Help Me Get My Doggie To Use The Stairs
March 23, 2011 9:24 PM   Subscribe

I Shi-Tzu Not...

Until recently. My father passed away a short time ago. Recently my wife and my mother went to a shelter and after a long involved process lasting several days they brought home a dog that I used to think would only be good if you could screw a handle into its back and use as a dust mop.

I am corrected. Max is the cutest fellow on four legs. He's wee-wee pad trained. Quiet and well behaved. Having had many dogs before, I think that he might have been abused as a puppy. But that's okay, because he has a wonderful home now. He will be treated like the angel that he is.

One problem. Max will not do stairs. No no, not his thing. After a week or so, he still has to be carried up and down the stairs. This is not good.

My mom is in her 80s and the wife and I are not always around to do the grunt work. By the way, he makes the cutest grunting noises when you scratch his ears just right...

Anyway. Any ideas how to teach him that stairs aren't scary? Or bad. Or whatever. He can jump up onto a couch or a bed or chair much taller then him and back down again. I understand that he might just hever have been faced with stairs before. Or maybe some asshole threw him down a flight of stairs. I don't know.

Any help would be appreciated.
posted by Splunge to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My dog--a husky, so yeah, it's not just a shi-tzu thing--was terrified of stairs.

Our approach was slow but gradual reinforcement: put treats on every step of the stairs, sit a few steps up, and loudly and happily say "come (dog name)" and coo appreciatively every time the dog goes up a step.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:29 PM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

First off, this question is almost unanswerable without pictures. Second, this guide sounds like it could help.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 9:31 PM on March 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are the stairs carpeted or are they bare wood? They might be too slick for the little guy. (post pic please)
posted by wherever, whatever at 9:59 PM on March 23, 2011

Any chance you could move your Mom's bedroom downstairs?
posted by amtho at 10:00 PM on March 23, 2011

My relatives have a Shih Tzu who won't do stairs. Bare wood stairs are the worst, but even with carpet he's still leery -- if you think of how his barrel-chested center of gravity gets going faster than his little legs can keep up, it makes sense.

Their method was to try training him with a treat placed on the step just higher than he can reach - so he has to go up one step to get it. Then gradually increasing the number. But he's still very reluctant - I think it's partly a physics thing (see above) and partly a "I know you'll eventually come and carry me" thing.

If your stairs are wide and you are into extraordinary measures, you could think about putting a doggy ramp up one side with grippy fabric - but if you're considering this, test it with a shorter section first eg a plank with fabric, up to the couch.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:12 PM on March 23, 2011

LobsterMitten's got it - try using a positive reinforcement technique on the little dust-mop. An absolutely wonderful resource for this (dog training, but also works on small children and in-laws) is the whole body of "operant conditioning" training - in the dog/animal world more commonly known as "clicker training." Google that term ("clicker training") and you'll be amazed at what you get pretty much any animal (humans included) to do. Hell, if they can train goldfish, you can get a flight of stairs out of the little floorscraper for sure.

p.s. loved the opening line!
posted by webhund at 10:29 PM on March 23, 2011

Our Shih Tzu never did stairs as well! Maybe it's a weird shih-tzu thing because they are so close to the ground anyways? We just ended up carrying him up and down the stairs. Or he could just stay upstairs or downstairs until someone comes home who can carry him.
posted by Polgara at 10:30 PM on March 23, 2011

Nthing the treats and copious amounts of praise. Patience, patience, treats, and patience. You could consider traction booties if the surface is truly slick for hims fuzzy widdle paws but I suspect you'll be able to help Max master the stairs without them. Ultra Paws makes nice traction booties in all different sizes. However, the treats-patience-treats-rewards-patience thing will probably work well, if slowly.
posted by Neofelis at 10:47 PM on March 23, 2011

Best answer: Here's a page about Shih Tzus that addresses the stairs question a bit. A lot of the items on that page reference the fact that sometimes Shih Tzus are not well trained and/or corrected for behavior problems, or are overfed (or allowed the wrong kinds of treats), just because they're so damn cute we can't help spoiling them. :) So, first of all make a mental note to train the same sort of manners and helpful commands that you would a big dog. (Big dogs can wreak havoc if they don't have some direction, but little dogs also need that reassuring framework to be secure and happy.)

I'd say recognize that the stairs are really scarey for him, so be super patient and make it a very gradual process – because if he has a bad experience during the training it will probably confirm his suspicion that the stairs are the work of the devil and best left alone forevah! If the stairs are bare, definitely put a runner on them, then begin just by rewarding him when he happens to go near the stairs, so he associates that area with pleasure. After a bit of that, begin by putting a treat or favored toy on the first stair level (going up, I think – going down stairs even scares me sometimes!). I'd probably not even try to cajole him at that point... just leave the item, and let him think about it and make his decision.

