Tackling Fears: Stairs, Babies and Dogs

My stairs are slightly terrifying.  TWO flights (living to foyer to basement), near-vertical and perilous.  One of those is true.

But they still worry me.  Especially holding a baby, managing stairs with a maniacal Labrador gleefully cannonballing up and down is justifiably fear-inducing.

But let’s read that again.  There’s something important here…

managing stairs with a maniacal Labrador gleefully cannonballing up and down

Now what does this tell us, with our doggy detective hats on?

That’s right, this is a self-reinforcing behavior!  He does it because it’s fun.  That means I can use it as a “life reward” for Ranger doing what I want him to do, and if I put it on cue, he’ll do it for me whenever I ask just because it’s entertaining.

I like to use the “Wait” cue to teach patience in situations like this.  Rather than a specific position, which the Stay requires, I just want Ranger to Wait To Do the Thing, whatever that thing is.  I also use Wait when we are going out the door, when I am letting him IN the back door, and for many other things that just need a “hold on a minute!”

If I needed to, I would start Ranger at either the top or bottom, have him wait, and move into him with my body to stop him if he tried to flail toward me anyway.  Luckily, he appears to have generalized the cue nicely, so instead we are just doing a practice session that strengthens the cue and rewards it with the exciting RUN UP AND DOWN THE STAIRS behavior as the reward.

I’m also sending him away up or down just by vocal encouragement and body language; if he gets hesitant, I take a little step in that direction and then go back up after he trots off.  It’s very informal but it works. This is a situation where I prefer to chat with Ranger and interact with him in real life words and actions.  I don’t need to teach him a “STAIRS” cue; he just learns the rules from a little practice and from trial and error.  This is actually much faster than doing something silly like free-shaping every step he takes with a clicker and treats, with no verbal input or gestures to clue him in.  Different tools for different problems!

Here’s what this looks like:

Of course, I also offer Ranger praise and petting as an extra reinforcer, because he’s a good boy and he likes it.

And now I have one less thing to worry about safety-wise.  As a mom, that’s almost like winning the lottery.

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