Dogs are opportunistic. They will experiment with behaviors, find rewarding ones, and do them over and over again. It can be a challenge for dog owners when they find out one of those rewarding behaviors is surfing the counter. Some dogs are very curious, and others can be very persistent. Counter surfing can happen quickly when you turn your back or when you walk away just for a moment. The witty and tenacious dog can be very sneaky!
Counter surfing is not only annoying, but it can be dangerous. If your dog snatches a chicken or turkey carcass, ingesting the cooked bones can be life-threatening. My family's wake-up call to my nagging about leaving food out happened when my teenage son wanted to bake some cookies. He was old enough to do it himself, so he headed to the kitchen. He filled the cookie sheet on the counter with dough, turned on the oven, and left the kitchen, waiting for the oven to heat up. That's when it happened. Doc, our 5-month-old puppy at the time, walked into the kitchen. Smelling the yummy dough, he was now big enough to reach the countertop and eat every last morsel of chocolate chip cookie dough; about 2 cups worth. That instantly lead to a trip my son came to the emergency vet clinic. They emptied his stomach of all the chocolate, sugar, and fat — not a pleasant experience for a puppy, me, or my son who came with me. The humor in the misadventure was our vet, and vet technicians said that was the best smelling vomit ever, to give us all a little giggle. In the end, though it all worked out fine, it was no laughing matter. Yet, it was a lesson learned. For my son, he learned not to leave food out on the counter anymore. For our puppy, Doc learned that counters "pay," and we now had a surfer on our hands.
The best strategy to avoid counter surfing is prevention. Counter surfing can never result in the dog being successful.
- Never leave food on the counter or table unattended. Even crumbs! If you never leave food unattended and always put the food away and out of reach, even the most curious dogs will be unsuccessful in getting a tasty tidbit. The dog will learn that the yummy smelling food that was on the counter will never be there to reward him for being curious when you leave. Never getting a reward from the counter will result in your dog leaving counters and tables alone because they never pay.
- Keep your counters clear of wrappers and dirty dishes. If there is nothing there, there is no reason to counter surf. Lingering smells can still be enticing.
- Keep the area around the table and counters clear. Push in chairs at the table so they can't be used as a step to get onto the table. Don't leave items or other things near the counter that can be used for the same purpose. Close all drawers. If you have a very clever pup, you may need to get childproof latches for your cabinets and drawers so your dog can't use them to his advantage.
- Don't feed your dog anything in the kitchen. I make this a rule in my home. If I want to give them a tasty treat, I set it aside. When my dogs are doing an appropriate behavior, choosing to sit, stand (four on the floor), lie down, or go to their bed, that is when I will reward them. Give food outside of the kitchen space. My dogs get paid for making the right choice to get a tasty treat. Your dog knows there is food there! Teach the appropriate behaviors and put value in them by rewarding them when they happen. That is training in a real-life situation and the best way for your dog to learn what to do.
When you can't focus on training or when training is not complete yet, always fall back on management. Management involves controlling the environment to prevent the ability to do the specified behavior when training can't happen.
- Use a baby gate or ex-pen to block off the kitchen or dining area to prevent your dog from having access to the counter or table and, therefore, unable to get any food there. That also prevents your dog from getting onto the table or counter just for fun.
- Crate your dog while you are eating or when you are entertaining and have food sitting out. Or gate your dog off in another room, or use an indoor tether preventing the potential accident of your dog getting something when you are not looking.
When you don't have the time or opportunity to train and teach your dog the correct behavior, fall back on management strategies. Support prevention, and keep your dog from learning the wrong lesson - that counters and tables will pay!
Training - Teaching an Alternate Behavior
It is essential to teach your dog what behavior you do want from him. Put value into appropriate behaviors and reinforce them. That will teach your dog what to do, and with sufficient reinforcement, your dog will choose those behaviors over the surfing, "Four on the floor pays, do that again. Surfing does not pay, so give up on that." There are several strategies you can utilize. You can teach cues, and more importantly, you need to teach concepts of calmness and impulse control.
- Capture Good Choices - Take advantage of moments when your dog is doing something right before he moves on to something wrong. Your dog's interest in your cooking or you eating is because he smells food and wants some. He will try to figure out what to do to get some. Sit, "Four on the Floor, " or lying down are all proper first behaviors to reinforce. As time goes by, you can change what you require. It might be lying down and turning away from you. It could be going to a bed (see boundary training). If you emphasize the importance and reinforce an alternate behavior, you can avoid or stop counter surfing altogether. Your dog learns a different behavior is more rewarding.
- Boundary Training - Teach your dog to go to a particular spot when you are eating or preparing food. That can be his crate, dog bed, or a mat or rug set out. Make sure that your dog gets rewards for going there and staying there until released. Over time, if you are consistent, this will be the routine, and your dog will gladly go there and remain there until you finish and say he is free.
- Teach "Leave It" - Teach your dog this cue so that he learns to leave certain things alone. You will need to take this to an advanced level and teach your dog to leave things even when you are not looking or when you leave the room. There are many different exercises to practice with this cue.
- Teach "Out" - Use this cue to tell your dogs to get out of a specific space or room. I use this when I go into the kitchen to prepare meals, including the dogs' meals. They know to exit the area when I tell them "out."
- Train "Wait" - Teach your dog to wait behind a "line" you set so that they are away from the table or counter. They are free to move about another space but not allowed to cross the line. This line can be a step, carpet edge, doorway, or any place that you set where the dog can understand a clear "line drawn in the sand."
- Teach "Go On" - Teach your dog to walk away from you and find something else to do - play with a toy, lie down and settle somewhere, etc. It can be anywhere, just not where your dog can stare or be close to the table, counter, or place where there is food sitting out. This also can help in stopping a dog from begging.
Working Through Inappropriate Behavior
If your dog does investigate and sniff the counter, table, or put his paws up there, you will need to work to discourage the behavior. The key is to not use a verbal cue, like "Off," for instance. Dogs can back chain - meaning they can follow a chain of events that happen in succession to a reward at the end. So, if your dog puts his paw on the counter and you cue him, "Off," which he does and you give him a treat for following your cue, he can learn that putting his paws on the counter prompts you to cue him off and give him a reward. Ummmm, no!
Use an interrupter (a sound) and body language instead. Use your body to bump your dog's paws off the counter. If he then defaults to an appropriate behavior, like sitting, he's a "Good boy," but no treats - he put his paws on the counter to start. Follow through with leading your dog out of the kitchen, and teaching something else so he can be rewarded. Make a mental note to figure out what you do want your dog to do during that situation (see ideas above) and cue it BEFORE the paws go on the counter. That way, you can reward your dog for doing the proper behavior right from the start.
I decided to do boundary training with my dogs when we moved to Montana and had to create some new routines in the new house. By doing this, I made it far more rewarding to be on a dog bed or crate than in the kitchen or sniffing the counters. I am happy to report that Doc is no longer a counter surfer, and he loves his crate, which always remains open so he can go in whenever he wants. But, we had to change our habits in order to change the habit of our dog and take the time to teach him that counters no longer pay, and other behaviors pay well.