Elevators and stairs, oh my!

Logan is a service dog in training.
Visit his page for more information and to read all of my blog posts about him.

Logan and I have been going lots of places and practicing lots of skills recently. Last week, he came with me to my office at the university several times. We also visited the university union and went out to lunch one day at a local restaurant.

Logan the service dogOverall, Logan has been on his best behavior, and I have been very proud of him!

When we go places, I always try to anticipate what might happen and then try to set up the situation so that Logan will be able to be successful. For example, since I hadn’t taken him out to eat before, we went to a small, local restaurant, and we went for a late lunch because I knew the restaurant wouldn’t be quite as crowded.

However, I can’t anticipate everything, and we occasionally run into situations that are too complicated for what Logan can handle with his current level of training. If we do run into these sorts of situations, we exit the situation as gracefully as we can, and then I make a plan so that we will be better prepared the next time.

Two things that Logan needs to practice are stairs and elevators. So, we’ve been working a lot with both of those recently.

Little steps on the stairs

My office at the university is on the top floor of a three-story building. When climbing the stairs, you can look through the railings and through the slats on the stairs to see down below. Although Logan will follow me willingly up and down these open stairs, he certainly doesn’t like them.

scary open slat stairsRather than continue to ask Logan to go up and down the scary stairs, we’ve decided to use the elevator for now. Meanwhile, we are working on training exercises to help Logan become more comfortable and confident on the stairs.

We’re taking things one step at a time, literally. Logan and I started by walking up to the stairs and having him put his front feet on the first step. Click and treat! (What is clicker training?) Then, I let him circle around me and come back down the stairs.

This was pretty easy for Logan, but that was the point. I wanted to make sure Logan was completely confident with each step before moving on.

Logan the service dog practices going up the scary stairsNext, we walked just a little bit farther, so that I stopped on the first step, and Logan stopped with his front two feet on the second step. Then, after some repetition of this, we moved on to the third step, and then the fourth.

When things are going well during training, it’s easy to get greedy and try to do too much. Although Logan was doing really well with this, I realized that this was also taking a lot of thinking and concentration on his part. So, over the weekend, we continued to practice just stopping on the first, second, third, or fourth step.

He did get to practice on Sunday on the stairs with one of my friends, and that was good practice for generalizing the behavior to another trainer. Once he’s super confident with the first four steps, we’ll add more. We’re not in any rush, since we can take the elevator for now.

Practicing with distractions at the elevator

Logan the service dog works on focusingMeanwhile, the elevator offers lots of opportunities to practice other behaviors, such as waiting patiently for the elevator to arrive, sitting quietly on the elevator, and entering and exiting the elevator.

Importantly, the elevator also means we may come into close proximity with other people. And, the location of this particular elevator makes things more difficult, as it is easy for people to come around the corner without me seeing them.

Logan’s a friendly boy, and he really likes people. This is good for a service dog, because he wants to be right by my side and is very attentive. However, he still gets distracted in public if people come up suddenly.

We had a minor “oops” moment last week while we were waiting for the elevator. A woman came quickly around the corner, squealed in delight to see the cute yellow dog at my side, and then walked right over to us with her hands down to pet Logan. It was all way too exciting, and Logan was more than happy to get up out of his sit and try to go over to her to get some scratches.

Service dog Logan practices riding the elevatorWe did as best we could, with me pulling him back and instructing the woman not to pet him. But, it certainly wasn’t ideal, and it allowed him an opportunity to practice an incorrect behavior.

This is a hard situation to practice, since I can’t anticipate when people will come walking up quickly. So, rather than leave this to chance, several of the ORCA students and I met up this weekend to role-play different situations with the elevator.

We practiced easy at first. A person came up quietly and stood at some distance from Logan while he was waiting for the elevator. Then, we gradually made things harder. We varied the speed of the approaching person, how close the person approached, and the amount of animation in the person’s voice. We also practiced getting on and off the elevator with other people.

