All Things Dog

Is Your Dog Afraid of Heights?

We love to imagine that our dogs are as fearless as they are loyal. Based on their behavior during a typical day, many dogs seem fairly courageous. They follow you where you lead—over hill, over dale, into bustling dog parks, and down crowded urban sidewalks—without complaining. And usually with their tails wagging happily behind them.

However, some dogs may suffer from certain phobias. The most common phobias that affect dogs are fear of…

  • Loud noises
  • Being left alone (separation anxiety)
  • Strangers
  • Riding in the car
  • Going into the water

Some dog are even afraid of veterinarians, just like some kids tremble when they have to visit the doctor.

Fear of heights—technically known as acrophobia—also makes it onto the list of phobias, though it’s a relatively rare occurrence compared to, say, fear of loud noises.

Is it really fear of heights?

Some dog owners believe their pet may have a fear of heights because of their nervous reaction when put on a table at the groomers or the vet’s office. That reaction, however, may not be about the distance between the tabletop and the floor below. Many of those tables have slippery surfaces, making it difficult for the dog to feel in control.

If your dog experiences anxiety on slippery tabletop surfaces but not on a bed or couch, then it probably isn’t acrophobia. And there’s a simple solution: Cover the slippery surface with something that lets your dog get some traction, like a rubber bathmat.

The same lack-of-secure-footing situation may also present itself if you’re hiking with your dog on a cliff-like trail. Your dog’s hesitation and anxiety to trek down that pathway could very well have to do with the fact that the rocky surface makes it difficult for his paws to grip the surface.

Stairs: Where anxiety strikes

Many times, dogs that suffer from acrophobia are the ones that avoid stairs. If you live in a one-level home and rarely encounter long staircases, this may never be a problem. But a typical multi-level home can present an emotional challenge for a dog with a fear of heights. Some owners in that situation simply carry their beloved pet up and down the stairs. That may seem like a simple solution. However, being your dog’s staircase shuttle may reinforce his fear of heights without solving the underlying phobia.

If you dog becomes anxious around the stairs, there are few things you can try:

Carpet the stairs—If your stairs have a slippery wood, tile, or linoleum surface, try carpeting or covering them with a more paw-friendly surface. This will give your dog a reassuring sense of “sure-footedness,” which may help him overcome his fear. However, if the phobia is deeply ingrained, this may not be enough.

Play therapy at the bottom of the stairs—Some people have had success by making a game of it. They engage their fearful pet with some fun playtime at the base of the stairs. Once they’re sure their dog is having a good time, they place the toy or a treat on the first stair. If all goes well, the dog will have no problem taking this simple step. Gradually the toy or treat is placed at higher places, one small step at a time, and at a pace that’s comfortable for the dog.

Professional help—Some dogs may be so fearful of heights, it may be necessary to seek the help of a professional trainer. If your dog has an extremely anxious personality to begin with, you should also consult with a veterinarian. The vet may want to prescribe tranquilizers or recommend training exercises that can help.

Patience and understanding can go a long way toward helping your dog. Needless to say, you never want to become angry with a dog that refuses to go up and down the stairs. And never push, pull, or shove your dog into a place where he is uncomfortable. He may react by biting, barking, and becoming even more fearful.

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