FLD Gus strains against the leash. We are paused on the next-to-last step going down into the training room for puppy-class at Leader Dogs for the Blind. I won't continue until the leash goes slack and Gus relaxes.
Okay, he's stopped pulling.
I step down.
Gus lunges. The shortened leash spins him around when he reaches the end of it. I let out an arrrrgggghhhhh of frustration and under my breath say, Dang, that LAST step!
As I gather FLD Gus back into a heel position before we negotiate the heavy steel door into the classroom, I noticed my puppy-class instructor, Bev, on the landing above. Jeez, I think, screw up right in front of Bev, that's just great. She says, with a snicker, "We'll be working on stairs tonight!"
Turns out it's a good thing that Bev witnessed my exasperation. We use the practice stairs (grooming platforms with three steps up and three steps down) in class and Bev gives me some personal instruction.
Puppies will rush stairs when they are nervous, and the faster they bound, the more anxious they are about them. We need to SLOW DOWN and take one stair at a time. Bev coaches me to treat Gus as he stands with hind paws planted on the second step and front paws on the first step.
Good boy, Gus! I praise as he remains in place between elevations. Take it nice! Gus has a tendency to "snap" his food morsels out of my fingers; another behavior to work on. Bev nods her approval and I encourage FLD Gus to take the last step to the floor.
He lunges. Arrrgggghhhh!
Bev advises, "Treat him heavily here, too. Just stand there and give him treat after treat saying, 'Good boy, Gus!'"
I thank her for her help. We've got lots of work to do, Gus.
At home the next day, I clip Gus's leash on and heel him around our townhouse to "warm-up" before tackling the stairs. Sometimes practicing obedience on-leash inside is difficult--we don't have much space and my dog Gypsy usually wants in on the action. This day Gypsy is content to lie on the couch and observe.
Here are five "steps" I take to train FLD Gus not to leap off the bottom (and top) stairs.
FIVE STEPS TO CONQUERING STAIRS
1. Stop at the top of the staircase, square and facing the stairs. Put your puppy into a SIT. Good boy!
2. Say your puppy's name, give the command HEEL, and take the first step down, stopping with both feet on that step.
- If your puppy strains to go down more steps, restrain your puppy with the leash, use NAME RECOGNITION to get his or her attention, and hold the position until the leash is slack.
- If your puppy is shy about taking the first step, gently encourage your puppy, pat your left calf and say something like, "Let's go, come on, you can do it!" Be ready to prevent your puppy from jumping down another step.
3. Pause on this first step; then repeat each step to the bottom.
4. At the last step, where your puppy is liable to lunge like FLD Gus, stop and treat your puppy until he or she stands calmly without pulling.
5. Practice this going DOWN stairs, and going UP stairs.
- If your puppy lunges off the last step, calmly place your puppy back into position with his or her back legs on the step above (or below if going up) and front legs on the last step or landing. Hold that position using treats and praise until your puppy (and you) is composed.
- If your puppy take off in a lurch after the last step at the top or bottom, try putting him or her into a SIT here as well, before continuing in a heel.
- In between sets on the stairs, heel your puppy around and practice SIT, DOWN, and STAY.
- Use treats at each step to start; gradually wean away the treats, maybe treat ever other step, or treat just the steps that seem to be the biggest stumbling blocks. For FLD Gus, this was the last two steps going down, and the last two steps coming up.
- Don't overdo it! Take a break after 15-20 minutes; end your session on a positive with a command that your puppy knows well. Release your puppy with an OK and play with your puppy for a bit. Training should be FUN!
- Approach EVERY staircase you encounter with your puppy in this same manner.
- Be patient. Don't expect your puppy to do it right the first time. If you are CONSISTENT and PERSISTENT, your puppy WILL "get it."
BACK TO FLD GUS
I didn't think I made ANY progress with FLD Gus in our first home-training session, but the next day he did much better. "Much better" means that he figured out that if he plops his front feet down one step at a time and pauses to look at me, he gets a treat! I started treating him every other step. He did NOT lunge off the second to last step (Hooray! Lots of treats here!), but he still blasted off at the bottom.
Several sessions later his behavior on the last step has improved as well, but I must be alert to "catch" him so I can reward the behavior I want--a calm and controlled Future Leader Dog puppy stepping off the last stair.
I have no doubt I can help him get there now. Thanks Bev!