DIY Dog Stairs

Not all people treat their pets the same. While some will let their dogs and cats up on the furniture with them, even allowing their pets to sleep in their beds, others think that pets belong on the floor. A lot of that has to do with where the pet is in the family relationship. Some people see their pets as mere animals, while others see them as members of the family. Those are the people more likely to allow their pets on the furniture.

But what does one do if they’ve got a small dog? Or, maybe I should ask, what’s the dog to do? Some dogs are real jumpers, able to make it up onto even a high bed, while others just can’t quite get there. That becomes even more of a problem as the dog gets older, with arthritis preventing them from jumping as well as they could when they were younger.

Some people pick their dogs up, helping them get on the furniture. But that can get tedious after a while. It’s a whole lot easier for them to have their own way to climb up there. That’s where the idea of some doggie stairs comes in.

Stairs or Ramps?

One of the big questions is whether to build stairs or ramps for pets to go up. On the surface, it would seem that ramps would be easier for dogs to navigate, as it is more natural. But on the other hand, dogs don’t seem to have any trouble getting used to climbing the stairs in a home.

Stairs aren’t much different to dogs than climbing up rocks or a hillside. They’re bodies are designed so that the hind legs give them a lot of push, allowing them to climb up even steep grades. While they’ll never be able to compete with mountain goats, they can wear a human out going up a hill.

The other advantage of stairs is that they take up less floor space. In order to make a ramp that’s navigable, the angle of the ramp needs to be considerably shallower than stairs. So the ramp needs to be longer than the stairs would be. So, while it might be necessary to have stairs for an older dog which has trouble climbing the stairs, that’s not necessary in most cases.

What is necessary is making sure that there’s a surface on the steps or ramp which the dogs can grip well with their pads and claws. A slick surface can be dangerous to a dog, especially an older one. Carpeting the stairs is a great way to make sure that they are safe for our four-footed friends.

Making a Plywood Stair

There are lots of possible designs for dog stairs, including some rather modern, abstract designs. But it’s really not all that necessary to go to great lengths to make a fancy staircase. That’s not going to impress the dogs and anyone who sees any doggie stairs is probably going to be impressed by it.

The other thing to take into consideration is that the dogs we’re talking about are much lighter than we are. Whereas a normal staircase is designed to hold a minimum of 1,000 pounds of weight, we’re talking about small dogs here. That 1,000 pounds is calculated at five times the expected live load, so five times the weight of a 20 pound dog is only 100 pounds.

That may even seem like a lot, when we look at what the internet says about the load capacity of plywood. There are a lot of websites which are saying that ¾” plywood can support only 50 pounds; that’s over a 3 foot span. But that figure is based upon how much load it can support, without support and without sagging over time. In other words, how much it can support as an unsupported bookshelf.

If ¾” plywood could only support 50 pounds, then we’re all in trouble. Except for the ground floor on homes which are built on a slab, pretty much all homes are built with a ¾” plywood or OSB subfloor. Currently, the average weight of American men over 20 is just shy of 200 pounds. So, if 50 pounds were the most that our floors could support, there would be a lot of us falling through the floor.

The building code requires that floors be built to support a life load of 40 pounds per square foot. In one way, that seems even worse. But that number is based upon averaging the weight over the entire floor. When someone stands on that floor, their feet may be within only one square foot, but in fact, their body weight is being spread out over a much bigger area, due to the materials used and manner of construction of that floor.

What all that means for our current conversation is that we don’t need to use heavyweight materials for the doggie stairs. We don’t need regular stair treads or even ¾” thick plywood, if we support the steps in the right way. Half inch plywood should be sufficient. We can use that for everything but the step supports.

diy, dog staris, step tread, step riser, step support, riser support
DIY dog stairs – side view

Start by cutting the sides of the stair out of ½” plywood. The type of plywood isn’t important if the entire thing is going to be painted or covered with carpeting. But if a nice furniture finish is desired for the sides, then they should be cut out of hardwood plywood. Just take the outline dimensions in the diagram above to lay out and cut the sides.

The step treads and risers are also going to be made out of ½” plywood. How wide they’re going to be depends on the size of the dog. If the stairs are for a small dog, then 12” wide is sufficient. If it’s for a larger dog, then it should probably be 18” wide. For a 12” wide staircase, the step treads will be 8” x 12” and the risers will be 6”x 12”. Three of each are needed.

The only other piece that’s required is the step supports. I usually rip a piece of 1”x 4” pine into ¾” wide strips for things like this, giving me a stick with a square cross-section. It’s possible to buy material like that, but it is cheaper to cut them from a 1”x 4”.

There are three step supports, 7.5” long, and two riser supports, 5.5” long, on the inside of each of the two sides. It’s possible to just screw or nail through the sides into the treads and risers, but with ½” material, it’s easy to miss the mark. Using the supports provides a wider area to nail or screw into, as well as a wider surface for gluing. It is easy to lay out the location of these supports from the dimensions given and attach them to the inside of the two sides.

