Why Won’t My Dog Walk Upstairs or Downstairs Anymore?

For some dogs, stairs can become a struggle seemingly overnight. When stairs become a challenge, there is likely an excellent reason. A dog’s sudden and unexpected hesitancy to go up or down the stairs could be for any number of reasons, including:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Injury or Pain
  • Age
  • Loss of Strength
  • Vision Loss

How do you tell the reason why your dog’s behavior has changed? As your dog’s parent, you know your dog better than anyone. Watch their behavior for clues. Are they tentative going downstairs or going up? Do they seem scared, or is it painful for them to use the stairs?

Dog rear support leash for stairs
Up-n-Go Rear Support Leash
Walkin’ Lift Rear Harness
Walkin’ Lift Rear Harness
full support harness for senior dog
Walkin’ Combo Harness

Fear of Stairs

The stairs are a common fear for most young puppies. Going up a flight of stairs can seem like an endless obstacle. At the top, looking down, your dog may be afraid of falling. Puppies take the stairs one at a time. Give your puppy a chance to adjust; if they’re uncertain, carry them up or down the stairs until they know it’s safe. If you have a smaller staircase (just a few steps), let them practice before conquering a much larger staircase.

Dogs are always learning, which means a new fear or phobia can develop at any time. Dogs become fearful based on recent experiences. Think back, have they missed a step and stumbled last time they went down the stairs and are afraid they’ll do it again? Or they heard a loud noise when they were on the stairs and thought the sound came from the stairs. If your adult dog is showing a sudden fear, be patient. Slowly encourage them with treats and praise until they become comfortable with the stairs again.

How to Help an Old Dog on the Stairs

Rear lifting harness for helping dog on stairs.

As dogs age, they are hesitant to use the stairs because they’re not sure they can navigate the stairs safely anymore. Climbing the stairs can be painful for dogs with joint pain. Many older dogs develop arthritis, and larger dogs like labs and golden retrievers are at high risk for hip dysplasia and other painful joint conditions.

Senior dogs weaken over time, their joints ache, and they may be losing strength in their legs. Dogs use their back legs to push themselves up the stairs, and as they age, this becomes more difficult. They tire easily and, in some cases, using the stairs may even be painful for them. Whether it’s climbing or descending the stairs, many senior dogs experience difficulty.

Owner helps senior dog up stairs with supportive harness

To get an older dog to use the stairs, they will need your help. Senior dogs no longer have as much control on the stairs. As muscle tone is lost, they may feel like they descend the stairs too quickly. Senior pets experience leg weakness; this loss of strength makes going up the stairs exhausting. Using the stairs can be tiring, and a pet may not feel safe using them independently without your assistance. This can be even scarier for your pet if your stairs are slippery. Hardwood stair treads are more challenging for dogs to grip on, which increases the risk of your dog slipping and falling. A harness that allows you to lift and support them on the stairs will give them back the confidence and control they need to use the stairs safely.

Pet Vision Loss and Stairs

Just like us, a dog’s vision can change and worsen over time. Although your dog may still have their sight, their eyesight can deteriorate enough to affect their depth perception. This can make going down a flight of stairs a daunting task. Your dog may require your help to guide them down the stairs; walking next to them can provide confidence that you’re there if they start to fall. Standing beside them or keeping a hand on them as you go down the stairs may be all they need to feel safer. When in doubt, use a pet gate to block the stairs, so your dog can only use the stairs when you’re with them.

Tip: Stairwells can be dark, and for senior dogs with vision changes or balance issues this can be an added challenge. Keep the light turned on to help your dog see each step!

Helping an Injured Dog on the Stairs

Depending on the nature of your dog’s injury, your dog may need additional assistance and support to help them to move comfortably and safely.

Leg Injury

Rear Support Leash helps dogs up stairs

If your dog is injured, they may need some extra help on the stairs temporarily while they heal.

A dog with an injured leg may need a little boost going up the stairs, especially if they’re wearing a splint or cast that goes under the paw. Dogs rely heavily on the feel of the ground under their paw to know they can walk safely. Using a rear support leash that supports their hind end and your guidance will help them take their next step confidently.

Back Injury

Back injuries can vary in severity; before letting your dog use the stairs, always speak to your vet to determine what’s best. If your dog can use the stairs, you want to ensure their spine is always supported. A dog back brace supports your dog’s spine. As it conforms to your dog’s back, it provides them the support they need to avoid further injury.

As a pet parent, it’s essential to pay attention to any changes in your dog’s behavior or any sudden fear or anxiety. This may be your dog’s way of telling you something’s wrong, and they need your help.

