Teach Your Senior Dog to Use a Ramp or Stairs by Mikkel Becker

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Photo credit: rharrison via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

This article was reprinted courtesy of Vetstreet.

It's important to practice obedience work and tricks with senior pets, but it is also essential to train your canine to cope with the aging process. This involves both lifestyle changes and the use of portable stairs and ramps, which help geriatric pets get on and off elevated areas safely and easily.

Stairs are useful when placed next to stationary resting areas, such as the bed or couch. Ramps are portable and can fold up, which makes them ideal for getting in and out of the car. Choose ramps and stairs with an anti-skid surface, which gives your dog’s paws something to grip and makes him less likely to slip or jump off the edge.

Use positive reinforcement to teach your dog to use a ramp or stairs; this will make the experience more enjoyable for your pet and will make him more likely to use these tools with confidence even when you are not around.

Ramp Training

Ramps can be adjusted for height depending on the object they are resting on, which makes it easy for them to be used at a more gradual incline when first training. During initial training, practice by laying the ramp on a stable, flat area where it won’t slide, such as in the grass or on carpet. Teach your dog to follow a treat as you lure him across the flat ramp.

Treat him initially for putting one paw up on the ramp. Next, treat him for placing two paws up on the ramp. Progressively move the treat toward the middle of the ramp. As soon as all four paws are up, reward your dog with treats as he follows your hand across the ramp to the other end. The goal is to have your pet follow the treat in your hand from one end of the ramp to the other.

If your dog jumps off the ramp, move him back to the beginning of the ramp and restart at an easier level, such as treating him for sniffing the ramp or putting up one paw.

Once your dog is following your treat-filled hand across the entire ramp, wean him off the treats by leading him with an empty hand. Reward your dog for any movement to follow your empty hand across the ramp. Once your pooch readily starts to follow your empty hand, reward him when he reaches the end of the ramp. If he only follows if you have a treat in your hand, keep the treat there, but reward with a treat from the other hand.

When your dog gets to the end of the ramp, have him turn around and return to where he started. Add a verbal command, such as “up” or “out,” a couple of seconds before you begin to direct him with your hand. Treat your dog for any movement on the verbal cue.

Once your pet has mastered the ramp on flat ground, add a slight incline. Only raise the ramp a little at a time; if the incline is raised too fast, your dog may panic and jump off the edge or refuse to get on at all. Use your empty hand as a target for your dog to follow; this gives him something to focus on. With enough practice, you should be able to get your pet to follow your hand up and down the ramp, with the occasional treat at the end for reinforcement.

Stair Training

When you’re training your dog to use stairs, be patient and go at his pace. Create a trail of treats from the base of the stairs to the top and onto your couch or bed. As your dog investigates the treats, stand next to him and, with gentle praise, drop treats on the next stair or two. You can also use a lure held slightly out in front of your dog’s nose and reward him for following it. Some pets may be comfortable going up the stairs but more cautious going back down, so it’s essential to practice both.

Once your dog starts to use the stairs with ease, fade the treats or food lure. Do this by adding a verbal cue, such as “climb,” and toss a treat, or use an empty hand as a target to lead the dog up or down the stairs. Next, say your verbal cue and pretend to toss a treat. If your dog moves up or down the stairs, immediately reward him with a treat placed at the top or bottom of the stairs. Keep your dog motivated by rewarding him with praise, petting and the occasional treat.

With practice, your senior pet will be able to use his senior-specific equipment with ease, which will make the aging process less stressful for him.

We recommend additional Vetstreet.com articles on training older dogs by Mikkel Becker.

The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.


About Mikkel Becker: Mikkel Becker is resident dog trainer for Vetstreet.com and offers her expertise as a member of Grey Muzzle's Advisory Board. An honors graduate of the rigorous and prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA, she is the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation's canine evaluator for Washington State, a training advisor for Pawsitive Works, and provides private behavior consultations and group classes for dog owners. She writes for magazines and newspapers and has co-authored the four books in the "Ultimate Pet Lover" series.  Read more about Mikkel here.