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:
- Injury or Pain
- 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?
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.
Helping an Old Dog on the 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.
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.
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 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.