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Combatting the Counter Surfer

Completely frustrated with having your dog steal food, dish towels and kitchen utensils off of the kitchen counter? Find out why your dog counter surfs and how to deal with it.

Are you tired of making dinner for yourself, only to discover that your dog helped himself to it first?

Are you sick of jumping up and down from a relaxing evening on the couch to see what the dog has gotten into now?

And are you completely done with having to clean the counters constantly due to evidence of dirty dog paws?

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, it sounds like you have a counter surfer, or a dog that just cannot help himself from stealing, chewing or licking anything that you could possibly have out on the counters (kitchen, bathroom or otherwise).

Why does a dog counter surf?

There could be a couple reasons that your dog could be counter surfing. The most obvious reason is that there is something desirable, like food, out on the counters. If your dog is tall enough and they haven’t been taught otherwise, what’s to stop the dog from jumping up and taking what he wants? Dog wins! And after the first time your dog learns that he can get something off your counter, then he’ll establish a routine of checking often to see what other goodies might be up there. Sometimes there’s something good, and sometimes there’s absolutely nothing, but it’s always worth a peek! It’s like playing the slot machines at the casino… Most of the time, you don’t win anything, but it’s the periodic jackpot that makes it worth continuing to play.

Then there are some dogs that don’t necessarily care what’s up there, but they know that just by jumping up on the counters they can get their owners’ attention. Your dog might be thinking, “You can ignore me when I want to play ball, but you can’t ignore me when I steal the dishtowel, the wooden spoons and the dish rack off the kitchen counter!” Owner jumps up from their seat and tries to get the stolen items back from the dog, resulting in most exquisite game of chase and tug. Dog wins again!

How to combat the serial (and sometimes cereal) counter surfer

To combat the counter surfer, you have to stop and ask yourself what is it about your dog’s behavior that is reinforcing the habit? If you believe that your dog is merely hungry and is stealing food to satisfy this need, maybe it would be worth re-evaluating your dog’s diet. Is he surfing the counter in lieu of eating what’s in his bowl? How does his weight look? Is he overweight or underweight? Ask yourself if his basic need of nutrition is being met. If the answer is yes (which it likely is), then keep reading.

Is it that your dog just can’t resist food of any type, no matter where it is or what time of day it’s presented? If this is true, the best thing you can do is manage your dog’s access to the area when you are not around to supervise. For example, use a baby gate to block access to the kitchen. It might be a nuisance to walk over all the time or not look the greatest in your home, but there are wonderful options these days (see examples here from In the Company of Dogs) that are both very decor-friendly and have built-in walk-through gates. Using a management strategy is the doggy equivalent of baby-proofing your home. You would never give your baby or toddler the run of the house simply for their safety and to retain your sanity, so why would you leave your dog to their own devices?

In conjunction with management like baby gates, when you are around to supervise your dog, train your dog an incompatible behavior. For example, teach your dog to go to a specific spot, like a rug, and stay there while you are cooking or eating in the kitchen. To reinforce this behavior, treat your dog every so often by giving him a treat on the rug if he is staying put. Your dog will realize that the chances of him getting a good “payout” or tasty treat by staying on the rug is better (and much easier) then having to steal it from the counter.

If your dog really has a difficult time with stealing things out of the kitchen, you may need to refrain from ever feeding or treating your dog in the kitchen area. Feed him in the basement or laundry room, for example, so that he never expects his food to come from the kitchen. If you want to treat your dog, toss the treat into a different room. Your dog likely doesn’t distinguish between food that’s meant for him and food that’s meant for humans. Therefore, if your dog never receives food in the kitchen, he’ll never expect to receive it in that location.

Counter surfing isn’t only a nuisance with some dogs, but can very well be a safety hazard if your dog is prone to chewing and ingesting stolen items. Don’t make the mistake by giving your dog credit for having more smarts than he actually deserves. As owners, we need to help our dogs make good decisions by limiting their options to only good ones and train for the behavior we want instead of punishing unwanted behavior.

Do you have a question about dogs or dog behavior? Send an email to sarah@persuadedpooch.com or contact Sarah here, and you might see your question addressed in an upcoming post.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

C. Panter August 13, 2012 at 09:11 PM
What if it's just an attention-getting behavior and NOT about the food, necessarilly. My dog will countersurf and pull objects and paper off the counter when I'm home, but not when I'm away. Ugh!
Sarah Hoth, KPA-CTP - Dog Trainer August 14, 2012 at 01:16 AM
Dear C. Panter - Congratulations on identifying what your dog's motivation is for counter-surfing! If your dog is being reinforced by getting your attention, then withholding attention as much as possible when your dog steals items is key. This is not to say that I would let your dog steal and chew up whatever they want. It's imperative that you "dog-proof" your home, just like you would baby-proof your home. Get down on the floor and see the world from your dog's perspective. Put away and put up anything that looks the least bit reachable. Should your dog be able to get something anyhow, calmly get up, take the item from the dog and put it up higher so it's unreachable again. Say absolutely nothing to your dog. This will be difficult to do, but any yell, scream, shriek, "No!" or other dramatic production is exactly what your dog is seeking from you. The more mundane your reaction, the more bored your dog will become with this game and the least likely he or she will see the need to keep it going. Then replace the item with something more appropriate, like a dog toy or bone, and praise your dog for playing with their things instead of your things. I hope that helps!

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