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Stair Climbing as an Exercise for Your Dog

We’ve had a number of dogs recently with knee and hip issues, and their owners are wondering what they can do themselves to help the dogs gain strength in their hind ends. There are a number of different exercises you can do, but this article focuses specifically on stair climbing, a great exercise for most dogs.

Granted we live in Florida where it’s flat, and many homes are only 1 story. But if you happen to live in a 2 story home, or there are stairs anywhere near where you live, I encourage you to take advantage of them as a part of your dog’s (and yours too!) overall exercise regimen.

Why stair climbing?

  • Stair climbing is a great workout for all dogs because it works a dog’s legs, shoulders, hips, and lower back muscles, plus it helps to take weight off. Some studies show that along with swimming, stair climbing is one of the most effective and quickest ways for dogs to lose weight.
  • It is an intense workout because each time a dog takes a step up he has to lift his entire body weight from one step to the next. Weakness in the hindquarters makes going up stairs more difficult, but if you can overcome that, it will help to build the hind end muscle the dog likely needs.
  • When he goes back down the stairs, he has to control the descent which involves negative contraction on the muscles.
  • It’s great for coordination and correct gaiting, particularly on the descent.
  • He also has to think when going up and down, and make sure he positions his legs correctly. This is great for mental exercise and proprioception, because your dog has to know where his feet are with respect to each step.
  • It improves range of motion and balance/coordination.
  • It’s also a perfect indoor exercise when you can’t go outside.

What to be careful of?

  • Stair climbing can be strenuous, so pay close attention to your dog and watch for any signs of overexertion. If there is any doubt regarding your dog’s physical condition, always consult with your veterinarian before starting a program like this.
  • Make sure the stairs are not slippery and are safe especially if they are open in the back. Small dogs can fall through, and all dogs can potentially get a leg caught resulting in an injury, sometimes serious.
  • Stair climbing is often not appropriate for puppies younger than 3 months old. Some studies indicate that it can strain puppies’ joints leading to a higher incidence of hip dysplasia.
  • If your dog has never been on stairs, you’ll have to teach him how to climb and descend. Don’t force him. Use high value rewards and encourage him up, then down the stairs.

Depending on the age and physical condition of your dog, you can either have your dog run or walk up and down the stairs.

Walking is more controlled and requires more thinking on your dog’s part. It is also a better exercise for building muscle and improving range of motion. It’s the exercise that’s appropriate for dogs with any kind of knee or hip issue. For pure cardiovascular exercise for a healthy dog, running up and down stairs is the way to go.  

If you want your dog to walk up and down, make sure to leash him so you can control the pace. Don’t allow your dog to hop or skip up the stairs.

Once your dog has mastered regular stair climbing, teach him how to go up sideways to add some interest and work a different set of muscles.

Stair climbing is a great way to give your dog a full workout, and help build or rebuild muscles particularly those in the hind end. Stair exercises target different muscles than those typically engaged during a regular walk or run. It also increases the difficulty of a normal workout.

So if you have a dog with hind end issues, give stair climbing a try. Even if you have a healthy, bundle of energy, give it a try. Both of you will benefit!