Getting a Grip on Counter Surfing

Getting a Grip on Counter Surfing

This month's dog training topic is counter surfing. If your pooch likes to sneak food off your kitchen counter, be sure to read these tips from our resident dog training guest blogger, Kat Stevens-Stanley.

Food stealing from tabletops and counters is a big complaint that I frequently hear from dog owners. It’s also been a trouble area in my own household. (Yes, despite myths you may have heard, even dog trainers' dogs are still regular dogs!) Counter surfing can be a tricky issue to tackle and is usually the result of human error (leaving dogs access to things you don’t want them to have) or having trouble discovering manageable solutions.

This month's dog training topic is counter surfing. If your pooch likes to sneak food off your kitchen counter, be sure to read these tips from our resident dog training guest blogger, Kat Stevens-Stanley.

Food stealing from tabletops and counters is a big complaint that I frequently hear from dog owners. It’s also been a trouble area in my own household. (Yes, despite myths you may have heard, even dog trainers' dogs are still regular dogs!) Counter surfing can be a tricky issue to tackle and is usually the result of human error (leaving dogs access to things you don’t want them to have) or having trouble discovering manageable solutions.

Why Dogs Counter Surf

If you have a counter surfer, every opportunity your dog has to swipe a snack reinforces the behavior, making it more likely to happen again in the future. What’s rewarded gets repeated. If you’ve trained with me in the past, it’s possible you may have heard this story before, but I often liken counter surfing to this scenario:

Imagine you work in an office. One day you look inside one of the drawers of a nice desk you are sitting at and find an unclaimed $5,000. Morals and ethics aside here, you take the money. You’ve won yourself quite the prize and you feel great being $5,000 richer! The next time you are alone in the office, sitting at the same desk you found the money, what do you do? Chances are you’ll take a peek in the drawer that made you rich last time and just see if anything is in there.

The same is very similar for dogs. If every time your dog goes into the kitchen, there is something tasty in the trash can, he wins a '$5,000.' If he wins $5,000 five times in a row, chances are he will always look in the trash. Add the complication of your dog being able to smell food scraps and you’ve got yourself some trouble! Here are my three tips on how to help curb counter surfing.

Tip 1: Restrict Your Dog's Access to Food

My number one tip for tackling counter surfing is management. Invest in a locking trashcan so you can never make the mistake of giving your dog access to the garbage. Kitchen garbage cans can be particularly troublesome because they often include items that are toxic or dangerous for your dog (onions and corncobs anyone?). I’ve had the best success with Simple Human brand locking trash cans. They can be expensive, but so is a surgery to remove an intestinal blockage because your dog stole a corncob from the garbage or a trip to the emergency room because your dog consumed something toxic.

Because I have one dog with a long history of food stealing (this was a behavior learned before I adopted him) I am careful to always set him up to have a successful meal time with myself and my family. I do my best to never leave him access to our trash or access to our kitchen when food is out and there is not an adult human available to supervise. We are careful to empty our trash frequently so that in the event of an "Oops" moment there is nothing available for him to steal. Remember, every slip up reinforces your dog’s behavior, making him more likely to check the trash/counters for that '$5,000' fresh baked muffin he found last time.

Baby gates are also a very affordable option that can prevent your dog from entering areas you have food sitting out so you don’t have to watch them at all times. Simply put, if your dog does not have free access to food, you won’t catch him stealing it.

Tip 2: Teach Your Pooch Good Manners

Some cases of trash stealing are more complicated. I have had the enjoyment of meeting some dogs who are so stuck on food stealing at every possible chance, it makes cooking a meal with them anywhere around very difficult and frustrating. Teaching your dog what you would like them to be doing instead of stealing food off the counter can be helpful. I once had a client host a pizza party so that we could get a ton of real-life practice teaching what we would like to do instead of food stealing. Each guest had explicit instructions on not to feed the dog unless a certain behavior was offered and to make sure their plates were never left unsupervised.

Practice good, strong and longer duration sit-stays and down-stays. Start by practicing this in your kitchen when you aren’t cooking and don't have a lot of food around. If you have a rug or mat in your kitchen, you can teach your dog to sit-stay or down-stay on this mat. Practice, practice, and practice. When you are having great success (minimum 90 percent of the time) try a simple activity and see if your dog can stay while you make an uncomplicated snack (maybe while buttering bread or getting veggies and dip ready). REWARD your dog for doing the right thing.

Tip #3: Reward Good Behavior

I think people are often surprised to hear that as a dog trainer, I frequently feed my dogs “table food.” There is rarely a meal where I don’t share what I’m eating (provided it does not include something poisonous for dogs) with my two dogs. The catch here is I never give my dogs food for impolite begging. If my dogs are laying on the floor in the space I’ve asked them to, then they may get a piece of pizza crust when I am done eating. I like to think of this as a form of “polite begging.” If you are polite during meal prep and dinner, I will pay you for your good manners.

My kitchen has a distinct line where our floor changes from hardwood to tile. My dogs have both learned that “out of the kitchen” means I’d like them to leave the tile floor area. When my dogs wait on the line, they are paid for it. For whatever reason, bell peppers are a big hit in my house. When I take them out of the fridge, I will no doubt look over and see two dogs at my kitchen entry line waiting to be paid in pepper scraps. My dogs have learned that if they want a piece of pepper, they'll have to offer me the behavior that I’d prefer them to do – wait outside the kitchen. If my dogs enter the kitchen uninvited, they are reminded to please exit. I do not pay dogs for correcting mistakes. Only behaviors that I want them to do are rewarded.

My household also includes a resource guarder and a near two-year-old. If you’ve ever had a meal with children, you know that food ultimately falls on the floor. Because of this, we’ve had to change how we eat meals because a scrap of food dropped between two dogs can result in a dogfight. When we eat, one dog goes in a crate and the other dog “begs politely” from an area I’ve determined appropriate. Because we are so strictly consistent with this, as soon as I plate food and begin to get our dinner to the table, our dog who is always crated goes right into his crate – without asking. I don’t even need to shut the door. He will wait there until we are done. Why? Because when we are done I always pay him in a table scrap for waiting so politely.

Counter surfing and food stealing can be a truly frustrating problem. If you are entertaining guests, usually management is the best solution. Get your dog comfortable with a crate or gated-off area where you don’t have to worry about what they are doing and you will be able to enjoy your meal and focus on your visitors. Dogs will do what works for them 100 percent of the time. If you are able to use good management, train behaviors that are incompatible with food stealing (sit-stays, down-stays and wait’s), and find solutions such as crates, mats, or other “polite begging” locations, you’ll be sure to get a handle on your dog’s bad habit.

About the Author

Kat Stevens-Stanley is an Animal Behavior College certified dog trainer, licensed Family Paws Parent Education presenter, Association of Professional Dog Trainers & Pet Professional Guild member, and mother to a toddler-aged daughter and multi-dog household. Kat sees clients for a wide spectrum of dog training and behavioral needs. One of her favorite topics is supporting families with dogs and children. Kat assists individuals and families throughout the Metro Detroit area and northern Oakland County. She can be reached at: www.KatStevensDogTraining.com

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