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25 Comments

  1. My dog is 11 and will be 12 in February. I live in an upstairs unit in my apartment and lately he has been hesitant to go down the stairs to use the bathroom and hesitates walking up the stairs. My finances at the moment are really tight, so a vet visit is not possible at the moment. What can I do to help him with the stairs to avoid unwanted accidents? Is there anything I can give him?

    • Hi Shahri,

      If your dog is hesitating he may need a little extra support and guidance to feel like he can go down the stairs safely. I would recommend trying a lifting harness like the Lift-n-Step harness. This harness provides your dog with full body support, with your help he can avoid an accident. If you have any questions, please call us at 888-253-0777. We’re always happy to help!

  2. Hi, my dog is just 1 year old and has always been fine with stairs , he suddenly won’t come downstairs and trembles like he’s absolutely terrified of something ! What can I do to help him ?

    • Hi Lynne – most often when a dog shows sudden fear it can be tied to a negative experience. If you don’t think there is a medical reason why your dog feels unsafe or scared of the stairs, it’s likely your dog slipped or is afraid of falling. Try positive reinforcement. Walk side by side with your dog on the stairs use treats and praise every time he takes a step. It may be a slow process but be patient and encouraging.

  3. We rescued a dog 6 weeks ago. He was doing great until this past Monday. Our apartment complex had a shooting…yes you read that right. My husband and I were not home but when I got home our big rescue dog was nervous from the event. I took him out for his afternoon walk and when we got to the stair to head up to our apartment he froze. Would not budge. I had to force him up the stairs. It was horrible for him and for me. Clearly the events of the day have him super anxious. Any suggestions of what we can do. I spent over an hour today trying to coax him up the stairs after his walk using treats and sitting a few steps ahead of him. He would not budge. We don’t know how to help him and we are in this apartment for another 2 months before we move into a one story home with a yard.

    • Sherry, that must have been a traumatic experience for everyone, and its completely understandable your dog would be anxious. I would be patient with him, try to coax him with treats. Start small, even a single step or looking in the direction of the stairs praise him and give him a treat. Celebrate the small accomplishments and hopefully soon he’ll be ready to get closer to the stairs until he’s ready to use them without encouragement.

      He needs to learn that the stairs are a positive place and he needs to associate it with good experiences. Good luck!

  4. My pitbull is 5 years old and all of a sudden she’s hesitant to go up or down the stairs. Not all of the time though. In the mornings she’s excited to go downstairs to eat and go outside so she’ll go down with no problem. But during the day, especially if she’s been napping she won’t want to go and when she does, her legs are shaky and sometimes she’ll freeze in the middle of the staircase like she’s scared. Is it bc her muscles are getting weak? Or is she just being lazy? She still will play like normal with my other dog too and loves going on walks. Is this worth the cost of taking her to the vet?

    • I would call your Vet and ask. It could be fear but it could also be the sign that she’s weakening or feels unsafe. It never hurts to ask your Vet for advice, they may be able to give you some feedback on what to look out for and when you should be concerned.

  5. Hi. My 6 year old 70 pound lab randomly gets scared to go up the stairs. This has been going on for most of her life off and on. She’ll be fine for months and then all of a sudden seems like she forgot how to use the stairs. She looks like she desperately wants to come up. Keeps trying at the bottom step but just can’t. The problem is when that happens, she won’t budge and WILL NOT let herself be helped up. If she thinks someone might try to pick her up, she uses all her might to get away. Treats don’t help to encourage her at all. And then a bit later, she goes up like nothing ever happened. It’s so frustrating for both of us…

    • It sounds like her struggle with the stairs may be fear based. Have you thought about working with a dog trainer? Someone who specializes in animal behavior can help you understand what your dog is feeling and work with your dog to make them more comfortable.

  6. My dog has no trouble going up and down the stairs when the light is on, but as soon as we turn the lights of, he suddenly won’t come upstairs anymore… This is completely new because he has never had trouble before. He is getting to almost 10 years of age, does this mean he is going blind? Would I need to get him checked out?

    • It sounds like your dog might be experiencing some changes in his vision. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going blind, he may just be struggling with his depth perception. I would have the vet check his vision next time he goes for a visit just to be sure.

  7. My 3.5 year old Westie is suddenly refusing to use the stairs to the second floor of our home. She’ll go down them, and she’ll use the basement stairs and the deck stairs. All stairs are wood, however these stairs are a bit more slippery, so I’m guessing she’s afraid, even though she’s been using them without fail for 3 years. I tried coaxing her with favorite treats, and she won’t go beyond the first step. I bought carpet treads and installed them, and she won’t try them. In fact, I carried her upstairs and she was terrified going down. If I call her and try to get her to come up with me (even before treads) she tucks her tail and runs to her crate. I’m sad because she used to like hanging out on my bed upstairs while I rested or folded laundry, etc. She used to like helping to wake up the kids in the morning. How can I help her overcome this fear?

