Stealing food off the kitchen counter, also called counter-surfing, is a common problem for dog owners. Large dog breeds may place their snouts or front paws on the counter for a forbidden snack, but any dog can indulge. Some small-breed dogs can even jump from the floor straight onto the countertop!
You may be reinforcing this annoying (and dangerous) behavior by accident if you leave food or crumbs on the counter and forget that their dogs can get to it. But you can train your dog to stop counter-surfing.
Be Proactive About Counter-Surfing
The best way to stop counter-surfing is to prevent it from happening in the first place. If your dog never finds food on the counter, they will never think of it as a source of food and won’t bother looking there. Unfortunately, even small amounts of forgotten food can cause your dog to develop a bad habit. With puppies and adolescent dogs, it’s essential to be vigilant. Once they discover a “self-rewarding” act, they’ll continue to do it. A behavior is self-rewarding if, when dogs do the behavior, they’ll reward themselves with what they find, which is, in this case, food.
Be proactive about how you prep and store food in your kitchen. Set up your dog for success by avoiding situations where they might be tempted to take anything from the counter. Instead of leaving out food, store it in airtight containers in cabinets or refrigerators. If you’re cooking, try to avoid putting food near the edge of the counter. If you consistently keep food off the counter, your dog won’t find something to eat even if they do pop up to look.
Suppose you have a dog who has already figured out that counter-surfing has tasty benefits. In that case, managing their access to counters and other surfaces like tables is essential. The more they practice the habit, the harder it will be to break. But more importantly, counter-surfing is more than just annoying. It can be dangerous, too.
Most humans eat things that, while delicious for people, are toxic or harmful foods for dogs, such as grapes or garlic. Dogs who regularly steal food from the counter are at greater risk of consuming something that could harm them. Baby gates for dogs are handy for keeping your dog out of the kitchen and away from food. And teaching strong “leave it” and “drop it” cues can help if your dog gets a hold of something they shouldn’t have.
Teach Alternative Behaviors
Because food will always be a temptation, teaching your dog an alternative behavior to counter-surfing is helpful. Instead of scolding them, reward your dog for displaying different, favorable behaviors. For example, counter-surfing is especially enticing for dogs while you’re preparing meals. During this time, give your dog something else to do or somewhere else to be. This will prevent them from becoming fixated on the counter and any goodies.
An easy way to encourage an alternative behavior is to give your dog a food-stuffed toy or a dog-safe chew in another area of your home. You can also use a slow-release toy filled with kibble for your dog’s next meal. Give your dog the toy or chew behind a baby gate in another area of your home. Providing your dog with something that keeps them busy in another room will not only distract them. It will also teach them that if they stay out of the kitchen, they’ll get fun and exciting rewards.
Another option for an alternative behavior is to teach your dog to go to their place. This is a specific space where you want your dog to be while you have food out on the counter. Your dog’s “place” could be a crate or bed in or near your kitchen. Start by teaching your dog to go to their place without any distractions present, such as food on the counter.
Initially, divert any attention your dog pays to the counter to their bed. Place your dog’s reward on the bed to build a positive association between the two in your dog’s mind. Then shape your dog’s behavior by rewarding more and more interaction with the bed. For example, your dog might touch their nose to the bed or place a paw on it. It won’t be long before they understand that the bed brings good things, and they will be drawn to it like a magnet.
Continue to shape their behavior so they will lie down on the bed until you release them. Then you can add the three Ds of dog training: duration, distance, and distraction. When your dog has mastered all three, you’ll be ready to send them to their place while you’re cooking. And remember to toss a few treats on the bed while you cook to thank your dog for their good behavior.
Counter-surfing can be a challenging behavior to change. To stop this habit, you need to be consistent in your approach. Any mistakes or forgotten food will set you back in your training program.
Make sure the entire household is on board with management and prevention. If you remove all temptation and never allow your dog to eat off the counter, it will be far easier to teach them new behavior patterns and eventually eliminate counter-surfing altogether.