Counter Surfing: Training your Dog to Stop Begging and Stealing Food
Have a dog that counter surfs? Won't leave you alone when making dinner? This could be the solution for you. As with any training program I offer from Basic Obedience to Unwanted Aggression Reduction, I utilize a treatment plan. The purpose of a treatment plan is to break up the problem into sections rather than haphazardly dive in without any rhyme or reason. Treatment plans are essentially a plan of attack to train, condition, and resolve problem behaviors. The program is as follows:
• Positive reinforcement for alternate behaviors
• Managing the problem to set the dog up for success
• Consequences for undesired behavior
Positive Reinforcement Teaches Dogs Good Behavior
When dealing with a dog that raids the countertops looking for food, you will want to start by practicing obedience cues in the kitchen when food is present. It may seem simple, strange, or even counterproductive, but trust me! Practice sits, sit-stays, downs, and down-stays in the presence of these tempting items. Granted, your dog is well versed in these very basic commands. The association that we are trying to make is not stealing food off of the counters is very rewarding. Chances are your wild child has gotten on the counter and that behavior was reinforced by scarfing down forbidden food items. Continue to reward him with treats and/or praise when he is in the kitchen and not jumping on the counters. It is easy to forget to praise a dog for simply acting calm and engaging in appropriate behaviors. Training should take place outside of formal training routines and will cement positive alternative behaviors. In addition, treating problem behaviors is far easier when he has a solid background in basic obedience.
Stop Feeding Your Dog from the Counter
First and foremost, everyone in the household has to be on the same page and never feed your dog off of the counter. I often hear from my clients that anytime they are standing at the counter preparing food, their dog is right there waiting for a special treat. Whether that treat is handed to them or falls off and is snagged up, either way, this behavior is unacceptable. Once again, your dog has made or is making the association of rewards coming from the counter. Perhaps you should shape and introduce a command like “Back up” or “Out” to leave the area on command. You can also have a family member help by commanding a “Leave-it” or calling the dog into another room. Remember to be prepared and have the family reward generously for great responses.
When Training your Dog to Stop Counter Surfing, Start by Managing the Environment
For some time during the training process, you will need to manage the environment by not allowing the dog to enter the kitchen unattended. Baby gates can be useful and use a crate to confine him when no one is home. The crate should never be used for punishment. It is for safety purposes and used as his very own special place to rest. Keep in mind that all food products and potentially dangerous items should be removed from the counters and brought back out when you are practicing obedience in the presence of these items. Knife blocks and other small, counter-top appliances can be deadly to dogs, and even some food products can be fatal for canines. If your dog raids the counters even one time in a month and is rewarded for his crusades, we are back to square one! That’s right! A one time reward in one month, takes us back to the beginning.
Ways to Change Your Dog's Behavior When You're Not Home
Food stealing and counter surfing typically happens when no one is looking. Even with a well managed environment, you may still need to set traps. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of these booby traps because they tend to be impractical and a little cartoonish. I mean come on! Really?
"Tie a string to the juicy steak sitting on the counter. Attach that string to a can half full of pennies. When the can falls to the ground it will startle the dog and he will run into the net and will be captured."
There’s no need to tie things to food items or use a mouse trap for your dog. It usually never works and reminds me of the cartoons where Wiley Coyote tries to outsmart Roadrunner. Be Roadrunner, not Wiley. On the other hand, sometimes using double sided tape on the counters can be useful in extreme situations. Dogs usually cannot stand the sensation of their paws sticking to a surface. When this happens, a new association is being made.
“The counter doesn’t have delicious treats anymore and it makes my paws stick. It’s really weird and gross up here! Forget it”
Kitchen Counters Will Be Free of Begging Dogs if You Stick to the Training Program
No more rewards for getting on the counter means no more stalking and staring at you while trying to cook! The counter should not mean anything special for him anymore. Sure, the counter used to be great since it provided rewards, but now it should be seen as down right irrelevant. Most training programs end up collapsing because of inconsistency. Naturally, behavior will continue if it has some level of reward. No reward, and that behavior should fade away. Even houseguests need to understand that your dog is in training and know why they should follow the program. Eventually, the baby gate can be thrown out, the crate will be used less frequently, and you build a level of trust in the dog alone in the kitchen. As with any training program, it is a lifelong commitment. By following a solid treatment plan and putting the proper actions in place, you will have a more peaceful life and stronger bond between you and your dog.