Heading into Spring and Summer (AKA BBQ and dinner party seasons), a lot of my clients complain about their dogs stealing food from the kitchen, the dinner table, coffee tables, counters, and picnic tables. Regardless of where the food is stolen from, we call this behavior "counter surfing" - and it's super common; even my dog goes through bouts of counter surfing!
Yes, it's an annoying behavior; but, the behavior can be a safety hazard for your SideKick.
I've had clients who had to remove their oven knobs, so their SideKicks can't accidentally turn on the gas or burners in their absence.
A persistent counter surfing SideKick could get into something that is harmful to them - something they're allergic to, something dogs can't or shouldn't have, or they may ingest pieces of plastic or wrappers.
A glass dish could get knocked off the counter, shatter on the floor, and cause injury to your SideKick.
These are all problems with counter surfing, but one big one is that counter surfing is a really rewarding activity! No one even needs to be around to get good stuff! To prevent losing your dinner to a sneaky SideKick every time you turn your back, your one-two punch plan-of-attack should include 1) management and 2) teaching alternative behaviors.
Managing counter surfing is about prevention, which means you need to, first, ask yourself, "What is rewarding this behavior?" The answer is usually pretty simple: Dogs counter surf because there are good things to find!
Then, ask "How do I remove the reward?" This one can be a bit more difficult, depending on life. Removing the reward for counter surfing means keeping your counters and tables clean of food and dishes and anything else your dog might be interested in (or that you even think your dog might be interested in).
If you can't supervise your dog, it's necessary to limit your SideKick's access to the kitchen (or usual areas of offense) altogether; use baby gates to block access to the room, limit your SideKick's free range to a room or two away from the kitchen, or use a kennel or crate when you're not home.
Teaching Alternative Behaviors
Management is something that needs to happen when you aren't going to be around; when we are around, though, we can work on teaching our SideKicks that there are other - better - things they can be doing in the kitchen.
1) Make the floor the bearer of great, yummy things! Sprinkle delicious treats on the floor before moving the baby gate or letting your SideKick out of their kennel; they'll be more focused on vacuuming up the floor than climbing on the counters. Another option is tossing treats on the floor when the two of you are in the kitchen. If you see your SideKick looking to explore the countertops - possibly thinking about jumping up, immediately toss a handful of treats behind them on the floor, so the floor is the better option. If you see them start to sniff or jump and think better of it, reward that! Toss a treat or two behind them on the floor and praise them for making a great choice!
2) Teach your SideKick there's a better place to be! My favorite tool for this is a mat, bed, or blanket that is off to the side or out of the way a bit. A mat, bed, or blanket offers your SideKick a visual and physical reminder of a great option - one that gets them all the great stuff they want without the need to grab it for themselves off the counter. You can sprinkle the mat or bed with treats and continue tossing them to your SideKick as they're hanging out on it; or you can teach a "go to the mat" cue. Regardless, if your SideKick is laying on a mat, they're not jumping on the counter or the table!
Is this FOR-EV-ER?
The short answer: Nope!
The long answer: Practice makes perfect. I can't say how long it will take to get the behavior under wraps, but I can say that it depends on the history of the behavior, how long the counter surfing has been going on, how consistent you are with your training, and how often you're both practicing the new behaviors. If you're consistently managing your SideKick's access to the counters and tables, while also teaching solid alternatives, they'll start forgetting the counters were worth paying attention to in the first place!
Keep in mind that something really tempting on the counter may present the opportunity for a minor setback, so, even after your SideKick seems to have stopped counter surfing, you may need to revisit the management and training plan occasionally!
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