Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
Turning Around an Unpleasant Habit
Dogs belong to the canis lupus species whose members have scavenging as one of their survival instincts. Still, when a dog develops a habit of reaching for whatever it can take from countertops and other exposed surfaces, this is a problem behavior that can lead to a number of issues.
The challenge is beyond the fact that 'there is now a new mess to clean up because little Bailey just walked in from the yard and left muddy impressions all over the kitchen counter when no one was looking'.
Sharp cutlery items left on surfaces or shattered dishes toppled to the floor can cause serious cuts. A dog could also land in critical condition from ingesting wrappers, plastic material, or foil.
This is not just limited to countertops and tabletops. It extends to other dangerous surfaces as well, such as stovetops and grills. Dogs have been known to inadvertently turn on gas cookers. They can scald or burn themselves by knocking over cooking pots or coming into contact with hot stoves.
Counter-surfing can quickly turn into an expensive and nasty business. In one 2019 case, firefighters in the UK rushed to a residence to put out a fire. It turned out the fire had been started in the kitchen by the household dog turning on a microwave while the owner was away.
If you are dealing with a sneaky dog whose muzzle and extremities you would love to see elsewhere other than your countertops and tabletops, here are some measures you can take to curb this infamous behavior.
- Understand the root cause
- Break the distribution chain
- Avoid superficial tactics
- Prioritize order and cleanliness
- Reinforce the right pattern
1. Understand the Root Cause
A Sequence Based on Status
It is essential to consider the difference between how humans and canines think and how we process those differences. Humans prepare food in a specific way and consume those meals at specific times and places.
Canines, on the other hand, do not have this approach. In their way of looking at things, opportunities to eat are not limited to containers like bowls or dispensers, or to fixed times of the day.
Let's borrow an example from nature to illustrate. Animals understand when a meal is owned by another. This is why there is an order of sorts when it comes to taking turns at feeding.
For instance, members of a pride of lions will feed on a carcass following a certain order. After they are done, the terrestrial scavengers like hyenas will come and feed next. Then finally, when they are through, it will be the turn of the airborne scavengers like the vultures. Each creature recognizes its place and status in the hierarchy when it comes to feeding.
The Communal Exception
However, this rule does not apply to sources of nourishment that are unattended. Anything left in the open is viewed as communal and can therefore be accessed on a first-come-first-served basis.
A dog that already had a history of spending time in the streets as a stray will already be accustomed to scavenging. This may well have been the only way it could stay alive.
However, the impulse is not limited to strays. Laying claim to what is left exposed is only natural and is how species survive where there is scarcity. Coupled with this is the drive that animals have to explore and learn from new experiences.
Hence, it is clear to see how countertops and other surfaces can become places where dogs follow these impulses unless the necessary precautions are put in place. As it moves about, a dog's curiosity can be akin to that of engaging in a treasure hunt and a desire to resolve the mystery that lies above. If nothing else, the activity can add some color and excitement to what it may be viewing as a boring state of affairs.
2. Break the Distribution Chain
A Cycle of Enabling
As soon as a puppy is brought into a home, it starts forming habits and patterns of behavior related to its new environment.
Some people find a counter-surfing dog amusing. They enjoy taking videos of the action to post on YouTube and other social media platforms for entertainment purposes. While this may attract views, likes and subscribers, the end effect is that it actually reinforces the problem and makes it all the more difficult to undo later.
Each time the dog successfully finds something to eat on the tabletop or counter, it strengthens the habit and increases the possibility that other similar attempts will be made in the future. Discovering something tasty becomes a reinforcement in itself, even if what was discovered was just some crumbs or a minute spillage of gravy.
It is hard to turn the dog away when the memory of a savory taste it experienced on a surface is still fresh in its mind. Each time the dog succeeds in getting something from the counter, the will to repeat the act becomes stronger. It is almost akin to a gold miner whose search has led him to some precious nuggets in a specific spot. He does not need any incentive to return to the same place again.
Reversing a Trend
So to break the habit, we have to start by changing the dog's perception. It is possible that from the beginning, a wrong impression was unintentionally created which now needs to be reversed.
Each time we grab items of food from the counter or tabletop and toss them to the dog, we are conditioning the dog to see each of those surfaces as a food source. When one feeds a dog in this way, they unknowingly present themselves as a middleman in a chain of distribution. At one end is the supplier (the counter) and the other is the consumer (the pet). This is the impression that starts registering.
Now, with this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine what is likely to happen when the middleman is either absent or distracted. You guessed right, the consumer who knows from previous experience where the source is, heads straight to the supplier. It is simple logic. But it was initiated by the dog's observation of our taking food from the counter in order to feed it.
It is advisable to refrain from accessing food from counters and other surfaces to feed the dog especially if our actions are being observed. It is also a good idea to keep the pet out of the kitchen when meal preparation is in progress.
3. Avoid Superficial Tactics
Some dog owners use muzzles. This is not really the recommended route, however, as it does not deal with the core problem. A behavioral problem requires a behavioral correction. Besides, muzzles constrain dogs, limit their ability to breathe and prevent them from drinking.
