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Jan 14 2013

Overcoming a puppy’s fear of going down steps

When we got Baxter as a puppy, he learned to up the steps to the next floor quite easily but was scared to come down and had to be carried. One can see why. If anyone of us got down on all fours, it would be easy for us to go up a flight of steps but quite scary to come down head first. I don’t think I could do it, frankly.

But he seemed to desperately want to learn and would go up a couple of steps and stop, waiting for me to carry him down. So one day when he and I were alone, I carried and put him on the third step and put a treat on the floor. His fear of coming down competed with his love of treats and the treats won. I then put him the fourth step and again he succeeded in coming down. Slowly I increased the height of the starting point until he came down the full flight.

He was so excited by this achievement that he started running up and down the stairs until he got tired. But as soon as another member of the family came home, he would begin running up and down the stairs again to show them what he could now do.

In this short video, an older and bigger dog teaches a puppy how to come down steps by modeling and encouraging. Very cute.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    markdowd

    That is the most ridiculously, stupidly adorable thing EVER!!!

  2. 2
    HP

    I’ve been seeing this video all over the ‘net over the last few days, but I know that there are biologists, ethologists, primatologists, and anthropologists reading FTB. So, my question for the science hivemind is:

    Can this be considered cultural transmission?

    Stairs are a technology, and there’s no evolved instinct or capacity for descending stairs. The older pup is clearly a more effective teacher than the human. And the younger pup is motivated not by treats or praise, but the desire to bond with the older pup.

    If a chimp shows another chimp how to fish for termites, or a dolphin shows another dolphin how to use sponges to stir up flatfish, we’re comfortable labeling that as cultural transmission in non-human animals. So what about a dog showing another dog how to descend stairs? What happens when a mature dog encounters stairs for the first time, with no other dog to model?

  3. 3
    HP

    Another sciency thought. Suppose we look at this through a strictly behaviorist lens. The little pup is clearly rewarded for successfully descending the stairs — praise from the human, bonding with the older pup, and of course being on the lower level with access to food, outdoors, and social interaction. But the older puppy is also rewarded by the successful behavior modeling and the praise from humans. How will this reward affect the dog’s long-term behavior in other interactions with the younger puppy?

  4. 4
    feralboy12

    But once the hundredth puppy knows how to descend stairs, they’ll all know, right? Right?

  5. 5
    otrame

    @2

    Yeah, I think it can. It’s simple, of course, but cultural transmission. The older dog saw the problem and showed the kid how to do it. Canines have puppyhoods for a reason. They have things to learn. If they didn’t they would be born with almost everything they need to know in “read-only memory” like reptiles. What those things are varies from place to place, but they need to learn these things and their older pack mates teach them. This allows a great deal of adaptability which in turn makes canines very successful.

    For dogs living in houses, older packmates (including their human packmates) teach them to only pee and poo outside and how to go downstairs.

    As for your last question, either the dog is taught by human packmates, or learns for themselves, slowly, with a great deal of stress and fear. The biggest thing the older dog did was show that he was not afraid. That is what gave the younger puppy the courage to try it.

    I’ve seen dogs teach younger dogs things before, but that video shows one of the cutest I’ve seen.

  6. 6
    sosw

    Very cute, and so familiar (except for the older dog doing the teaching).

    Going down stairs is slightly challenging even for us two-leggers, and this puppy is tiny compared to the height of those steps. Not only that but wood surfaces can be slippery for dogs. Had the stairs been longer (like we had), it might have been a bit early to start learning this…

    Stairs are a technology, and there’s no evolved instinct or capacity for descending stairs.

    There are natural formations similar to stairs. They tend to be considerably less uniform and often offer ways around them, but I would expect that both the ability to take steps down and the ability to maintain a rather steep downward-leaning position are part of normal mobility for quite a few species.

  7. 7
    Marnie

    I think what I find most sweet is the way the older dog uses his mouth to help spot the smaller dog. I assume the point is that were she to fall, he’d catch her. I hope I’m not anthropomorphizing too much here. Anyway, ridiculously cute, any way you slice it.