You can continue in this way, combining the item he wants with lighthearted encouragement and windfall treats/praise whenever he makes progress. The thing to avoid is creating frustration by training too hard/long so that he becomes distressed that he's not able to do whatever it is you want. Keep it light and short, reward big when he progresses, and try to keep all that area associated with good stuff. Pet him and give him attention when he follows you to the stairs, bring something fun/tasty with you when you come down the stairs, etc.

Also, try to get an idea of what the lighting/his view is like. In his low position from the bottom of the stairs is there something looming up there that looks potentially dangerous and monster-like? A bookcase or whatever? Vacuum cleaner parked against the wall? Even if it's a familiar item when he's at the top, it may resemble a Shih Tzu-eating dragon when looking up from the bottom.

In all cases keep your voice, body language, commands, and interaction light and "care-free" – no dragons here! No excruciatingly confusing and upsetting demands from my people whom I want to please but can't seem to satisfy!

If he's ever actually had a really bad experience with stairs, he may never come around, but you can certainly give it the old college try. Whenever I'm trying to encourage my dog to overcome a fear, I actually mentally set myself up for her to be confident and successful. I casually expect that she will be able to go by the dumpster without freaking out (and eventually, she does!)... if you become tense because you expect a bad or fearful reaction to something, or frustrated because you can't seem to teach otherwise, it confirms and reinforces the dog's belief that that thing is bad juju.

Finally, if you are able to teach him to go up... I wouldn't be surprised if you have to repeat the process in order to go down. So, as Neofelis says: patience, patience, treats, and patience!
posted by taz at 11:25 PM on March 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh! I meant to say, if he has some success during training going up but is reluctant to go back down on his own, I wouldn't try to push that point. I think I'd make it a one-thing-at-a-time deal if that proves a sticking point. I wouldn't want him to feel like, whoah there's this great thing on the third step, but once I get up there I know I'll be trapped and terrified because I can't come back down.

You can follow his lead... if he seems tentative, encourage him, but if he seems truly frightened, give him the chance to try it, but carry him down if he's really anxious. You can always work on going down as a separate endeavor.

And it may all prove much, much easier than this – we don't want to build in an expectation of difficulty for ourselves either!
posted by taz at 11:37 PM on March 23, 2011

Okay... just one more teeny last thing, then I promise I'll shut up and leave some space on the internets for other people to use.

Even though I said if he's had a really bad experience in the past he may never overcome it? I should have added this: don't give up entirely. Continue to try to attract him to climb on his own in a very low-key way, because rescued/adopted dogs can change a lot with regards to confidence over time. A lot a lot. Alot. I'm talking about months and years. My dog is doing some things now, three years later that are different than what I grew to believe were just her natural tendencies. For example, she now feels okay enough to go take a nap in another room by herself (with me completely out of her sightline – whoah!) when I had grown accustomed to thinking that she was just that sort of dog inclined to never leave my side (or my husband's), hell or high water. Some confidence spurts came relatively early in the process, some later, and some much later... but every time I've thought that it's all finished she seems to surprise me.

/rilly rilly done now.
posted by taz at 12:15 AM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

nthing treats and encouragement, followed by lavish praise for success (or an approximation thereof). But remember that a whole flight of stairs looks huuuuuge to a little short-legged guy, so start your training a few steps from the top then keep adding steps as he gains confidence.
posted by DrGail at 4:49 AM on March 24, 2011

FWIW: We brought home a Shih-Tzu at 4 months. He did not want to do stairs. I'm talking about the three or four stairs from a landing or porch to the ground. I am not a patient man. I would hold his front end and move him so that his front legs went onto the next stair. Then I'd move him forward a little more so that his back legs followed onto the stair. Only a few times of this (over a few days), and he became willing to try on his own. By the time we brought him to my mom's, with her enormous staircase, he was a pro.
posted by troywestfield at 6:05 AM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the positive reinforcement methods outlined above, especially starting with the bottom few steps and adding one at a time - feeding him his meals on a step can also help. That said, I would also make sure there isn't a physical reason behind this - painful dogs will often refuse to do stairs.
posted by biscotti at 6:26 AM on March 24, 2011

Reinforcement/bribery with really yummy (aka really gross-smelling) treats.

Shih Tzu's don't have the best vision, so that might be part of the problem. I can't imagine that depth perception is great when you are bug-eyed/wall-eyed.