This is certainly a skill that will take some more training, but Logan made good progress during our practice this weekend.

Looking forward

As we keep practicing, I’m sure we’ll find other situations that are difficult for Logan. When this does happen, we’ll analyze the situation and come up with a plan and some training exercises to help Logan master the distracting or scary thing. And, as we continue training, I’ll be sure to share more stories here on the blog.

Logan the yellow lab service dog

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  • It sounds like Logan is doing really well with his training, and elevators will definitely get easier with practice. He’s a handsome fella, for sure!

  • Luna C. Lupus

    What an amazing work you’re doing with him! It sounds like he’s really making so much progress!!! The stairs are usually the #1 thing my pups have to learn, because we live on the first floor and they need to climb two set of stairs to get in/out of the house. It always makes for a fun first week – especially if you adopt an older dog who’s never seen stairs and need to carry them up the first day! 😉

    Luna @ Mother Of Rescues || http://www.luna-lupus.com

    • I totally understand what you mean about stairs being a #1 priority for new dogs!

      I lived on the second story at my old apartment, and we had a big staircase. I had a few foster dogs who didn’t understand the stairs at first and who had to be carried up and down for the first few days. Luckily, they all figured it out pretty quickly with a bit of training and practice.

  • jane miller

    As a service dog trainer I would recommend that you put Logan on a down stay when waiting for the elevator.This should help him from pulling you forward. Also start with staircases that don’t have open spaces before moving to the ones you are exposing him to. I would not start getting on the elevator until you have him calmly waiting whether people come by or not. I hope these suggestions help. All the best,
    Jane Miller

    • Hi Jane,

      Thanks for visiting and for leaving a comment with some suggestions.

      I should have been clearer in the post about the stairs. Logan actually does really well with regular stairs. It is specifically the open stairs that make him uncomfortable. So, that is why we have been practicing with open stairs.

      When we wait for the elevator, he waits in a sit stay by my side. He does a default sit stay whenever we stop walking. He actually does really well with people passing by. Perhaps I made it seem worse in the blog post than it actually is. We went to Target last night, and he did great walking around lots of different people. He’s also been to the school cafeteria several times this week, and he did very well around quite a few people and smells.

      What he still occasionally has trouble with is when someone comes quickly around a blind corner and comes right into our space, or if someone comes right up to him making gestures and expressions like they are going to pet him. But, as we continue to practice, he is getting better with both of these.

      We actually haven’t ridden the elevator with any other people yet, except during practice sessions with friends. The elevator in this building is just used very infrequently. However, if there were a group of people on the elevator, and I was unsure if he could handle it, we would just wait for the elevator to come again.

  • sherri

    I hadn’t even considered elevators would be scary for dogs. When my dog Victor was still my nephew’s dog (long story) we travelled together to a hotel and Victor refused to get on the elevator. So my nephews carried him up the stairs.(I don’t know why he didn’t walk. They were 9 and 10 and that was their best solution). The first time I took him in an elevator, he peed. But, after a few tries, he rode like a pro. I think it had to do with knowing he was going somewhere he loved.
    Hope Logan does well. More work than I realized goes into training support animals.

  • What an interesting article. I imagine there are so many aspects to training a service animal that we, as lay people, never thought of. I had a GSD who was terribly afraid of stairs that you could see through. She never really got over it. Thank you for all that you do, and for sharing your expertise with us.

  • Colby

    It sounds like Logan is doing great! Open stairs can be challenging. Also, once he gets used to the elevator you might try looking for a glass elevator which is a whole different experience.

    • At ClickerExpo in Cincinnati last year, the hotel had several big glass elevators in the lobby. The conference allows people to bring their pet dogs, and it was evident that many had never been in a glass elevator before!

      We don’t have that many tall building in Denton, and I’m actually not sure if we have any glass elevators. However, I’m sure we could find one in nearby Dallas.