Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
It's Natural Instinct
Your kitchen will always hold a special place in your dog’s heart, but most of all in his tummy. Those tantalizing smells, the occasional crumb, and those amazing sights over the counter will likely make him visit again and again. Counter-surfing can become a big problem. It’s wrong to assume that Scruffy is deliberately thinking about stealing your food. Don’t take it too personally if your dog steals food from the counter when you get out of the room. In the doggie world, left out or unclaimed food is wasted food. Better off storing it in the tummy!
Unfortunately, dogs who counter-surf are often punished for it. The dog has little fault, other than just being a dog. With a past as scavengers, dogs tend to be opportunists. If something is available to them, they'll go for it, so why not seize the day? After all, what would you do if you found a $20 dollar bill on a sidewalk, no form of identification, and nobody was looking for it? You would most likely store it in your pocket versus leaving it there.
You may have heard about punishing a dog for counter-surfing by:
- Putting a scat mat near the counter, so the dog gets zapped when he comes close.
- Using a shock collar.
- Placing “booby-traps” on the counters such as cans of beer that fall on the dog.
- Putting sticky tape all over the counters.
- Hiding and yelling at the dog the moment he steals.
- Grabbing the dog by the scruff and scolding the dog.
What do all these methods have in common? Some will teach your dog that the counter, and possibly the kitchen, are scary places. Others will teach the dog that you’re unpredictable and even scary. This will tell them to counter-surf when you're not around. None of these methods will teach your dog that they shouldn't counter-surf! Fortunately, there are many more effective ways to prevent and stop counter-surfing.
Force-Free Methods to Stop a Dog From Counter-Surfing
Punishment-based methods have several disadvantages. If your dog is often punished for counter-surfing, he may learn that the kitchen is a bad place and you may see him walking very tentatively nearby. You ultimately don’t want a dog that is not comfortable in his own home! So what are some force-free methods to deal with the problem?
Let’s remember that what fuels counter-surfing in the first place is the food. You won’t see Rover counter-surf your TV stand, bedroom dressers, and bathroom counter very often because they’re boring! Management is something quite obvious, but many owners miss this fact. Management keeps your dog safe; you never know what your dog may get a hold of on those kitchen counters! When I worked for the vet, we used to often get phone calls of dogs getting into batches of brownies, bacon grease, and loaves of bread that were leavening. All of these can cause dogs to get sick!
So yes, keep your counters spotless, keep those trash lids secured, close the door behind you, or install those baby gates. There is really no reason why you should allow Rover to rehearse the unwanted counter-surfing behavior over and over as the more he does it, the more the behavior will repeat.
Train Alternate Behaviors
While management is great to implement, especially when you can’t supervise your dog, it’s a good idea to also train alternate behaviors to counter-surfing. Why not train your dog that food is no longer found up the counter, but actually down on a mat? Let’s say your dog is starting to sniff around in hopes of finding something tasty on the counter. In this case, grab a treat and redirect him to the mat. Say “mat” and toss a treat on the mat. Repeat several times during the day. Granted, with no more food on the counters and more treats on the mat, you’ll see a decrease in counter-surfing, but an increase in investigating-the-mat behaviors, which is good!
Capture the Good
While you're cooking, make sure you reward all those good behaviors that unveil before your eyes. Say you have food on the counter and your dog is sitting or lying down instead of counter-surfing? In this case, tell him what a good boy he is and toss a treat on his mat. Or if he is already lying on the mat, stop by him and give him a stuffed Kong. Great things happen when Rover is being good!
Are you a visual learner and need a more hands-on example on how you can train a dog not to counter-surf? Watch how to train a dog not to counter-surf with a clicker in the video by Kikopup below.
By managing your kitchen, preventing rehearsal of unwanted behavior, and providing reinforcement for alternate and incompatible behaviors, your dog will be provided with plenty of opportunities for making good choices. The counter-surfing behavior should gradually reduce and eventually extinguish.
© 2016 Adrienne Farricelli
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on January 09, 2016:
Hi alexadry thank you for another useful hub. Dogs require such training.