The following article was written by a great friend of ours who had a small problem. Her dog was “counter surfing” – in other words, the dog was trying to get food off the counter and kitchen worktop all the time.
She eventually managed to stop her dog from stealing things off the counter in her kitchen, and here’s how she did it.
How to stop your dog counter surfing
My dog was the Macavity of dogs. The Swiper of Swiping. The infamous dog burglar. Every time you would turn your back, he would be right there, silently lurking to engulf the delicious bacon sandwich I had just labored over – but had mistakenly left on the counter.
And I don’t blame him. I make a mean bacon sandwich. But stealing food off the counter is more of a problem with dogs than you may expect.
Not only does a kitchen counter surfing dog have bad manners, but it is also a fast track to canine obesity or even poisoning.
For example, chocolate smells fabulous to dogs, so what happens when you leap off the couch to answer the door and the candy bar you were eating has mysteriously disappeared from the counter?
That could end in hospitalization or even death for your furry friend. We want to avoid that at all costs… if you didn’t know, chocolate is toxic to dogs and on the bad food list.
The way to stop your dog from stealing food from the counter is consistent positive reinforcement training and distraction. You can use several techniques to strengthen the habit of leaving food alone that’s left on worktops or similar.
Not to brag but I can now leave a full meal on the kitchen counter, fresh on the oven, go to the bathroom, and come back to see my dog sitting by the counter like a model pup, with my food completely untouched. It is possible with consistent and calm training – he no longer begs for food either.
Technique 1: Why is your dog stealing food from the counter?
Often, we can solve bad behaviors like counter surfing by looking at the underlying issues. Here are some potential causes of your dog’s bad habit of stealing from the counter.
Dogs are foragers
Dogs are evolutionarily primed to steal. They are natural-born foragers and are following their primal instincts when they steal food off counters.
They are hungry
It is worth ensuring that your dog is getting the full amount of recommended daily calories for their breed, age, size, and weight. You can consult your veterinarian to get guidance on this.
Handy Hint: It could also be that they simply don’t like their own food. Here are some ways you can make your dog’s food taste better.
They are bored
You know when you have the munchies for no other reason than you want some entertainment? Boredom eating is an issue with dogs too. If they don’t get the stimulation they crave, they may turn to counter surfing for scraps to pass the time.
They have separation anxiety
Dogs turn to many bad behaviors if they are anxious and alone. Kitchen counter surfing and stealing is just one of them. It is worth consulting a dog behaviorist if you think this may be the problem.
They are disobedient
Sometimes your dog is just straight-up willful. And that is completely fine! The next 5 techniques should get you started in training your dog to leave food alone.
Technique 2: “Leave it”
This is one of the key commands to start training your dog when you buy or adopt them. We all remember “sit”, “stay”, “lie down” and “shake”, but in my personal day-to-day, “leave it” is one of the most common phrases I use.
It is just so useful in almost every circumstance!
When you are walking them on a leash and they are sniffing something suspicious – “leave it”.
When you drop accidentally drop your cutting knife on the floor as you are cooking – “leave it”
And, indeed, when you have fresh food ready for daylight robbery, this simple phrase will save you.
Teaching this command will take some time – I won’t lie to you.
The way I did it is by using a simulated situation that was similar to how they might be tempted into trying to get food off the kitchen counter.
- I lay down a treat at my feet. My dog will of course come towards the treat and try to eat it.
- Just before he gets there, I get his attention by saying “leave it” firmly, followed by “sit”.
- He then associates the term “leave it” with stopping in his tracks.
- I then reward the action by giving him the treat.
- I repeat these steps and reinforce the command by waiting longer and longer before I give him the treat as a reward. If I am having my dog wait for 30 seconds before getting the reward, I will repeat the command “leave it, good boy” a few times whilst he is waiting.
Of course, this method only works if your dog knows “sit” to begin with.
Technique 3: Distraction
Distraction is the easiest technique to use to stop your dog from stealing food off the counter or worktops.
Everyone does this differently and you may have a preferred way that you distract your dog from doing something they shouldn’t.
Old dog behavior books are used to recommend you bang a pot whenever your dog does something wrong as a form of negative reinforcement. Essentially, banging the pot scares them into submission and gives them a negative association with the action.
