up those terrifying stairs. Start at the bottom and using a treat, encourage him to make any movement toward the bottom stair. When he does, Click and give him the treat. Continue to Click and treat any small movement. Think of this process as telling him “great job, keep going.” Do not expect him to bound up several stairs at a time. The progress may be slow in the beginning, but as he gains confidence it should go more quickly. If he appears to check-out or get nervous, stop the training session and resume later.
By using the clicker, you are breaking the equivalent of a double black diamond slope for a beginning skier into a series of green runs.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.