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I've gotten some good reassurance here about our feral rescue shepherd. (See How do I convince my dog that a collar or harness is not the end of the world? for back story). We've finally worked out our slip lead technique and started taking him for regular walks. He's absolutely terrified of the elevator, but definitely prefers it to the stairs. After taking him up and down some staircases in the park, I decided the problem isn't the very concept of stairs -- he does just fine on them -- but something about ours in particular.

So I basically drag him to the stairs (+1 for polished tile hallways) and then he walks down them. He's slowly getting better about going down -- I don't have to drag him again around each bend (we're on the 5th floor) anymore, but he is having no part of going up the stairs.

Going down, I think self-preservation kicks in. He can either walk down like a normal mammal, or he's just going to fall. So he walks. But going up he just fights and fights. I don't want to push him too hard so I usually give up and take the elevator, but I don't like it. He hasn't shown any aggression in the elevator but I'm still not comfortable with other people getting on and off while he's shaking in the corner because I'm not confident he won't lash out. And plenty of people are scared of dogs. I don't want to ask someone with fear of dogs to share a confined space like that. So I'd really like to get him taking the stairs up and down.

Suggestions?

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    Are the stairs carpeted, bare or covered with a non-slip something? – James Jenkins Sep 26 '14 at 21:51
  • Try going down a flight of stairs on your hands and knees, with someone below you to catch you when you get into trouble... This is not a trivial skill when the stairs aren't designed for your kind of legs and you can't hold the railing for assistance. – keshlam Sep 15 '16 at 20:33
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A good place to start with any fear a dog has is to try and manage how often they have to encounter that fear and then slowly show them that it's really nothing to be afraid of by giving them lots of positive reinforcement around it. Unfortunately, you have to get your dog downstairs some way or another, and I agree the stairs are better than the elevator; confined spaces are never good for a dog with his history. Perhaps while you work on it you can try just carrying him up and down until he gains confidence? It sounds like he's likely too afraid to learn anything on the stairs right now and it might be easier on you both.

As for getting him to tolerate the stairs, I would start playing as many games as possible around the stairs. You don't need to start on the stairs either. Start as far away as possible that makes him comfortable and then slowly work your way closer. You can just teach tricks, play tug, fetch, or whatever gets him excited. Recall games, tugs, and fetch can be especially good because you can bring your dog closer for a short time. If he's excited enough and focused on tugging for example, he's likely to not even notice he was by the stairs for 5 seconds. And chasing a ball or toy up the stairs is great exercise.

You can also work at shaping him up and down the stairs. Use a clicker to click and treat any time he gives attention to the stairs, and eventually for putting feet on different stairs. As an aside, shaping him to put his rear legs on one step is great for rear-end awareness and a start to 2-on-2-off position for agility. Other proprioception games would include putting two side legs on a stair and backing up the stairs. I wouldn't recommend backing down the stairs; that could be dangerous.

You mentioned you thought it might be something about your specific stairs. If you're able to isolate the different aspects of the stairs (too narrow, too deep, too slippery, etc), introducing him to other things that have those characteristics but in different environments may help as well.

It sounds like he may have been mistreated in the past, and so he may have very low confidence. Playing games and teaching lots of tricks will help to improve his confidence and help reduce fear in general. It will probably take a while but by keeping your rate of reinforcement high, he'll eventually get better. Depending on what happened in his past, he may never truly enjoy stairs, but he can learn to recognize them as a way to get fun things like walks, chasing, and games.

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  • Lately, he's fine going down them (and very anxious if I make him take the elevator down) but 100% opposed to going up them. From our entry, the stairs are to the right, elevator to the left. He bolts so hard for the elevator I can barely control him. And he's pretty chill on the leash most of the time. – Amanda May 29 '14 at 13:52
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    If he is getting better about going down you are making progress and it's good to assume you will be able to keep it up. Since he will go down you could stop at the first flight down and see if you can get him to offer just one foot back up the way he came. Use the best treat you can find... put a big bite of steak just out of reach so that he can only reach it by putting one foot up. Then just sit down on the landing and wait .. zero pressure just keep waiting. Hopefully he will start getting bored and less nervous and will take that first step. If he does then head back down for a walk. – Beth Whitezel Jun 3 '14 at 6:22
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The other answers are great, but I'd like to add what worked for my dog. My apartment is on the second floor, up a steep and narrow staircase.

He had no problem running up the stairs, but refused to go down them, even when I would walk halfway down first. I placed a small treat on each of the first few steps, and held another treat to his nose and led him to the first step. When he got to the first step, he got the first treat, then I drew his attention to the treat on the next step. It was just far enough outside his reach that he had to put both his paws on the step to get at it. When he reached it, I quickly drew his attention to the next step (and the next treat). When he ate that one, his entire body was on the steps, and momentum took over from there.
I'm sure it also helps if there is a fun reward at the bottom of the stairs (in my dog's case, the outside!).

Now he has no problems on the steps. I was actually quite surprised how quickly he got over his fear of the stairs once he had used them once. I read somewhere that for a dog that is low to the ground, they can't see the steps, they just see a cliff (especially for steep staircases). Once my dog learned that he wasn't going to plummet off the edge, the fear was gone.

