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Why is my dog afraid of going up and down the stairs?

Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's answering your questions! This week, Garber addresses dilemmas about helping an anxious Labrador, stopping a jumpy beagle, and dealing with a Yorkie bichon who loves to run out the door!

Q:We have a 4-year-old beagle that always jumps on everyone. I just had a hip replacement and I would do anything to teach Cocoa not to jump. He especially jumps on you aggressively when you have a treat or any food in your hand. I usually have to yell at him several times for him to sit. — Linda from Shenandoah, Pa.

Hiya, Linda! 
Try practicing the “cookie drop”, which is an exercise in impulse control. With Cocoa in a sit, start with the treat a few feet above his head. Slowly lower it. If he gets up from his sit, jerk the treat higher; as long as he remains seated, steadily lower the treat. In the beginning, move quickly over the last few inches approaching his nose, as this is when it gets the most tempting. As he gets better, use the same slow descent for the whole drop. What Cocoa learns is that jumping up makes the treat get farther away.

— Laura

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Q: We have a 9-month-old French bulldog. We've had him for five months and he is so amazing. The only problem we have with him is he won't go up or down stairs. I'm 17 weeks pregnant and it's getting harder and harder for me to carry him. We've tried everything I can think of, including bribing him with bacon! I've left him crying at the bottom of the stairs for up to 45 minutes! It was awful! Is he just being stubborn, or does this breed need special attention? — Blair from Daphne, Alabama

Hiya, Blair!  If you think about it from the dog’s perspective, stairs can be pretty intimidating, especially for the smaller breeds. Here are some tips:

  • The surface of the stairs can be a factor. Stairs with a more slippery surface like wood can be difficult to maneuver on, at least at first. Find some with carpet, or outdoor stairs with brick, for better traction during these early lessons. It can also help if the stairs are not too steep and tall. 
  • Don’t try to get him to go up and down a whole staircase. Start at the bottom, litter a bunch of tasty treats on the first step, and encourage him to go up and then down just that first step. Then increase it to two step, then three, and so on. Before you know it, he’ll be bounding up and down with ease!
  • If he won’t go up that first step, then put him on it and put the treats down on the bottom landing, and encourage him to just come down one step. Then do the opposite: Put him on the second-to-step and put treats at the top and encourage him to just climb up that one step. Then gradually increase — two from the bottom, two from the top, and so on.

Hope that helps!

— Laura

Do you have a dog training question? Ask Natalie's trainer!

Q: We have a 4-year-old Yorkie bichon and have always had only one problem with him: He is a runner. If the door is open and he has a chance to get out, he runs out the door and we have to chase him. Do you have any suggestions on how we can break him of this habit? — Brandi from Bluffton, Indiana

Hiya, Brandi!  There are a couple of pieces of equipment I’d suggest you get: 

The is a great tool for remote reinforcement. It has a remote control so that you can press a button that will dispense a piece of food from the machine’s receptacle. To practice, put a mat down for him away from the front door (tethering him to something nearby for safety’s sake) and reinforce him for holding a down-stay on the mat as you open the door. 

In the interim, while you train your door dasher in more appropriate behavior, the   is a management tool that will prevent his exit.— Laura

Katie Quinn

Q: I have recently taken in a stray senior chocolate Lab who is very sweet, mostly obedient and gets along well with my other chocolate Lab. However, he whines, howls and cries incessantly. He is VERY vocal, and makes noise when he wakes, when we are about to go on a walk, when he is about to be fed, when I get home, etc. When there is no activity, he is able to be quiet, and I have taken him to the vet to make sure it's not a physical ailment. As he has become more comfortable in the household, the whining has decreased a bit, and he seems very happy overall, but is still very vocal and I would very much like to find a way to cut down on the noise. Any suggestions? — Laura from Pensacola, Florida

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Hiya, Laura!  
We have no idea what your dog has been through leading up to his finding you. It does sound like he’s quite anxious, though, from the way you describe his vocalization. He’s had a lot of changes in his life recently. I would suggest reading my article "Calming an Anxious Dog" to see if any of my suggestions might help ease his anxiety a little bit. 

The other thing that occurs to me is that you might need to work on impulse control with him. Three of the four situations you describe — walk time, mealtime, and your arrival — are instances where he wants something and is getting frustrated and vocal about getting it. 

Instilling impulse control means teaching your dog that he gets the things he wants for polite behavior, not for demanding behavior. If your dog wants to go for a walk, dancing around when he sees the leash is going to make the leash go back on the hook; sitting quietly to be leashed up is a successful way of saying “please” and will get the desired result. While waiting for his meal to be prepared, barking and whining will mean that the dinner bowl goes back on the shelf out of reach; sitting calmly and waiting to be released to his bowl will earn his meal. 

Ideally, with impulse control exercises, you don’t want to tell your pooch what to do explicitly.  That would be solving his problem for him. Instead, wait for polite behavior to be offered. This way your pooch is learning how to be a polite dog every moment of the day, not just the moments that he’s receiving direct instruction from you. 

Hope that helps.

— Laura

Q: I recently rescued a 4-year-old dachshund from a kill shelter in North Carolina. I've had her about a month and she has adjusted beautifully and is finally getting used to piddle pads. However, she absolutely refuses to walk outside. I don't believe she has ever been around sidewalks or parks (she was used as a breeder mama and then dumped). She won't even take a treat from me when I try and encourage her. How can I get her used to walking outdoors? She loves to put on her harness and her leash and walk the halls of my apartment building, but not outside. — David Michael from Jersey City, New Jersey

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Hiya, David Michael!  
This is not uncommon with dogs who are relocated from the South, where life is more spread out and residential, to life in the crowded, urban Northeast. In addition, it sounds like she was a puppy mill breeding dog who did not get the best start in life. 

I would be trying the same things you are trying, using treats, toys, anything that interests her. If she’s not playful and hungry outside, then try sitting in your building’s lobby — make more gradual progress to the outside world of Jersey City. 

Another idea might be to make these gradual progressions in a doggie tote bag. If she is comfortable in a crate or bag, then try sitting in the lobby or out on the building’s stoop with her in her bag. It might make her feel more secure, like a home away from home. 

Finally, the treats you’re using need to be fabulous … boiled chicken, cheese, bacon, even steak. The sky’s the limit for this kind of hard work!

Ultimately, if you find that you are not able to help her be more comfortable outside, you might want to talk to your vet about prescribing an anti-anxiety medication that will ease her level of anxiety a bit so that she is more able to gain from these positive learning experiences.

— Laura

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