But I am not a fan of this method.
- It is cruel to intentionally scare your dog over something relatively small as counter surfing.
- You may cause extended anxiety issues for your dog if they are quite sensitive or young.
- It’s not even that necessary. There are gentler ways to get attention.
Handy Hint: Dogs are often very afraid of strange noises; here’s a story about a dog scared of the sound of skateboards and how it was resolved.
There are other dog owners who prefer to vocalize. Like “hey” or “look at me”. Me, I prefer to snap my fingers as it sends a clear message and grabs attention instantly. Clapping can also work.
If you decide to use the distraction tool as your primary method, bear in mind, it isn’t very sustainable. It is good practice to pair it with a “leave it” command.
Why? Well, distracting grabs attention for a second, but you need to do something with that attention.
So, what I will typically do if my dog is hovering around my food is snap my fingers to get his attention and then say, “leave it please”. He usually then moves away from the counter or sits under it.
Technique 4: Teach them to sit before they eat
When my dog started stealing things from the counter, I got the advice from a fellow dog owner to instill the practice of waiting for food in general. Not just my food, but his food too.
It sounded impossible and unnecessary, but the results were fantastic. This is a very easy trick to teach too.
All you have to do is grab your dog’s bowl at mealtime, let them see you fill it up, and then ask them to sit.
Once they sit, you can lower the food as a reward.
This does two things. It teaches your dog to have restraint when it comes to food left on a counter or worktop. It also embeds the idea that you are the provider of food and they need your seal of approval to chow down.
The indirect results are fantastic. Whenever I put food on the dining counter, my dog sits at the foot of the counter, patiently waiting.
If I get up, he will stay sitting there as he knows that he only gets his food (or in this case, my food) by sitting.
I didn’t think this would work quite so well but it really does!
It is worth noting that you should only do this with dogs who are able to sit. One of my dogs sadly has hip dysplasia and cannot sit comfortably on her hind legs for very long. So, we don’t ask her to do this.
It causes too much discomfort.
Handy Hint: If you have a really greedy dog who is also stealing food from your other dog, here are some tips to stop the thieving.
Technique 5: Prevention is the best medicine
Of course, you could just stop leaving food out on worktops and counters?
And yes, I know dear reader, you have definitely already thought of that but there are nuances to this.
Not only do you need to protect your food from potential robbery, but every member of the household also needs to do the same thing. You should also teach your house guests to not leave food unattended if you have a particularly persistent burglar on your hands.
You could invest in covers for your meals so your dog can’t get to them. You should also leave food in high places where your dog can’t reach easily.
If your dog is super crafty, you may even install baby gates at convenient areas or keep your dog out of the kitchen or dining room unattended at all times.
You would probably think this the first port of call, but this is kind of the lazy way out. Hiding or shielding food is obviously good practice but it doesn’t really teach your dog anything.
In your everyday life with your pup, you may come across situations where food is unattended on counters and you are not in control. In that situation, a simple vocal command would be helpful.
Sure, hide your food away from the counter, but in tandem with that method, I think the training techniques above can form the basis of good dog etiquette.
Technique 6: Contact a professional dog trainer
Okay, you have tried everything to stop your dog jumping up for food on the counter. You have hidden food, but your dog still finds a way. They are even robbing uneaten croissants off of outdoor café tables.
You have tried vocal commands, distractions, teaching patience, and nothing is working.
This is where you need to call in the big guns. And by “big guns” I mean a gentle, professional, accredited dog trainer that knows their stuff.
Dog trainers and behaviorists are experts in what makes your dog tick. They can get to the root of the counter surfing problem and help you get in control of the problem.
They may even identify an abnormality or issue.
Most dogs can be trained to stop counter surfing. I have previously described how this was done with a dog who was stealing from tables.
However, often you just need to be more aware about leaving things out. Sometimes prevention can be better than cure.
You might also like…
If you liked this Doggysaurus read, you might also enjoy the following guides around canine behaviors.
- Teach your dog to not steal the cat’s food
- How to stop your dog digging under fences to escape
- How dogs can be beneficial to your mental health and well-being
Image in header via https://unsplash.com/photos/Evbn9CU12UU