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If you only can, find another dog who is easy going stairs up and down, and who is friendly with your dog and willing to be lead by you. Borrow the dog so that its owner is not needed to come with you. (I presume this one dog is your only dog)

At the base of the stairs you climb up as far as your dog's leash lets you go. Allow the other dog to climb up ahead of you. At this point your own dog is sitting at the base of the stairs and refusing to climb. Now, tell the other dog to climb down to your dog, then up again. Repeat, if your dog still won't move. You can nudge gently with the leash, but don't pull him onto the stairs. Be careful with the loose leash once he gets going, so that he won't step on and trip over the leash. He'll be coming up with speed when he decides to climb after all. Be ready for it.

The idea is that the other dog encourages your dog to climb the stairs. This worked with my dog, who at the age of six years climbed first time in his life the stairs to our apartment. We have two dogs, and the younger one is great with stairs. The younger one did the "encouraging" on its own, I had not thought about it until I saw him do it.

Is the stairs in your building of "open" design? Meaning, is there open space between the steps, where you can peek down the stairwell? That's like the stairs in our buiding, and I believe it is the scary thing for the dog that it can see the empty space under the stairs. Do not switch the lights on, instead use a flashlight to light only the stairs. Go at night, if there's windows giving natural light.

In the case of our six years old dog it was a combination of these two things. There was a power-out that happened while I was out walking our dogs, so we could not use the elevator to get back home. A completely dark stairwell, a flashlight (lucky that I had one in my pocket) and encouragement from our other dog finally made the dog climb the stairs that he had so much feared all his life.

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I read on another site about putting the rubber mesh that you line cabinets with on the top half of the stairs. Cost under $10 at Lowes. Mesh is held in place with a loop made of electrical tape making it effectively two sided. Once they get in rhythm on the top stairs they are fine on the bottom half. After helping my dog down once he now goes up and down freely. It is an easy and effective solution.

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FWIW, it took a lot of time, patience, and positive reinforcement. Puppy Pants is still a raw ball of nerves and fear (and we just moved for the second time since we brought him into our lives so he's adjusting all over again), but nothing like he was in 2014. What it took was constant rewards to convince him that all these new things are okay. They're fine. He's fine. Everything is fine. This liver is delicious. (note: he didn't seem to be food motivated until we found really really amazing treats. Bacon, cream cheese, liver: for these things he will work.)

I didn't really believe he would ever come round, and I think in our impatience we probably slowed him down. But we eventually brought him around.

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TL;DR

There can be many reasons a dog would avoid stairs, including vision or joint issues, tactile sensations, or traction issues. In addition, many dogs lack the back-end awareness that makes stairs and ramps seem passable, especially if the stair depth is shallow or the pitch is steep.

If your dog is generally okay with other stairs, then there may also be other environmental cues (e.g. sounds, smells, or lighting issues) that you are not aware of. Depending on the severity, you may find counter-conditioning helpful.

Stairs in General

Your post doesn't include any concrete information about the stairwell that your dog has problems with. Even if your dog is fine on other stairs, such as those in the park, that doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate problems with the ones in your apartment complex. Especially with German Shepherd Dogs, who are prone to joint problems like hip dysplasia, the depth and pitch of the stairs can matter a great deal.

The surfacing of the stairs (e.g. uncarpeted, metal, wood, or tiled) can also have a big impact. Sometimes it's a traction issue, and sometimes dogs just dislike the feeling of certain materials under their feet. It's up to you to identify what's different about your stairwell that might have an impact.

Improve Back-End Awareness

Of course, once you've ruled out joint and stair-surface issues as causes, the most common reason dogs avoid stairs and inclined surfaces is a lack of back-leg awareness. You may be able to improve your dog's response to stair-climbing by working on exercises that make him more conscious of his back legs.

When going down stairs, the rest of the dog just follows his nose and front feet. Going up a set of stairs, however, often requires a different gait and a lot more confidence and experience with maneuvering the back legs. Teaching your dog to stand on a lower step, or going up one step at a time, could possibly help if this is the issue.

Positive Reinforcement and Counter-Conditioning

So I basically drag him to the stairs (+1 for polished tile hallways) and then he walks down them.

While dragging your dog anywhere might be pragmatic in the short term, it neither builds a bond of trust nor does it reduce the aversiveness of associated experiences and locations. You would be much better served by helping your dog associate positive experiences with the problematic stairs.

A solid foundation with clicker-training would enable you to shape the desired behaviors of approaching, standing on, and eventually climbing the stairs without the need for force. In addition, some basic counter-conditioning such as giving the dog a treat anytime he sees the stairwell might solve the problem on its own, or at least facilitate the use of additional operant conditioning techniques.

As yet another alternative, if your dog is food- or scent-motivated, you might consider leading him up the stairs with a particularly savory something held just out of reach. If the lure is stronger than your dog's aversion to the stairs, then he is likely to follow you at least partway, at which time you can reward him with some of the lure to reinforce the behavior.

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