Guide To Australian Shepherd Training & Care

How To Stop Counter Surfing

There is nothing that can capture the attention of your dog and hold it for longer with greater intensity than food—glorious food. To stop counter surfing behaviour you are going to go up against one of the strongest and most ingrained drives your dog has.

They don't care that the steak on the counter was one of the most expensive cuts and that you've been planning this barbecue for a week. They won't take into account that the turkey was supposed to be for you and all your guests who have come to find that the commotion in the kitchen was from your dog dragging your dinner off the counter, across the kitchen floor and outside where he is now thoroughly enjoying your fine cooking.

To stop your dog from counter-surfing or stealing food from tables you will have to bring all your training knowledge to bear to short circuit their natural proclivities and redirect them to more restrained behavior.

Why Dogs Counter Surf

Stop Counter Surfing and Food Stealing

Dawn Slabodkin

Dogs counter-surf because they, like us and any living creature, are biologically driven to seek and get food. If they are able to get food off of the counter or a table they will have been rewarded and in the future they will know to return to the same place for more food and another reward.

They don't do it because they are sneaky or are "thieves" trying to get away with something. They are doing it because that's what dog's do.

Unfortunately, many people will unwittingly cause and perpetuate the behavior. They will see nothing wrong with leaving tempting treats on the counter or within easy reach of their dog on a table (or coffee table—right at snout level). You are effectively setting your dog up to do the wrong thing and to be rewarded for engaging in that unwanted behavior.

To expect a dog to control themselves is naive, unrealistic and patently unfair. Does this mean it should be a free-for-all for your dog to take whatever they want? Absolutely not; but there are some things you will want to keep in mind when dealing with counter-surfing behavior with your dog.

If a dog does something and is rewarded for their efforts that activity is reinforced and they are all the more likely to do it again. Since they are rewarded again and again there is no real reason for them to stop. Sure, you may get angry with them or try to punish them in some way but to your dog, for the most part—it's worth it!

Dangers Of Counter Surfing

So, your dog knows that there are goodies on the counter and that it's worth it for them to keep checking. Even if it doesn't pay off every time or even one out of five times they have learned that sooner or later they will hit pay dirt. In addition to the obvious aggravation what are some of the dangers involved when your dog counter-surfs?

Your dog notices that there is a tempting morsel on your counter. They stretch up to see what treasure awaits. They get their paws on the food you have left there; they give it a lick. But before they are able to snatch it and make off with their booty they are startled as they hear you coming. They know that getting caught in the act never goes well so they take off. You come into the kitchen and see that all is well. Or is it?

Before your dog touched your food they may have been running around outside in the dirt or maybe they got into the cat's litter box (yuck). Who knows what you will now be eating along with your dinner! Contaminated food can have very serious consequences.

Non-Food Items Are Also A Threat

Another problem is that dogs will not only get into food, they will also grab non-food items that interest them. They may wind up chewing and swallowing things that can actually be quite dangerous. For more information on that here is an article about How to Stop Dog Chewing. Kitchens also have many objects that are sharp, can puncture or are hot. They also contain cleaning agents that can be harmful to a dog. Counter-surfing can be more than just an annoyance. It can endanger you, your family and your Aussie.

Prevent Counter Surfing and Food Stealing

The first step to stop your dog from counter-surfing is to remove the reward for doing so. In a best-case-scenario your dog from puppy onwards has not been able to access food on your counters or tables and hasn't really developed the bad habits described here. In this case it is more a matter of maintaining prevention.

However, if your dog is already doing this you will want to remove and keep out of reach any and all temptations. This is not the be-all-and-end-all approach as you will from time to time need to leave food out, at least for a few minutes. But we want to dramatically reduce the possibility of your dog being rewarded. If they jump up on the counter and are met with disappointment—consistently—they will be less and less likely to keep trying. In operant conditioning this is referred to as "extinguishing."

Speaking of operant conditioning, you will want to consider it in your training approach to stop counter-surfing.

Training To Stop Counter-Surfing

To train your dog to stop counter-surfing or stealing food from tables you have to set some ground rules. Start with "no paws on counters or kitchen furniture." Your dog should not have free-run of the kitchen especially without supervision. That doesn't mean they can't be in the kitchen it just means that you have to guide them to acceptable places for them to be. For example, have them go to a mat or dog bed when you are preparing meals.

Training your dog to understand the "leave it" command will give you another tool to keep them from getting into food (or other things) they ought not. Other basic commands like "sit" will be used as part of a training program to extinguish counter-surfing behavior. icon

Guide To Australian Shepherd Training & Care

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