October 16, 2020

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Counter Surfing

Authored by Cathy Madson, MA, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA & Barbara Smith, CPDT-KA, CTDI, CCC, CGC, & Judge

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Counter surfing can be one of the most frustrating behaviors for dog owners to deal with — you might have spent hours on that perfect pot roast, only to have your pup sneak into the kitchen behind your back and pilfer it off the counter.

Not only is this annoying, but it can be dangerous for your dog if they steal food that is toxic or contains xylitol (which is DEADLY to dogs!) Some dogs scarf the item down so quickly that they choke or it causes an obstruction in their gastrointestinal system.

Counter surfing cost Lucy the 5-year-old Lab her life.
Read the Wardrop family’s heartbreaking story
 about how they lost Lucy after she counter surfed and ate bread made with xylitol.

Why Dogs Counter Surf

Jumping up on the counter or kitchen table in search of food is a natural dog behavior. Dogs are scavengers and opportunists, and food (especially yummy smelling human food) is hard to resist. I would have a hard time just walking by a food truck giving away free tacos, and I’d definitely keep walking by that same spot every day to see if there’s another free taco giveaway going on. Our human behavior changes based on what’s been rewarded, and it’s the same for our pups. The more a certain behavior is reinforced, the more your dog will choose to do it.

Most of the time dogs are counter surfing when their human isn’t around, which makes this behavior difficult to correct in the moment. There’s no point in punishing your dog after the fact; if a consequence doesn’t happen right as your dog starts to misbehave, your dog isn’t going to make the connection we want them to make. What usually happens if you punish your dog for counter surfing with yelling or using an aversive is that your dog learns to not even try and steal food when you’re around and waits for an opportune moment. But most importantly, there are better and more humane ways to address the counter surfing behavior!

Training your dog to not jump up on counters in search of food is all about:

1. Prevention

2. Teaching your dog incompatible behaviors.

Preventing Counter Surfing

As the old saying goes: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! If your dog never learns that counter surfing results in getting a delicious snack, they are much less likely to make it a habit. Dog behavior is all about association; if jumping up on the kitchen counter has gotten them a piece of ham (even just one time!), your dog has learned that it’s a behavior worth trying again.

This first step of prevention is the same for dogs that have not yet learned to counter surf and for dogs that have already made it a habit. Take a look at your kitchen or whatever room your dog likes to jump on the counters, and think about ways you can manage the environment to prevent counter surfing from happening in the first place.

This includes:

  • Blocking off access to the kitchen with doorway gates or freestanding gates.
  • Keeping your dog in their crate or in their ex-pen while cooking.
  • Teach “Park-it” on a cot.
  • Keeping the kitchen counters clear of any food items.
  • Thoroughly cleaning counters after cooking to make sure there are no crumbs or food scents that would entice your dog to counter surf.

By removing the temptation of counter surfing, you prevent it from being reinforced and set your dog up for success. Depending on your home setup, your dog’s house rules, and your expectations for your dog, sometimes this step is all you need to prevent and modify counter surfing behavior.

However, if it’s difficult to outfit your home with preventative measures like gates, or if your dog isn’t crate trained, it will be very important to teach them what to do when in the kitchen.

Training Incompatible Behaviors

When working on a problem dog behavior use this formula:

“Instead of [insert problem behavior here], I want my dog to [insert incompatible behavior here].”

It’s then up to you to teach your dog that it’s more rewarding to practice the alternative behavior than their previous bad behavior.

Some examples:

  • Instead of counter surfing, I want my dog to stay on their “Park It” mat. I will show them it’s more rewarding by giving them a stuffed kong on the cot when I am cooking.
  • Instead of jumping on the kitchen table, I want my dog to leave it. TTK9 teaches the leave-it command as well as the implied leave-it, to insure your do doesn’t jump on the counters even when you’re not in the room.
  • Instead of climbing up on the counter, I want my dog to stay out of the kitchen entirely (boundary training).

