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Dog Stealing Food or Counter Surfing

by Anne-Marie Mayes

Being the season where many of us gather to share food and munchies with friends and family,  the issue of “counter surfing” (dog stealing food off the counter) happening is quite possible.

Why do dogs counter surf? Simple, because there is something on the counter worth eating or jumping up for. They may also be bored, or try it if no one is paying attention to them. Unfortunately, once your dog gets something off of the counter the behaviour of jumping up to check has been reinforced (probably with something really good) so they will continuously keep checking.  They can also learn to do it when you are not in the room.  It is best to be proactive and either manage the situation using baby gates or make sure you do not leave anything (not even crumbs) on the counter for them to find. 

While this habit can be annoying, it can also be very dangerous for your dog. Some foods that are more common during the holidays can be bad for your dog or even toxic. For example, raisins, onions, garlic, shallots, certain nuts, nutmeg, chocolate, alcohol, and even coffee or tea.

To decrease your dog’s counter surfing, you will need to make sure that your dog can’t get anything good off the counter as mentioned above, but you can also work on training other skills to help. I do not recommend using scare tactics or punishment based techniques as these can cause your dog to feel afraid of you or certain areas of the house and lead to other behavioural issues. Setting your dog up for success, positive experiences, and repetition are the keys to solving this problem.

The first skills I would teach to curb counter surfing are “go to mat” and “leave it”. If you create value for a different spot in the kitchen (your dog’s mat instead of the counter), they will choose the one most likely to produce good things. Since they will get nothing from the counter and will instead get rewards on the mat, that’s where they will hang out. This is also helpful for keeping your dog out of the way while cooking as you can toss treats from a distance while you are moving around the kitchen.

When we teach our dogs the “leave it” cue we usually start with treats in our hand or on the floor, but it can also be about food or items on the counter or coffee table. When we teach this skill in our classes, we remind owners to reward the dog from your hand rather than telling the dog to go take the treat we’ve asked them to leave. This way, your dog doesn’t learn to just wait a few seconds and then take the food off the table since they are used to always being released to take the treat.

Even well-trained dogs will get into trouble if they are bored, so it is important to provide mental stimulation for your dog as well as physical exercise even during the busy holidays. Just think about how nice it will be when your dog is chewing a toy on their mat or working on their dinner in a Kong instead of jumping on the counter!

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