For Fearful Dogs, a Fresh Coat of Paint Makes All the Difference

July 12, 2016

Fresh coat of paint makes all the difference

Before and after.

The crowded nature of New York City means that people—and buildings—are always moving upward rather than outward. At the ASPCA Adoption Center and Canine Annex for Recovery and Enrichment (CARE) in Manhattan, dogs must get used to riding in elevators and climbing stairs in order to go outside for walks. But for some dogs, stairs can be especially frightening.

“Many of the dogs we work with have most likely never encountered stairs before,” says Victoria Wells, Senior Manager of Behavior and Training. “They have lived in basements, backyards and situations of extreme confinement.” Two such dogs are Coretta and Harriett.

Coretta, who was seized by the NYPD in January, once lived her life on chains with no protection from the elements or access to food and water, as did Harriett. Both were terrified of the stairs leading from their second-story kennels at CARE to the street below. But dogs housed and cared for at CARE must use the stairs at least four times a day, so the ASPCA behavior team suggested painting the monochromatic tan-colored stairs with colors used for dog agility equipment: blue and yellow.

Fresh coat of paint makes all the difference

Before and after: Coretta hesitates to climb down stairs prior to the new paint; afterward is much easier.

Why blue and yellow? Dogs have only two types of photoreceptors (blue and yellow), or cones, in their eyes, while humans have three (red, blue and yellow); photoreceptors transmit signals about color to the brain. “Blue and yellow are two of the colors that dogs see best,” says Dr. Erin Wilson, Director of Shelter Medicine at the ASPCA Adoption Center.

What humans process as red, orange, yellow or green can appear as different concentrations of yellow to dogs. Blue-green, blue and violet appear as saturations of blue. Colors like green or red are not distinguishable. Simply put, a canine’s color vision is not as rich or intense as that of humans.

“It can be easier for some dogs to walk up stairs as opposed to going down because they can perceive how steep each stair is,” says Victoria. She adds that dogs with physical disabilities such as visual impairments, orthopedic issues, and short, stocky legs—like bulldogs, whose breathing problems can also create challenges—often have the most difficult time navigating stairs.

Before the stairs were re-painted, “Dogs had trouble discerning where one step ends and another begins,” explains Gail Buchwald, Senior Vice President of the Adoption Center. But afterward, staff noticed immediate changes in the dogs’ confidence. 

The biggest impact has been on Harriett, according to Animal Behavior Counselor Jennifer Gerrity, who presented the initial idea to paint the stairs. Once very nervous, “Harriett now charges up and down,” Jennifer says.

Despite the challenges of big city life, these vulnerable animals are indeed learning to step up.