    • Hi Michaela, I would recommend speaking with your veterinarian. They can help you to determine if it is fear or if there is another (medical) reason why your dog is reluctant to use the stairs. It could be something as simple as a fear of slipping and falling, if that’s the case traction socks may help. Your vet can help you determine if training is needed or if a behavioral specialist can help your dog become more comfortable on the stairs.

  8. Same issue with my 1 year old dog (Golden Doddle) Physically seems fine. Jumps in the car and runs like crazy in the back yard.. It seems so odd because she no issues until a couple days ago. Tried treats, toys etc. Nothing is working. Maybe she just needs time. Not sure.

  9. Hello my name is Michael and I have a Jack Russell terrier and Chihuahua mix. I’ve had them for at least 10 years and I’m not quite sure how old he was when I got him but I am very concerned because my dog usually has no problems with stairs or climbing on the coach but last night he couldn’t get on the coach by himself nor could he climb the stairs by himself so I had to carry him. My dog has a really big fear of fireworks and last night I took him on a walk and somebody was lighting fireworks so he started pulling the harness really hard to try to get home and an hour after he was home is when I noticed he couldn’t climb on the couch nor could he do the stairs. About 3 months ago I had an incident where he could not get up on the couch but that only lasted for a day and now it’s happened again but this time for 3 days which he is still experiencing trouble climbing the stairs. I don’t have a whole lot of money so I’m wondering if this is something that I should bring them to the vet over. Just don’t know if it’s age or if it could be an injury from pulling the harness to hard? I really love my little Jack and I don’t want to see him suffering so I plan on bringing him to the vet on Monday.

    • It certainly sounds like bringing your dog to the vet is the best course of action. Pulling hard on a harness can cause strain and it’s best to get it checked out just to make sure.

  10. Our rescue (who we think is a German shepherd/lab mix based on coloring, appetite, and ears) has recently started struggling with leaving the stairs. He descends without issue and gets his front paws on the floor, but then struggles to move his back paws off the last stair. The stairs are carpeted and the first floor is hardwood. We’ve had him for 5 years and stairs have never been an issue before. Any ideas?

    • Hi Marjorie, I would speak to your veterinarian about your dog’s difficulty on the stairs. Your dog’s hesitancy to use the stairs could be do to joint pain or not feeling like he can support himself safely as he takes that last step off the stairs. Any change in a dog’s behavior or habits should be mentioned to your vet. It might not be anything serious but small changes like this can indicate some changes in your dog’s mobility or health.

  11. My husky is suppose to be 7 if what the vet told me was accurate when i adopted him, but lately ive noticed that he gets hurt randomly. for example i took them to reno and after a long walk unleashed as he was walking to me he squealed like he stepped on something i checked his paw and no sign of anything, but he was limping the next day he was ok. today he was playing with another dog and suddenly he squealed and started limping, he seems to be ok as i check his paw no sign of pain when i apply pressure through out his leg and paw but still limps. he is able to get up on my bed still but is hesitant on two stairs. i dont know if he is much older as he looks like he might be and this could be arthritis but vets near me have a overbooked appointments (full). any recommendations.

    • It definitely sounds like your Husky needs to be seen by a veterinarian, if your vet is overbooked I would reach out to another one in your area. A pet professional is the only person who can diagnose your dog and determine exactly what’s going on. Dogs don’t cry out or limp unless they are in pain or injured. Any number of joint conditions can cause this kind of pain and hesitancy on the stairs.

  12. My 3 year old rottweiler mix refuses to go upstairs, not exactly a problem besides her sleeping up there at night. She doesn’t seem to be in pain, walk and jumps just fine, and she will gladly walk up and down them during the day— but the second it’s time for bed she refuses to follow. She stands or sits at the bottom barking at us if we try to call her up, she clearly wants to but something is stopping her.
    No visible pain, or fear, will use them through the day but refuses during night.
    No clue what to do about this.

    • Hi Kat, I would recommend reaching out to your veterinarian. It could be something simple, like a fear phase that many young dogs go through or it could be something medical such as a change in eyesight. Speak to your veterinarian and have your dog assessed just to be sure.

  13. My 9 month old golden retriever always comes down the stairs for his daily walk with great interest, but after an hour long walk he won’t come back home.
    With encouragement and prizes, sometimes he climbs the stairs, but sometimes not. So I have to hug him and lift him up. He does not have the problem of joint dysplasia and is very energetic and playful. What do you think I should do? He now weighs 27 kilos.

    • It sounds like the hour-long walk might be tiring him out. The stairs might be too much for him after such a long walk. Have you tried going for shorter walks?

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