About a year ago Zam, my 14.5-year-old Labrador, began to balk at the stairs. As we approached the bottom of the staircase, he would put on the brakes and then engage in his choice of displacement behavior—usually sniffing the ground or suddenly scratching.
Although I knew that he was trying to communicate that he’d prefer not to go up the stairs at that particular time, we had a bit of a problem. The only other way up to our second-floor office was the elevator, and Zam was having none of that. He was, quite literally, scared stiff of the elevator. Back then, a few clicks and treats were all it took to convince him the stairs were a fine option.
At the time, Zam’s balking was very infrequent. Most of the time he’d go up happily, but the occasional balking served as a warning and reminder to me; eventually Zam might not be physically capable of negotiating stairs. So, we began working on making the elevator a much less scary place to be.
In helping an animal be less afraid of a given stimulus, usually slow-and-steady progress toward the goal behavior is key. Because there’s fear involved (in some cases extreme fear), the progress is something that should never be rushed. It’s important to progress at the animal’s pace and try to keep the animal under “threshold” (the point at which an animal displays a fearful response) as much as possible. Don’t make too far of a leap and ask too much of the animal too soon.
The Shaping Plan
We spent several sessions shaping duration in the stationary elevator. Our shaping plan looked something like this:
Part 1: Stationary elevator
- Look at the floor in elevator, c/t
- Step toward the elevator, c/t
- One paw in the elevator, c/t
- Front paws in the elevator, c/t
- All four paws in the elevator, c/t, and go back out
- Remain in elevator for a second, c/t, and go back out
- Remain in elevator for two seconds with door open, c/t, and go back out
- Remain in elevator while door closes, c/t, and go back out
- Remain in elevator for a few seconds after door closes, c/t, and go back out
- Remain in elevator with door closed and respond to simple cue like hand touch, c/t
- Remain in elevator with door closed and lie down, c/t
With elevators, though, there comes a point when you can no longer continue on the same gradual path you’d like to follow. Once you push the button and commit to ascending or descending, you’re stuck in there for at least one story’s worth of travel.
What I would have liked to have done was to acclimate Zam to the sensation of the floor “moving beneath him” by asking him to remain there for only a brief moment of movement and then immediately allow him to exit. This elevator, though, takes a full 6 seconds to travel from the first floor up to the second. It’s a pretty big leap from “step and remain in the stationary elevator” to “step and remain in the now-moving elevator for a full 6 seconds!”
What to do? As a former agility dog, Zam had lots and lots of previous positive reinforcement for stepping onto and walking over “weird” surfaces that move beneath him. We had that going for us. For a non-agility dog, I’d recommend positively reinforcing the behavior of stepping on “weird” moving surfaces many times well before trying the elevator.
For Zam, I grabbed the highest-value reinforcer I knew of: his entire breakfast. For him, there is nothing more powerful and exciting than the sight, sound, and smell of food being poured into his bowl and getting to shove his grey snout into it. Fourteen years later, he is still scarfing it down with the same vigor as the first meal he’d ever tasted. Lucky for us, Zam’s breakfast is not only a powerful reinforcer, but also a long-lasting one. A full bowl of breakfast got us up the elevator and then back down again easily, while the old man gobbled up his food the entire time. He paused eating only briefly, noted the weird sensation of the elevator, and then resumed eating.
Part 2: Moving elevator
- All four paws in, door closes, click and presentation of entire food bowl
- Elevator travels up or down one floor and food bowl remains the entire time
- If all goes well (for us, it did), repeat each day for several days
In our case, this plan worked great. After his initial shaping of going into and out of a stationary elevator was complete, Zam ate breakfast in the moving elevator every day for about a week, with great success each time. With both operant conditioning through shaping and classical conditioning by pairing the elevator ride with continuous food delivery, Zam learned to enter the elevator happily and developed a positive emotional response to the elevator and the ride! Before long, the elevator was a fantastic place to be, and, as is clear in the video, he would actually try to push his way into it. My “Plan B” would have been a bully stick or a stuffed Kong for him to consume the entire time the elevator was moving. As it turned out, we didn’t need it.
In addition to “elevator for your breakfast,” I added another reinforcer to the elevator/stairs scenario: choice. Zam gets to decide whether he’d like to climb the stairs or take the elevator. His choice is determined by the direction he guides me—to the right means elevator, to the left means stairs. He gets a cookie either way, no matter what he chooses. Providing the opportunity to choose the option he’d prefer is an easy way to give Zam more say in the matter. First thing in the morning when he bounds through the door full of energy, Zam typically chooses the stairs. Coming back inside from the midday walk, he usually chooses the elevator.
From challenge to choice
Several months after our elevator training had been completed to mutual satisfaction, Zam’s ability to negotiate going down a set of stairs safely declined rapidly. Recently, I had to make the choice for him that we’ll be taking the elevator on the way down every time. Having to make this choice on his behalf made me reflect on the work we’d done. I am glad that we began and completed the elevator training before it became a true necessity. Doing that took the stress out of having to “rush” the training steps. It allowed us to progress at a pace that was comfortable for Zam. If you, too, have an older dog, think about what types of things you’ll need to train in the future (using an elevator, picking the dog up, or physically assisting the dog in some way) and train now, before new choices are needed. Your dog will be grateful you did.