Rosie came to me last month for a 1-week training program, while her owner, a recent transplant from England, recovered from the metatarsal fracture she’d suffered while walking Rosie on-leash. There was mention of improper footwear, but the real issue seemed to be that at 1-yr-old Rosie had no leash manners whatever. Fact was that back in England, where walks were staged in open fields and marshes and leashes weren’t a big part of life, she hadn’t needed any.

She also hadn’t needed to go up and down stairs, as it turns out.

I’ve taught a few dogs to do stairs over the years, figured it couldn’t be too challenging to accomplish with a young and biddable Lab.

Well, Rosie had the most severe stairs phobia I’d ever seen. No amount of cheese, sausage, or coaxing would get her up any farther than her front end could easily reach while keeping her hind feet safely planted on terra firma.

Gentle “suggestions” that she ought to consider bringing up her rear were met by sheer panic, including throwing her full weight backward and away from the steps. For the record, I did try different types and quantities of steps, and even a low table, always with the same result. I also saw no signs of physical pain or disability.

I’m very reluctant to use force or correction in addressing a phobia, but several things occurred to me in this case. First, that running-backward-at-full-tilt nonsense was going to get someone’s neck broken one day if allowed to persist. Second, it might easily take months and untold quantities of sausage to get this dog up a flight of stairs if the choice was left up to her. Third, this was not a fearful dog generally, despite her paranoia of stairs, so it seemed entirely likely that once she discovered she was in fact perfectly capable of moving up and down stairs without the earth opening up and swallowing her, she might actually enjoy doing so.

Thus, with some reluctance, I popped on her prong collar, and allowed her to discover the downside of running backward away from stairs. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked like gangbusters, let me tell you. With that option off the table, she quickly found the courage to attack the stairs (and the sausage). By the following day, she was happily trotting up and down unbidden, and looking Very Pleased With Herself.

Of course, I was concerned that she might fail to generalize, and continue to balk at the stairs in her house. But her owners reported that as soon as they walked through the front door, she proceeded to show off her new-found confidence. Here is the note I got yesterday along with the above video:

Hi Ruth,
Thought you might like to see Rosie starring in her very own movie.
Before you had her the stair phobia was so bad she hated to even walk by our staircases.
We can’t believe you did so much with her in just one week.
Her leash manners are now so good a neighbor yesterday didn’t recognize her.
Thank you so much.
With all good wishes
Mary and Richard

I gambled a bit on this one, not usually my style, but there you have it. Maybe I was channelling my inner Cesar Millan (a strangely repelling thought). In truth, this was one of those rare training sessions that would have made for excellent television. And, like Cesar, I don’t recommend that anyone try this at home.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.