In this article you will know the answer to the query “Why Is My Dog Afraid Of Heights?“.
Online you can find a few videos of dogs who are terrified of heights- they range from the amusing to the downright cruel but what they all show is dogs that are clearly petrified on bridges or on stairs.
Having owned dogs for over 20 years this is not something I have experienced much of. One of my oldest goldens crosses a couple of bridges every month on a walk that we take. That seems to be the only relevant experience.
The bridges are solidly built and only about four feet above the water yet as soon as she steps onto them she hunkers down and slowly crosses.
Can dogs be afraid of heights?
No matter how unlikely it seems your dog can be afraid of absolutely anything.
There is a technical term for a fear of heights called acrophobia which comes from the Greek terms Akron (summit) and phobia (fear).
According to research up to 5% of the human population is afraid of heights but of course there isnot the same information available for dogs.
This raises the question of whether dogs have a built-in or natural fear of heights or whether they have learned to be afraid of heights from trauma.
It is still up in the air whether acrophobia in humans is innate or has been induced by traumatic experiences.
The ability to perceive depth is required for any animal to be scared of heights. To determine whether animals had depth perception a famous set of experiments was carried out in the 1960s. These experiments involved humans and dogs.
I will discuss the findings in the next section
It was a groundbreaking set of experiments performed in the 1960s to determine whether babies could perceive depth.
It was prepared as a level surface with part checkered flooring and part perspex (the checkered flooring is a few feet beneath the perspex).
Researchers wanted to know whether infants would be as confident crawling over perspex flooring as they were on chequered flooring.
Children who crawl over the perspex surface are much more hesitant than those who crawl over the chequered surface because they are beginning to perceive depth.
In the article it is interesting to learn that before these experiments were conducted on human infants they were conducted on a variety of different animals including dogs cats and cows!
Dogs do not seem to have any specific depth perception findings but most animals have it from a very young age. Cats under 4 weeks of age exhibited a real reluctance to go near the perspex surface.
Perspex flooring was an exception as rats were happy to walk over it. Because rats primarily use their noses to locate food they rely much less on their eyesight.
Yet is the fear of height caused solely by depth perception in humans and dogs? I would like to discuss stairs as an example.
Are dogs scared of stairs?
In this video a dog who is afraid of climbing stairs is carried up a set of stairs! This is no small dog either.
A lot of dogs are afraid of stairs which is a fear that is commonly associated with dogs being scared of heights.
As you climb these steps you can quite clearly see how far off the ground you are as you go up and down them. They are outside so they are not enclosed.
Furthermore the individual steps do not have a vertical space at all so as you walk up to them you can see the ground below between the gaps in each step.
This thread on Reddit shows another example of a dog who is afraid of walking up an “open” staircase.
It is quite evident that the owner is in a hurry as she is on the third floor and obviously needs her dog to be a confident climber of stairs since they will be using them several times daily.
The dog was completely comfortable going up and down the enclosed staircase which she found.
When the dog was on a staircase he probably felt that he was more relaxed when he could not see the ground to his left or right or in between each stair that he climbed!
If dogs are afraid of stairs what else could they be afraid of?
In the opinion of iheartdogs.com there are four possible reasons why dogs are afraid of stairs:
Lack of exposure- You havenot taken your dog up and down enough to build confidence in him.
Traumatic experience- He is afraid of stairs because he has bad memories associated with them. Falling and tripping are frequent occurrences.
Learned behavior- In most houses dogs are not allowed to go upstairs and you want them to go up a flight of stairs? What the heck!
Pain- Dogs do not like climbing or descending stairs because they hurt.
A dog may dislike stairs for a number of reasons in addition to those mentioned above.
As a matter of fact I can think of four.
Some stairs in communal buildings have strange acoustics since they have no furnishings and no carpets to absorb the sounds. Dogs with sensitive hearing find them frightening.
Slippery wooden floors
Solid wood staircases are becoming increasingly common in our homes as well as many communal staircases. Will Fido be able to handle that?
An anti-slip material might be used on the outside staircase. Almost like sandpaper the steps might have a metal grid design or a heavily textured surface. Imagine how uncomfortable a dog would find that.
On the bridge where my dog freaks out there is an anti-slip surface that must feel like sandpaper. This might be because of its texture rather than its height.
These steps are exposed to the elements including wind rain and ice. All of these factors can enhance a dogs climbing experience.
What can dogs see?
In order to understand why dogs are afraid of heights we should examine a dogs eyesight more thoroughly.
In this regard I want to focus on two main areas:
- Vision in both binoculars and depth perception
- Night vision and color vision
My previous post talked about the fact that dogs have the ability to perceive depth so they can be afraid of heights.