Once you’ve chosen which incompatible behavior to teach your dog, start easy and stay consistent! Practice first with low distractions to set your dog up for success. Don’t expect them to be able to stay on their bed if you leave a juicy steak on the counter during their first session. Start small with no food item on the counter while you practice Go to Mat, and then slowly add in different food items to solidify (proof) your dog’s Go to Mat behavior.

What is proofing a dog’s behavior?

Teaching your dog not to counter surf depends on taking the time to proof the incompatible behavior you’ve chosen, which means you slowly raise criteria so your dog can be successful in the real-life context. For counter surfing in particular, an ambitious goal to aim for is having your dog leave something as high value as a juicy Thanksgiving turkey alone on the counter, even if no human is in the kitchen. And while that’s the goal, you first start training them to ignore a boring vegetable that’s on the counter. As they are successful with different types of food, you continue increasing the distraction until eventually your dog is ignoring that turkey because they know the incompatible behavior has been more rewarding.

Capturing Good Behavior

In the context of counter surfing, I prefer to teach incompatible behaviors without having to verbally ask the dog to perform them while I’m in the kitchen cooking or enjoying my meal at the dinner table. Instead I train using what’s called capturing the desired behavior — marking and rewarding it when the dog chooses to do it on their own. We do this with our fist & floor leave-it’s to create a “Thinking K9.” Clicker training is the easiest way to effectively use capturing when training your dog. Remember, the more a behavior is reinforced, the more a dog will choose to practice it!

Example: Capturing Sit

Here’s another example of capturing the Sit behavior with Mary Berry. This is her first session of practicing Sit in the kitchen while I prepare food on the counter. I’m not asking her to Sit, I’m waiting for her to offer it, clicking, and then treating. She’s learning that jumping on people doesn’t get her anything, but sitting does. Capturing behavior is the absolute best way to create a solid behavior. Unfortunately, people don’t utilize it because it’s harder to do and people don’t think it’s as powerful as it is!

Example: Teaching Your Dog to Stay Out of the Kitchen

Another incompatible behavior you can use to prevent counter surfing is the Invisible Boundary or teaching your dog to stay out of the kitchen by choice.

Here’s an example of Sookie learning to stay out of the kitchen area. This is her first training session using capturing to learn this new boundary. We stuck blue painters across the entry to the kitchen, to give a visual boundary. The blue tape isn’t just for her sake, it’s there so I know when I can click for staying in the right space. It’s also there when I need to help her reset her position by giving her a soft verbal correction when she crosses the boundary, such as “out,” I then gently guide her behind the tape again. Try not to think of the verbal cue “out” as scolding. You are cueing a behavior to get out of the kitchen. It’s no different than cueing Sit, then luring & rewarding. Here she made the wrong choice so I gave a cue “out,” the treat is always tossed to her in the area she’s allowed to roam.

As Sookie and I continue practicing this behavior, the next steps will include removing the blue tape that demarcates the boundary and waiting longer and longer between each click and treat to build duration of her behavior. I’ll also practice with higher distractions happening in the kitchen; right now I’m just playing with a bowl of already prepared food and standing at the counter, but I want to build her up to being able to stay outside of the kitchen area while I cook a meal and move around. I’ll be able to phase out the clicker and food treats by switching to what’s called a variable schedule of reinforcement once I have the baseline behavior to build on. This means that once Snookie is really good at staying out of the kitchen sometimes I’ll reward at a minute, then 30seconds, then a minute and a half, then a minute, etc. Don’t always make it harder or your dog will give up. They need easy wins, too!

Boundary Training can also be applied to teaching your dog to not bolt out the front door, or even used outside to teach your dog to stay in the yard and not run into the road (this is advanced obedience- beyond core manners).

If you have a dog that has learned to counter surf, or if you want to prevent your new pup from ever learning this bad habit, focus on managing the environment and teaching them what you want them to do instead.