The first time that Layla ever rode an elevator was also the last time she rode one. She panicked as soon as the elevator moved, plastering herself to the floor, and shook in abject terror. She refused to eat her favorite treats. As soon as the door opened, she startled at the beep and lunged out of the elevator. She took hours to calm down, pacing and panting. She also jumped at any beeping noise for weeks after (she would later develop a phobia about beeping noises after being trapped in my house for hours with a fire alarm chirping its low battery warning, and I always wondered whether this earlier experience with beeps had primed her to develop a full-fledged phobia with the additional traumatic exposure… but that’s a story for another day).
After this experience, we got a lot of stair climbing in. With patient work during low-traffic times at Clicker Expo one year, Layla got to the point where she could comfortably walk in and out of the elevator on a loose leash and could take food while standing in the elevator, but since it wasn’t an environment we encountered frequently I chose to just manage her fear and work on other things instead. It was easy enough to request rooms on the lower floors of any hotel we stayed at, and climbing a flight or two of steps never hurt anyone.
After Layla’s experience, I started thinking about dogs and elevators. They go into a room. A door closes. The floor moves – a very odd experience for a dog! Then the door opens and they’re in an entirely new place. For dogs like Layla, who have a strong need to make sense of their world through rigid rule structures and hypervigilant scanning, this set-up has all of the variables of a nightmare.
The good news is that most dogs can be comfortably introduced to riding in elevators! Just like any other sort of socialization, this is most easily done while puppies are still under 4 months of age, but even older dogs can learn to feel safe and happy riding in an elevator.
I usually start this process at parking ramps during off-peak hours. Choose times where there will still be a handful people around (for obvious security concerns), but don’t choose a time when there will be lots of people wanting to use the elevator. If someone arrives and wants to use the elevator you’re working with, give it up for them and wait for the next elevator.
Begin by going in and out of the elevator multiple times. Some dogs are weirded out by walking over the little space at the door. Practice your dog’s loose-leash and focus skills while you do this, clicking and treating for moving with and paying attention to you. Remember that you may eventually be stepping into an elevator full of people (some of whom may not be comfortable with dogs), so it’s important that your dog have the skills to follow your direction.
Once your dog can comfortably walk onto and off of the elevator, begin accustoming him or her to the automatic doors. Close the doors, feed your dog, open the doors, and walk off the elevator. Repeat a few times until your dog feels comfortable.
If all is going well, you may want to do a bit of play! Bring out a tug toy and have a game with your dog right in the elevator, or love your dog up if they prefer physical affection to toy play. We want them a little excited and very happy for the next step… movement!
Most dogs do better going up than down. I know some people who feel the same way, as they report that going down always feels like they are falling. So, start with a journey up one floor. Start feeding your dog as the elevator begins to move up, and stop feeding when the elevator stops. Then practice your loose leash skills as you walk off the elevator. If that went well, go down the stairs of the parking garage to the level you just came from, and do a few more trips up. If your dog seemed a little nervous, do some more quick in-and-outs with the elevator before you add in another trip between floors.
Once your dog is happy and comfortable going up in the elevator, it’s time to practice down. Go up one floor, then go back down to the floor your started at. Remember to feed your dog when the elevator is moving, and stop feeding when the movement stops. Continue to reward for focus and polite leash manners.
As your dog becomes more comfortable with the elevator, you can begin to take longer trips between floors. You can also start practicing elevator manners with other people or pets. I find it easiest to put my dog on the inside (between the wall of the elevator and my side) so that I can prevent him from wiggling over to anyone else, and also so that I can protect him from any person or animal who may hurt or scare him. Remember that it is always your responsibility to keep your dog calm and under control in elevators, and that confined spaces can cause stress (in people and animals!). It’s always okay to get off the elevator if something makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps the car is getting crowded and you know tight spaces make your dog nervous, or someone just got on with a frantic, barking dog trying to wiggle out of their grasp. Just leave, and wait for the next car. It may take you an extra minute or two to get where you’re going, but in the long run your dog’s comfort and safety are worth it.
When you’re a small-town lady from rural Minnesota, elevators may not be a big problem. They weren’t for Layla and me. However, having a dog who is comfortable riding in elevators can literally open doors. Being able to bring your dog to hotels and have her greet the elevator happily, getting the better apartment lease because your dog doesn’t mind the elevator (and you love the view), taking your dog shopping at dog-friendly locations because she can ride the elevator in the parking garage or stores, doing therapy dog visits at hospitals and nursing homes to brighten up the residents’ days… the more comfortable your dog is with elevators, the more places he can enjoy. And while doing a few extra flights of stairs never hurt anyone, wouldn’t it be nice to sometimes take the elevator instead?