    In a tangental point, on the topic of dogs and their niftiness, when my spouse and I lived in california, the apartment building we lived in had a front entrance, that was open, all the way to the top floor and each floor could look down to the front entrance over what looked like a balcony, but inside the building. The elevator was adjacent to this opening.

    One day, I was on our floor waiting for the elevator with our dog, and my husband was coming in the front door. I called down to him and he looked up and waved, and our dog looked over the edge and wagged her tail at him with excitement and then immediately turned to the elevator expectantly. She then ran back to the edge to look at him and back to the elevator, which seemed to suggest that she understood that the elevator was the means by which she was moving from one level to another.

    It had never occurred to me that she understood that the elevator moved her up and down. I had always assumed she just saw it as a magic portal of some sort. We walk through a door, things jangle around a big then we walk out the same door and we’re elsewhere.

    tl;dr: Dogs are awesome

  8. 8
    Jared A

    I am none of those types of experts, but according to one (Temple Grandin, I think) that there are known cultural transmissions among canines. One example is in hunting: the shake-kill behavior is an instinct that all dogs (wolves) have. However, eating the prey after killing it is not an instinct, and is usually taught by older pack members. My dogs have never caught a squirrel (it’s those damned leashes), but I’ve heard from other dog owners that it is true that after catching and killing the squirrel most dogs have no idea what to do next.

    Another example I learned from a National Geographic documentary on Yellowstone’s wolves. Apparently the park rangers have noted that different packs of wolves prefer different prey. They claimed that there is one pack that is expert at hunting and killing buffalo, and uses techniques the other packs don’t have!

  9. 9
    Paul W.

    I think that this can be considered cultural transmission, but it’s not clear of what sort. Humans transmit culture very efficiently, even without the use of language, and much more so with language.

    Often when (humans or) nonhuman animals “teach” skills to other nonhuman animals, the learner learns in a very different way than a human would.

    For example, if you teach a chimp to wash dishes, it likely will not understand why you would wash dishes, or what the goal is, and will just wave its hands across the dishes in the water. It’s very hard to teach a chimp the idea of getting a plate clean, as opposed to just playing around with plates and water.

    That specific difficulty (in washing dishes clean) could be partly because chimps’ culture is too different from humans’ and it’s a “weird” goal from their point of view, but there are other examples of things that some chimps do in the wild, but are very slow to pick up. For example, IIRC some wild chimps use rocks as tools to break open nuts so that they can eat the nut meat, but it’s actually much harder to teach a chimp that than to teach a human—it takes them lots and lots of tries before they get it right and can do it right consistently, i.e., putting the nut on a hard surface before hitting it with a hard tool, not hitting too hard and smashing the shell and nut meat together, etc. Humans pick those things up very quickly, apparently because they’re better at understanding how nut-cracking works and why it makes sense to do it exactly that way—they are not following the example by rote mimicking of motions, but analyzing what they see in terms of cause and effect, and learning the principles quickly. (Often from seeing something done just once.) Chimps, on the other hand, will smash a whole lot of nuts and pound a lot of them into soft dirt before they finally “get” how to do the whole process, and even in then it’s not clear whether they really get why that’s the correct process.

    That is not to say that chimps are generally unable to understand cause and effect, or to construct plans based on that knowledge—they clearly can in some ways, e.g., stacking crates to get at a banana suspended from the ceiling, concealing things and deceiving each other, etc. But humans are very good at learning abstract principles from each other, even when the “teaching” is just a demonstration of a particular combination of actions.

    In the case of the puppy video above, it’s not really clear to me how the puppy is learning from the bigger dog—the bigger dog may not be “modeling” the correct stair-descending behavior for the puppy on purpose, and may just be trying to play with the puppy on the stairs. Likewise, the puppy may not be learning the procedure from the big dog, just trying to follow it, and learning how to get down the stairs on its own.

    Of course, humans learn that way sometimes, too—they don’t really understand the issues in doing something until they are actually faced with the task and do some trial and error to discover the issues—especially skills like walking or riding a bicycle. (Most people do not consciously know how to ride a bicycle, e.g., don’t consciously realize that they often turn the front wheel to the left to initiate a turn to the right, and that just turning it to the right would make them either go left, or fall over.)

