Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
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 on the counter will likely make him visit again and again. But when your dog's desire gets out of control, 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 leave 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:
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.
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 are not to be trusted. 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!
Kitchen management may seem quite obvious, but many owners miss this fact. Clean counters keep 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.
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.
With no more food on the counters and more treats on the mat, you’ll see a decrease in counter-surfing and an increase in investigating-the-mat behaviors, which is 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.
Before we dive into the "how" of stopping dog barking, we need to look at the "why" of why they're barking in the first place. There are lots of reasons dogs might bark from play to defense, but in the case of excessive barking at home it's most often separation anxiety. If you listen carefully, you can start telling the difference between the various sounds:
Treating your dog's barking starts with understanding exactly what type of barking they’re doing.
When using aversives when training your dog, you are using what is called Positive Punishment and/or Negative Reinforcement. Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement are two of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. These two quadrants should be the least relied upon when trying to change your dog's behavior, and many trainers and behaviorists work to avoid using them altogether in their programs. Studies are exposing the unintended consequences of these methods, including increased aggressive behavior, stress, and fear.
The words Positive (+) and Negative (-) aren’t talking about any emotional connotation, but instead mean we are either adding ("Positive") something or removing ("Negative") something from the situation. Punishment indicates that the likelihood of the behavior will decrease, while Reinforcement means the behavior will likely increase in frequency.
Positive Punishment = adding something to make a behavior decrease
Negative Reinforcement = removing something to make a behavior increase
For example, you could add a strong prong collar correction when your dog pulls on leash. They are less likely to pull on leash in the future to avoid the pain of the prongs on their neck. This is positive punishment.
You could call your dog to come and shock them continuously with their e-collar until they turn and come back to you. Next time you call your dog, they will respond to the cue faster to make the pain of the shock stop sooner or avoid it altogether. This is negative reinforcement in action.
Some trainers who rely on these aversive techniques will argue that the prong collar correction or the shock from the electric collar isn’t causing pain. But think about it — if they didn’t cause pain or discomfort to the dog, then they wouldn’t work to increase or decrease the behavior. The avoidance of pain, or wanting the pain to stop, is what is motivating your dog to stop pulling or to come when called.
It's quite common to experience your dog snatching food off the kitchen counter. You could turn your back for just a moment to find your food has been taken by your dog. "Counter surfing" is a commonly used phrase for when your dog jumps up on a table or counter to help itself to whatever goodies they might find up there. It can be frustrating when your food isn't safe from sneaky pooches. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to put an end to this annoying habit.
Last Updated: March 8, 2021 References
This article was co-authored by Pippa Elliott, MRCVS. Dr. Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS is a veterinarian with over 30 years of experience in veterinary surgery and companion animal practice. She graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1987 with a degree in veterinary medicine and surgery. She has worked at the same animal clinic in her hometown for over 20 years.
There are 13 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
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Is your dog always jumping on the couch, the counter, or any surface it shouldn’t be? Dogs are just as curious as cats and oftentimes delicious treats await them if they go counter surfing. They’ll get more attention from their people if they jump up on the couch. So if your dog likes to jump up on things, it is because you haven’t taught it not to yet. In order to teach your dog to stop climbing on things in general or pieces of furniture specifically, you’ll need to condition it to avoid such places. How do you do that? You’ll need to teach it the basic “off” command and hand gesture. You’ll want to reward it for good behavior. Lastly, you need to set your dog up for success. Don’t make these surfaces so tempting.