Currently an animal must have binocular vision in order to perceive depth.
I want to start by exploring the eyesight of a dog from this standpoint.
Having binocular vision means that each eye shares the same field of view- some of what we see is seen by both eyes.
The closer animals eyes are to each other the better their binocular vision (or the larger the area that both eyes see).
Binocular vision enhances depth perception and the better the binocular vision the better.
Due to the distance between their eyes dogs’ binocular vision is not as good as that of humans.
Because of this their perception of depth isnot as good as it should be.
Now that we have examined binocular vision its time to examine the color and night vision abilities of a dogs eyes
The belief has long been held that dogs’ eyesight is much worse than humans’ and there have been several myths surrounding this such as that dogs can only see in black and white.
Plus dogs have great senses of smell so they do not need such good eyesight!
As more research has been conducted into how dogs’ eyes function these myths have become disproved.
Even though dogs see in some color it is not the vivid colors we are used to seeing.
There is no need for them to do this of course.
The eyes of any animal contain two types of sensors called rods and cones.
Color is sensed by cones.
Dogs have fewer cones in their eyes than humans do which is why we have better color vision.
Although dogs have more rods in their eyes than we do.
A rod provides an eye with “low light” capacity so the more rods an eye has the better its ability to see at night and detect motion.
In my opinion a dogs night vision and motion detection need to be better than a humans as a predator.
One interesting theory about motion detection is that it is the reason our dogs are so sensitive to our posture.
This is true. Dogs are able to sense when I am stressed or anxious without me saying anything or making a sound. They can tell just by the way that I stand or move.
As I have described how dogs view the world in great detail I now want to explore the role of fear and how dogs get scared in my next section.
Why do dogs get scared?
The emotion of fear is healthy and helpful for all animals including humans and dogs.
Dogs have an instinctive reaction to danger which helps them decide whether to “fight or flight” when faced with danger.
As part of a dogs instinct fear is triggered almost instantly at any sign of danger.
A dogs behavior changes when it is scared just like humans. They might suddenly start shaking pacing cowering freezing growling or barking.
Fear is an instinctive reaction that is triggered before the brain has had a chance to consider whether a danger exists.
On a walk we might see a dog cowering in terror after hearing a loud noise in the distance such as a gunshot.
Once the dog realizes that the sound isnot a threat it continues to walk as normal.
A dog with a phobia may react differently from one with an ordinary “fear” reaction.
The dog develops a phobia because of a past experience. It is a reaction to a threatening experience that persists over time.
As a result it is much more difficult to treat (or at least lessen) than an ordinary fear reaction.
Most Common Fears in Dogs
Dogs have 10 widely recognized fears. These are according to iheartdogs.com:
- Car rides
- The Vet
- Being alone
- Other dogs
- Unfamiliar objects
How to Help dog overcome the fear of heights
To help your dog overcome any fear be it of a thunderstorm or of heights break the experience up into several small steps and be careful how you comfort/distract them or praise them (when they have done well.)
In order to be more specific I will make use of my experience in overcoming a dogs fear of going up a flight of stairs.
It will take your dog longer to overcome a phobia of climbing stairs if it has been present for a long time.
There are several tasks that need to be broken up into smaller ones- no pun intended.
Since smaller steps are easier to achieve you and your dog will succeed more often and since you will be successful you will be more likely to praise your dog.
Praise and success create a virtuous circle that makes more success more likely.
The downside of breaking a task into smaller steps is that it will take a lot longer which will probably make you groan.
Heres another way to look at it.
How much time have you spent dealing with your dogs fear up until now? Do you recall how many sleepless nights you have had? Is your back sore (perhaps) because you are carrying them up a set of stairs at the moment?
What are the alternatives?
The goal on day 1 might be to get your dog within three feet of the first step.
In other words how do you deal with their reluctance and fear?
When your dog starts shaking or crying the natural response would be to comfort them. However that reinforces the dogs perception of the experience as frightening. If otherwise why would you treat him with such love?
Instead use some distractions and act as if getting to this position is a lot of fun or quite easy.
Are there any toys or balls that your dog likes to play with? If so you can make the experience fun. Praising and petting the dog whenever he or she gets closer to the stairs is a good idea.
Next on day two either repeat the same goal or set a slightly more challenging one (standing just in front of the stairs? ) or if you did not achieve it break it down into even smaller steps.
It is imperative that you have a lot of patience and that you are kind to yourself and your dog.
Donot give up and do not give up.
Each day our goal is to achieve a little bit more than yesterday which is because praise is like a drug to your dog – it is one of the things that they crave above all else.
You would not be able to accomplish more every single day some days will be a bit of a disaster but thats okay as long as overtime your dog will be able to climb more stairs.