Attach the step treads and risers to these supports, gluing and screw them in place. When doing something like this, I have a couple of supports I’ve made out of plywood, which act as large squares. These can be clamped to the workbench and pieces clamped to them. In this case, that would be the sides of the stairs, helping to ensure that the whole thing is square when assembled.  See the drawing below.

3D square, plywood, scrap material
3D square

It isn’t necessary, but depending on the décor in the room and whether it will be necessary for the stairs to be moved around, a bottom and a back can be attached to the unit, also made out of 1/4” plywood. To install them, I’d measure the opening and cut them to fit. Then I would add support blocks to the inside of the sides, 1/4” inside of the edge, so that when the panels are attached to them, they will sit flush with the edge of the sides.

If the stairs are going to be painted or stained, it would be best to do that now, before the carpeting is installed. Depending on the plywood used, there may be some need to fill and sand the plywood before painting it, especially if it doesn’t have a smooth finish (such as B-C softwood plywood). If that’s the case, it might be a good idea to do that, before assembly.

At a minimum, I’d recommend covering the step treads with carpeting to give Fido a good grip while climbing the stairs. One long strip of carpeting can be cut, and then wrapped all the way around all the stairs, starting underneath the top step and ending behind the bottom riser, stapling it in place, so that it is snug up against the step treads and risers.

Making a Modern Stair

A more modern staircase for the family dog can be made by using aluminum staircase stringers. These are available from the local home improvement warehouse. Meant for use singly or in pairs, they are designed to make installing stairs easy. But to use them for this project, we’ll need to provide them with some support.

The basic problem is that the stair stringer is designed to be bolted in place; so it doesn’t have a wide base to give it support or much of a support up against the wall either. But by starting with the step tread and mounting it to some dimensional lumber, those problems can be overcome. Then all that needs to be done is to add the step treads.

diy, dog stairs
DIY dog stairs – modern

In the diagram above, standard 1”x 10 or 1”x 12” material is used to make a right angle to mount the stair stringer to. Some sort of bracing is needed on the sides, as demonstrated by the triangular piece of plywood shown. This combination provides something solid and stable to mount the stringer to. Normal step treads can then be cut down to 12” to 18” long and mounted to the supports on the staircase stringer.

As with the stairs made out of plywood, it’s a good idea to cover the step treads with plywood here as well, helping canine friends to keep their footing. It would also be a good idea to round the cut edges of the step treads, preventing them from hurting themselves on it if they miss the step.

Making a Temporary Dog Stair

In the case of someone who needs something quickly or doesn’t have the necessary tools to make a plywood staircase, an easy option is to just stack up some sturdy cardboard boxes and tape them together. We all seem to be getting a lot of deliveries these days, so chances are it won’t be hard to save a few boxes which will work well, being of the right dimensions.

The nice thing about this, besides it being easy, is that it can be configured however works best, with the available boxes. For smaller dogs, it won’t be necessary to provide any additional support, but if the dog in question is a bit overweight or chunky, it might be a good idea to fill the boxes with packing peanuts or bubble wrap, providing extra support for their weight.

The real key to making this work is taping the boxes together well, using plenty of packing tape and pressing that tape down onto the cardboard well. It’s best to go overboard, wrapping the tape all the way around the boxes and sticking it back to itself, as that provides the most secure adhesion for the tape. Sometimes, packing tape doesn’t stick all that well to the cardboard of the box, especially if the cardboard isn’t all that clean.

In this case, no carpeting is needed, because the surface isn’t as slick. The dog’s claws will be able to dig slightly into the cardboard, if necessary, to give them a more secure grip on the stairs. It’s not a perfect solution though, as the boxes will only last so long, before they need to be replaced with something sturdier. However, when a quick staircase is needed, this is about the quickest answer.

Making a Ramp

As the dog ages and has more difficulty moving around, it may be necessary to replace the stairs with a ramp. This is especially true if the dog ends up having a serious problem with arthritis. Some dog breeds do, especially when they’re purebreds. In that case, where it might be hard for them to make it up the stairs, a ramp would be easier for them to use.

diy, dog stairs, carpet coated, plywood ramp, frame
DIY dog stairs – ramp

Making the ramp is just about as easy as making the stairs. In this case though, I’m using 1”x 4” dimensional lumber for the structure, rather than having the plywood sides hold it up. That’s mostly due to the length, so that it is stable while moving it. The framework, as shown in the diagram above, can be covered with plywood, to make the ramp more attractive.

As shown in the diagram, all that’s needed is a low, flat triangle that will fit the space. It’s important that the triangle not be too steep, or an older dog may not be able to navigate up it. The darker brown pieces are crossbars, going from the near frame to the far one. Once the frame is built, the top side is covered with ½” plywood and then carpeted.

/* */