Oh and kudos to you for realizing how awesome Shih Tzu's are! Pix pls
posted by radioamy at 7:25 AM on March 24, 2011

When I was a teenager we adopted a sheltie from the pound who had clearly never encountered stairs before. My mom was afraid she'd have to build ramps all over the house for him. This may sound extremely silly, but what I did was sit at the bottom of the stairs with him and gently move his paws up the steps one by one to show him how to climb the stairs (with lots of treats and vocal encouragement). He figured out how to go down on his own.

It only took a couple of sessions over the course of an afternoon for him to figure it out, and that dog was as dumb as a box of hammers. I'm sure Max can figure it out, just be patient with him and give him lots of encouragement.
posted by zoetrope at 7:38 AM on March 24, 2011

Actually I've found Shih-Tzus as not very food motivated, so the treat thing did not help. Anyway, I had the same problem and overcame it in the following manner:

1. Place the dog on the 2-3rd stair from the bottom.
2. Play with dog on the stair.
3. Go to the bottom of the stairs and plead with it to come down. If it refuses to come down, ignore it until it does (it took 20 minutes of whining before coming down). If it leaps from the 2-3rd stair, just keep repeating until it goes down properly.
4. If it is not leaping off, continue to repeat and move up 4 steps every time.

This took about 45 minutes total and now it goes up and down with ease. Well not with ease, it sort of does this circling pattern before deciding to go up or down the stairs, but it will do it. This has seriously hurt the little rat's credibility with the other dogs in the household.
posted by geoff. at 7:40 AM on March 24, 2011

I did the leash/treats thing with my shih tzu. It wasn't really that she was that scared of stairs (water is a different story) was that she didn't quite understand what she was supposed to do, so she just waited for me to help, which is kinda how shih tzus roll. They don't go out of their way if there's a perfectly capable human being nearby to take care of things.

The learning actually went really quickly: I just guided her up with her leash and tempted her with treats. I think the leash is important, because shih tzus can be stubborn and unmotivated to learn without reinforcement. After she did one, she got a treat, then I spaced out the treat/stair ratio until we got to the top. Do be careful teaching the down part--if my shih tzu goes too fast, she can do little handstands on her front paws. She doesn't fall, but it scares me.

Also, if he was a shelter dog, be extra gentle. I bought Zelda from a pet shop and it's obvious that she has some lingering issues from being in that environment. Be as calm and patient as you can be; Max may have a good reason to be afraid of stairs.

If you have a competitive dog, bringing a dog with stair experience into the mix also helps. If Zelda has seen another dog do stairs, she probably would have learned it on her own, just so she didn't get left behind. Also, shih tzus are pretty much the best.
posted by cndelia at 7:41 AM on March 24, 2011

Install a dumb waiter?
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:53 AM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

My greyhound came to me from the track not knowing a thing about stairs. Treats didn't do much for us; he'd eat the ones he could reach from the ground and then just look helplessly at the rest. Sometimes he'd go up a step, then realize what he'd done and panic and scramble back down. He would not propel himself up the steps for any amount of treats.

Finally, out of other ideas, I recruited two family members and (with the blessing of my dog-knowledgeable adoption coordinator) we ganged up on him - one person in front, holding his collar in one hand and a treat in the other, a second person moving his back legs and pushing a knee against his butt, and a third person moving his front legs, and everyone talking encouragingly to him. We walked him up and down the stairs, with us moving his paws the way they needed to go and him doing his very best to not be helpful, until he sort of got the hang of which paw went where and eventually (over the course of a few days) reached the conclusion that the godawful annoying humans weren't going to leave him alone until he went up the damn stairs. He now does them in a somewhat alarming flying leap sort of action, where his paws only touch three steps out of twelve, but damned if he doesn't happily go up and down them, even if seeing him do it gives me a heart attack. Oddly, he never had much trouble coming down the stairs, which looks like it ought to be much more death-defying with his chest-heavy build.

Obviously the physics of this are a bit different for a shih tzu, but if treats fail, try the paw-walking method.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 7:15 PM on March 24, 2011

Response by poster: As requested, pics:

Max in his resting state. Actually his usual state. Awww. Lazy doggie.

Me in a very uncomfortable state. My knees are hurting. But Max loves it. And that's all that matters.

I thank you all for your suggestions. I marked taz as the best answer but you all pretty much helped. Please don't feel like you didn't. But her link was what I printed out for my mom.

Oh and BTW jeffamaphone? I have been always and always will be the dumb waiter around here. As well as the dumb cook and the dumb bottle washer. And for the time being I'm the dumb dog escalator as well. Hoping the last part will change soon. ;-)
posted by Splunge at 9:51 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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