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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tuesday's Training TIP: STAIRS

Between the 300 stairs at Iargo Springs on Saturday with FLD Mike, the stairs Andy and I climbed at the Springs on Friday (plus the extra 260 I did at the Lumberman's Monument), and the 87 steps at Thompson's Landing on Thursday, I have stairs on my mind.  

NOT because I'm starting to think about the 2011 "Fight for Air Climb" to benefit the American Lung Association.  (For more information about the ALA climb, or to join my team "patti's pack" or to make a donation, click here.)

Stairclimbing is great exercise for me, but for a Future Leader Dog like Mike, it is crucial that he learns to heel easily up and down stairs.  He needs to have confidence on any type of stairs (open or closed, steel, wood, cement, or carpeted) and be cool, calm and collected in either direction.

Close your eyes the next time you descend a staircase and you'll understand why a Leader Dog for the Blind must advance with his or her handler at a slow and easy pace.


To help your young puppy feel confident on stairs, introduce him/her to a short flight (like up to a porch) as soon as you can.  When FLD Mike came home with us at age seven weeks, I had him manage the three steps up to our back door, and then the short step to come in.

Helping FLD Rosie on steps in 2009.
Going up seems to be no problem for a curious young pup; coming down is a bit scarier.  I have to admit, though, that frequently I carried Mike out to "park" the first week or so because I was in a hurry!  So, his going-down-the-stairs exposure was not as repetitive as his coming-up.

I also did not show FLD Mike our stairway to our second floor, or to the basement, until he was potty-trained on the main floor.  When I finally did, I followed these "steps" (pun intended!):
  • Start with a flight of steps going UP.  You can use a leash, but I did not the first time with FLD Mike.
  • If your puppy is nervous or shy about ascending, coax him/her with your voice.  Wiggle your fingers on the steps above.
  • Give lots of praise!
  • Let your puppy manage on his/her own.  You can also use treats, but be careful not to "lure" your puppy--drop a morsel of food on the steps above and let your puppy discover them.
  • Your puppy will likely be more nervous about descending.  Sit on the stairs just below your puppy to encourage him/her to follow you until you are all the way down.
  • Lots of praise, always!

Before you know it, your puppy will master the coordination necessary to tackle stairs!  Now the issue becomes controlling your puppy on-leash in a HEEL to prevent him/her from leaping onto or off the last few steps.


  • Before each flight of stairs, going UP or DOWN, command your puppy into a SIT.  This helps to slow him/her down and to refocus on you.  Remember to use your puppy's name before the SIT command.
  • Keep a short leash.  Your puppy should NOT get ahead of you.
  • Take the first step and stop.  If your puppy pulls on the leash, don't continue until the leash is loose.  Just like "backwards walking," your puppy needs to learn that he/she cannot go forward unless there is no tension on the leash.  For safety, you should not try to go backwards on the stairs--just stop until your puppy stops pulling.
  • Take each step slowly, stopping when there is tension on the leash.
  • Praise your puppy if he/she is relaxed, but be careful not to over-praise your puppy into an excited leap!

Always take stairs at a slow, controlled pace with your puppy heeling next to you.

Practice on a variety of stairs, both inside and out.  Whenever you see stairs, take them!

I was glad of the opportunity to work FLD Mike on the open wooden staircase at Iargo Springs.  We kept a slow pace and I made Mike SIT at each of its many landings.  It took quite a while for us to make it down to see the lovely springs--and almost as much time to return to the top! 

FLD Mike's first step up cement stairs in Lansing.  Age 10 weeks.

Looking up those stairs!  He made it all the way.

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