Punishing, reprimanding, or scolding a dog is not a real solution either. In fact, misbehavior often occurs in the absence of the owner. This means that by the time they are aware and start reacting, the pet will not be able to associate the behavior with the punishment. Due to the time-lapse, it will not be clear that the reaction of the owner is due to what the pet did a while ago. So instead, the dog starts developing an unhealthy fear of its owner.
The same applies to using e-collars or special mats that discharge shocks or bumps and other punitive methods geared to modifying behavior without dealing with the root cause. Moreover, as the video above shows, a determined dog can work its way around such limitations.
Punishment in its many forms is often used as a means to make up for lack of training. One thing to bear in mind is that punishment does not erase the memory of the taste of what was stolen. Relying on punishment as the primary means of correcting behavior will negatively impact the long-term dynamics of the relationship between pet and owner.
Similarly, the appeal of getting something tasty may just be higher than the punishment itself, so the dog finds a way of weathering the storm, knowing the effects will be short-lived. It knows it will just need to wait until no one is present to make another attempt. A dog that is often reprimanded may switch into correction-proof mode and develop a survival complex where it just waits for an opportune moment when its movements are not being monitored.
Another reason why deeper solutions should be sought is that an attention-seeking dog may engage in the habit even when it knows there is no food available. This is because it has learned from experience how stirred up the owner gets when it acts that way and how the behavior immediately draws his focus and attention.
4. Prioritize Order and Cleanliness
An Organized Setting
To curb this habit, orderliness is essential. It is advisable not to allow the dog near the table during mealtimes. Have it remain in its own prearranged spot where it can sit or lie down until the meal is over and all the dishes have been cleared.
Give your dog a treat whenever it obeys the command to stay and remain in that chosen spot during mealtimes. However, never call the dog over to the table where you are sitting for any reason, even for a treat. Instead, be the one to rise and walk over to the mat or designated area if you want to reward or interact with it in any way.
As long as the dog is rewarded for staying on the mat, it will develop a replacement thought pattern of valuing that over trying to find out what is on the counter or tabletops. Its habits are controlled by outcomes, so when it is convinced that the incentives for being on the mat are better, it will easily trade the one behavior for the other.
Another method to curb the habit is to synchronize mealtimes such that the dog has its meals at the same time with the rest of the family, but in a separate place, not near the table.
Storage and Hygiene
Countertops, tabletops and other surfaces in the kitchen and around the house need to be kept in a clean state at all times. Avoid leaving a clutter of unwashed dishes on the kitchen counter or elsewhere after meals.
Crumbs, peelings, leftovers and food wrappings should be disposed of immediately and any spills wiped off. It would be challenging even for a human to ignore a really tasty meal on a table. How much more a dog?
Additionally, it is best to avoid leaving food items or snacks lying on such surfaces. Pushing them to the far end of the counter is not advisable even if they are out of reach because the smell will keep your pet's brain working to devise a solution.
Instead, keep your food in sealed containers and have proper storage systems in place for them in the kitchen. Always use the fridge to stash away your food and ensure that kitchen drawers, cupboards and cabinets are kept shut and inaccessible.
Each time the dog succeeds in getting something from the counter, the will to repeat the act becomes stronger. It is almost akin to a gold miner whose search has led him to some precious nuggets in a specific spot. He does not need any incentive to return to the same place again.
5. Reinforce the Right Pattern
As we have observed, it is best to avoid enlisting the services of any 'expert' whose method is to repress the habit (by punishment or otherwise), without addressing the root problem.
There are various solutions in circulation. Some owners use scare tactics like piling up several coin-filled soda cans or baking trays on the counter and then connecting the bottom of the pile with a string to a piece of food the dog likes. As soon as the dog attempts to snatch away the food, the string becomes taut and the entire pile comes crashing down. The racket is supposed to act as a deterrent.
While this may sometimes work for some people, it raises questions about long-term effectiveness, possible side effects, plus how many times one would have to keep building can pyramids to see results. If the dog discovers the racket only occurs when there is a visible pile, it may resolve to confine its antics to the moments when the coast is clear and there are no booby traps.
One can see how such methods may not always be practical. Similarly, creating physical barriers like playpens, baby gates or dog gates cannot be considered permanent solutions. The root problem would still need to be tackled.
One effective way of countering the habit is to have the dog leashed and then to place something tempting on top of the counter. As soon as the dog begins to reach for it, pull gently but firmly on the leash and issue a stern 'No!'. Once all four paws are on the floor, you can offer your dog a treat.
Using the 'off' command together with a clicker (to associate the sound with the act of getting off the counter) helps stem the habit. The same applies to the 'leave it' command. The principle is that the dog only receives a reward (treats, compliments, or affection) when it obeys and drops back to the floor on all fours.
Prior knowledge and training of such commands is beneficial to your dog's behavioral development. They reinforce your authority as the boundary-setter, which is also part of the role you have as the leader of the pack. So each setting involving a particular attraction or temptation becomes an opportunity to refine the lessons and make them permanently embedded.
The dog needs to be conditioned to viewing the floor rather than the counter as the only place where food can be obtained. This will complete the breakup of the chain mentioned earlier. As a diversion from other surfaces in the house, the floor should always be the place used for food and treats with sufficient portions supplied daily. In this way, the canine will be fully accustomed to viewing its bowl or dispenser as the only source and will not be inclined to seek nourishment elsewhere.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.