    Mano:

    If anyone of us got down on all fours, it would be easy for us to go up a flight of steps but quite scary to come down head first. I don’t think I could do it, frankly.

    Learning to turn a snowboard on steeps is like that. You have to keep your weight on your front foot, or it doesn’t work, so when you turn downslope, it feels like you’re just throwing yourself headfirst down the mountain. Then you learn that the board will keep up with you and you won’t really go face down. (Unless you overdo it, in which case you may end up sliding head first down the mountain, but the usual problem is not leaning forward/downhill enough.)

    The puppy may be having another problem that I’ve experienced when snowboarding, of having very mild vertigo with major consequences when you don’t have the usual visual cues, and just have open space in front of you. I had not realized how much I was unconsciously staying oriented using my peripheral vision and cues from trees I was passing. The first time I took a tram up above the treeline and was faced with a bare snow slope and miles of open space in front of me, I couldn’t keep track of exactly which direction was down, when I was moving (and accelerating and decelerating a bit). It felt like “down” kept shifting a few degrees that I couldn’t track with the seat of my pants, and that’s enough to throw your snowboarding way off. I fell a lot getting down to the tree line, on slopes that I could have handled with ease with a few trees around.

    The puppy may have been in that kind of situation… it may be used to having a level surface in front of it and using that to keep track of exactly which way is down. That compounds the problem of getting down a steep, because the puppy may very justifiably fear taking a tumble when apparent “down” keeps wobbling around. Part of learning to descend stairs may be getting used to relying on and trusting different visual and kinesthetic cues to stay oriented.

  10. 10
    Paul W.

    Marnie

    I think what I find most sweet is the way the older dog uses his mouth to help spot the smaller dog. I assume the point is that were she to fall, he’d catch her. I hope I’m not anthropomorphizing too much here.

    Killjoy that I am, I suspect you are. I don’t think the older dog was spotting—I think it was just doing normal play-biting. (Notice that it kept doing it once the puppy was down the stairs, where there’d be no point if it was spotting.)

    I don’t see anything in the video that clearly suggests that the older dog was intentionally teaching a skill, or that the younger dog was learning by copying it, as opposed to just being motivated to get down the stairs and working out how for itself.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t think dogs can have insights and sometimes learn from each other in a higher-level way—just that it’s unclear to me that this is an example of that. (And I suspect you’re right about your dog understanding what the elevator does. Dogs are good at understanding inside vs. outside of containers, spatial relations, path planning, etc.)

  11. 11
    Paul W.

    Jared A:

    I am none of those types of experts, but according to one (Temple Grandin, I think) that there are known cultural transmissions among canines. One example is in hunting: the shake-kill behavior is an instinct that all dogs (wolves) have. However, eating the prey after killing it is not an instinct, and is usually taught by older pack members. My dogs have never caught a squirrel (it’s those damned leashes), but I’ve heard from other dog owners that it is true that after catching and killing the squirrel most dogs have no idea what to do next.

    I don’t know about dogs, but IIRC cats don’t instinctively know how to do the shake-kill thing correctly—the mother cat somehow teaches the kittens how to do it right and snap the prey’s neck with a quick shake. Without that learning, the cats will bite and shake the prey over an over again, and it may take a long time to kill it. (Which of course sucks hugely for the prey, but it’s very dangerous for the predator, too. Lots of predators die from infections from bites and scratches from things they’re trying to eat.)

    And as I understand it, the prey drive in cats has nothing to do with the goal of eating. Cats just kill small things that move, whether they’re hungry or not, and if they’re hungry, they may then think “Hey! there’s food here now! What a stroke of luck!” and eat it. (So far as anybody knows, anyway—it’s very hard to tell for sure what nonverbal animals are really thinking, or how they’re thinking about things.)

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    Paul,

    Thanks a lot for this. It is fascinating stuff. As one who has very poor sense of balance and hence avoids any manner of situation that calls for balance (you will never find me on an ice rink or ski slope!), all this is very new to me.

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