Q: Our house renovations included adding a stairway, and my dog is terrified of it. She refuses to walk up or down them, so we have to carry her. Should we just put her on a leash and force her to do it?
A: You could, but then you’ll have to fix the emotional trauma you’d create by forcing a fearful dog to do the very thing she’s afraid of! First, get her to the vet for a check-up to rule out any physical reason for her resistance to climbing the stairs. If she gets a clean bill of health, then the best way of treating her fear is through desensitization. Using food or her favorite toy as motivation, start by asking her to sit five feet away from the staircase, and when she does, praise and reward her. After a while, you’ll notice she can sit near the steps and not show any signs of stress. In some cases, a dog will (on their own) choose to sit at that spot and wait for a reward. Great! That’s the time to ask her to sit closer to the stairs, using the same praise and reward pattern. Eventually, you’ll arrive at the stairs, and at that point, the reward can be placed on the bottom step, and then the second, and so on until you’re at the top of the staircase! Then you need to start the process over again, this time from top to bottom. Desensitization requires a lot of patience (and really great rewards!), but it’s very effective in treating established fears. Be careful you don’t push her too far, too fast, or you’ll be in the proverbial (no pun intended) “one step forward, two steps back” situation. Whether it’s a fear of garbage cans, tile floors or a new sofa, slowly acclimating your dog to the idea of something is always better than forcing them through it.