DOG QUEST: The Stairs of Cirith Ungol

A slow and spreading disaster struck our household a few weeks ago, but it took us some time to realise the nature of the problem.

Some background is necessary: we have a deck out the back of our house that looks out over the yard and the rainforest in which we live. The only access to the backyard is via that deck and involves a set of narrow timber stairs. Now, in the long term, I have plans for that deck to be rebuilt, and a ramp put in, because one day our dogs will be old and have hip problems and stairs aren’t good for them. In the meantime, we can’t afford that, so they deal with the stairs.


The view from our back deck on a misty morning

When we first got Abby, she was deeply suspicious of these stairs. It took a great deal of persuasion and treats in order to convince her that she could get up and down them safely.

Of course, that was at the height of Melbourne summer.

Fast forward five months, and suddenly our back deck, which is normally relatively clean (if perhaps not what one would consider pristine), is becoming covered in dog poop. Around the same time (although we didn’t make the connection) Abby’s indoor behaviour started to go from “really improving” to “oh my God, this dog is a nutter.”

At this time both Husband and I were sick, so we put it down to the fact that we weren’t spending enough time taking the dogs out and interacting with them – less playing and training and exercise will of course lead them to go nuts.

Except that Amos wasn’t going nuts – just Abby.

The light went on one day about a week ago when I decided to take Abby for a walk up the street. I was still feeling a bit crook, but I had a serious case of cabin fever and I missed walking with the dogs. I’d already taken Amos up and back; now it was the little girl’s turn.

I stood at the side gate, below the deck, looked up at her, and called. She ran out of sight – I presumed to go down the stairs – and then, surprisingly, reappeared.

“Abby!” I called again.

The same thing happened – she would duck away, as if to go to the stairs and come down to meet me – and then she would duck back, looking simultaneously very excited and confused.

I went to the bottom of the stairs and called her again, figuring that she was so excited to go for a walk that her brain had short-circuited and she was stuck in some sort of canine pathfinding error.

She stood at the top of the stairs, looked at me, wagged her tail, and then dropped into a heap, giving me a desperate look.

I placed a couple of treats on the step second from the top (she can just bend down if I put them on the top step). She wriggled forward, put her two front paws on the top step, whined, and jumped backwards.

It all came together – the pooping, the berseko-dog behaviour, the apparent inability to get from the deck to the gate, and the minor cut above one eye.

The stairs get very slippery in the wet, and we’ve been getting a lot of rain. I hadn’t been concerned because Amos had negotiated these stairs last winter already and done quite well – but he’s very careful. Abby, on the other hand, is mostly made of elbows and knees and is a little uncoordinated.

So, I’m guessing someone slipped on the wet stairs, banged her eye, and decided that the stairs were now terrifying. She would go up them, but not down them. Meanwhile, she was getting no exercise (normally she and Amos run around in the yard with great exuberance), the poop was piling up, and she was stuck in a relatively small space for hours and hours that was full of dog poop.

Poor Abby. I felt terrible.

Today was the first free day I’d had to deal with the problem.

I went to Bunnings and purchased thirteen black rubber stair treads and a set of exterior screws (the minor miracle here is that I went to Bunnings with a clear idea of what I wanted and left with only those things).

Then Husband and I spent a pleasant half an hour outside in the late afternoon with the electric drills, affixing the stair treads to the stairs. They now look like this:


The Stairs of Cirith Ungol, now with dog-safe treads and uneven screws.

I grabbed some dog treats and got Abby out onto the deck to see how she would react.

At first it was no different. She sniffed the rubber curiously, ate the treats when I provided them at the first step, but wouldn’t come down to the second. I tugged gently on her collar. She pulled back and dropped into a flat heap at the top of the stairs, head on her paws. She couldn’t have said No I won’t! any more clearly if she tried.

It was Husband who suggested, “You might have to put her on lead.”

I was hesitant. I envisioned myself tugging Abby down the stairs, which, since she was genuinely terrified, would be traumatising for her. I wondered if there was some other way to do it, but in the end I agreed, and he brought me the lead.

I clipped Abby on the lead, and, planning to stop on the second step to try and lure her, began to go down the stairs.

Abby began to trot down confidently beside me.

I was mystified: why would being on the lead help? Husband pointed out that, when Abby is on the lead, she is always safe. She is being guided, and trained, and cared for. Nothing bad ever happens when she is on the lead, so it makes her more confident. She was willing to give the stairs ago when I had her on lead, because she trusted that I wouldn’t let her come to harm. Off-lead? She just wasn’t sure.

At the bottom of the stairs I unclipped the lead, praised her mightily and provided many treats and told her how clever and good and brave she was, and then we practised “Upstairs!” and “Downstairs!” some more. “What a brave puppy!” I cooed. “What a clever girl!”

(yes, I’m a bit nauseating with my dogs. Shhh)

She was delighted. Excited praise is her bread and butter.

After this we let Amos out, took both dogs downstairs, and watched them bouncing and playing and leaping among the trees. I was so relieved and happy I nearly cried – I’d been feeling so terrible about her predicament.

13 x Rubber stair treads: $200

100 x (8G x 25mm) exterior screws: $4.95 (I only used 78)

Watching your cooped up manic dog play happily: Priceless.




A blurry, twilight picture of Abby in the backyard. She has a crushed 2 litre plastic milk bottle in her mouth (best dog toys ever).


A blurry twilight picture of Amos, mid-leap (okay, I’m not an action photographer).


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