Stop Counter Surfing
By Honor Tarpenning, NextDayPets.com Staff
A timeless story: A delicious, perfectly cooked, mouthwateringly golden brown turkey sits on the counter, ready for the family to sit down and enjoy a nice, traditional Thanksgiving. The family is chatting in the living room and suddenly there’s a loud crash. Upon investigation in the kitchen, Mom finds Fido looking extremely happy with himself as he digs into the tasty bird, which is upside down on the floor. Fido has been counter surfing again, and now there’s no turkey on Thanksgiving! Tragic right?
There are three ways to stop undesirable behavior in a dog. You can punish the dog by adding an unpleasant consequence, you can help the behavior stop on its own by removing the motivator, and you can train the dog to perform an alternate or incompatible action in place of the undesirable behavior.
The problem with punishment is that it only teaches the dog not to perform negative behaviors when you’re around. You can blast Fido with a spray bottle every time you catch him on the counters, but this will just teach him that counter surfing time is when you’re not home or out of the room. The other problem with punishment is that it is hard to judge an effective level without the help of an experienced dog trainer. Punishment taken too far can be damaging to the dog and result in problems far worse than those which you were trying to correct; not taken far enough it is just an unpleasant, but useless action. A combination of helping the behavior to stop on its own, and teaching your dog an alternate behavior is the best way to put a halt to an activity like counter surfing.
Dogs learn to counter surf because it is a self-rewarding behavior—an action that in and of itself provides a reward. Other examples are drinking out of the toilet and knocking over the garbage can. So, step one to stop counter surfing is making sure that there is never, ever food on the counters. Even a crumb or little spill is enough to encourage your dog to hop up on the counters and check out the food possibilities. Make sure all foodstuffs are stored in tightly-sealed containers, in cabinets with child locks, or on high shelves. If you and your family can consistently ensure that there is no reward on the counter that will encourage him to counter surf, this can often be enough to make the behavior eventually disappear on its own.
Teaching an alternate behavior goes a long way in the situation of counter surfing. You can do this by teaching your dog to Place, which means teaching him that when you give a certain command, he is to go lay in a certain, predetermined spot, like a mat or rug, until you tell him it is ok to get up. You can do this by breaking the activity down into smaller, simpler steps and layering the behaviors together. First train your dog that he gets treats when you say “place” and he goes over to his mat, then teach him that he only gets the treat if he makes contact with the mat, then he has to sit on the mat, then lie down, and finally he must lie down and stay before he receives a reward. Read our article on Teaching Place for more information on shaping this behavior.
Another version of the same alternate behavior is teaching Fido that whenever he is in the kitchen, he is to be on his mat. You can accomplish this by, first of all, making sure that he never gets any kind of reward in the kitchen when he’s not on his mat. This means exceptionally clean counters, no crumbs or tidbits on the floor, a trashcan either behind a child-locked door, or with a tight-fitting lid, and absolutely no rewarding begging at the table. Then, bring your dog into the kitchen when there are no distractions. Take your dog over to the mat and tell him to lie down, then give him an especially yummy, but easy to eat treat; something more tempting that his usual treats, that he doesn’t get at any other time, like a little piece of hot dog. Do this several times. Then take him to the mat, have him lay down, and tell him to stay. Count one second in your head and give him a treat. Do this several times. Then have him lie down and stay and count to two before you give him a treat. Once he’s mastered a down stay for a two count, move up to three. Any time he gets up, start the count back at one. Continue this until Fido will hold a down stay on his mat for 30 seconds. Go into the kitchen with your dog two or three times a day and work on his down stay on the mat with tasty treats. Whenever you are cooking, require that he be on his mat and toss him tasty (but healthy) treats from time to time, like a bite of chicken or piece of carrot. This will work if the only time Fido receives any kind of reward in the kitchen is when he is on his mat. Don't forget to be mindful of what kinds of people food are ok to feed to your dog. Read our article titled Think Before You Feed for a list of common foodstuffs that are dangerous for dogs.
Begging and Doggy Dinnertime
Teaching your dog some manners regarding food will help as well. Your dog needs to understand that only calm, patient dogs get food, and stealing food is not the way to get it. Help your dog understand this by never
feeding him when he begs. Also, enforce a sit stay when you feed Fido, and don’t let him dig into his dinner until you have issued a release command. If he jumps up from his sit when you put his bowl on the floor, pick it up and make him sit again. Do this two or three times and Fido will get that he doesn’t eat until you say so. Remember to enforce the sit stay EVERY TIME you feed Fido, or the lesson will be lost.
Some simple deterrents can also keep Fido off the counters. You can line the edges of your counters with sticky-side-out duct tape so curious noses and paws get unpleasantly, but only momentarily stuck. You can also balance a pie plate full of water or pebbles on the edge of the counter so when he jumps up he either gets surprisingly soaked, or startled by the noise. Furthermore, there are several deterrent products available for just this purpose. You can place an X-Mat on your counter surfaces. They have raised bumps that are unpleasant for pets to walk on. The Scat Mat is a similar product, but deters your pet with a slight static shock. The One Zone Instant Pet Barrier works with a training collar and gives your dog a little zap whenever he comes within a predetermined distance of the unit.
Exercise and Stimulation
Help your dog have better behavior in general by keeping him well exercised. Taking him for a nice long walk until he is tired at least twice a day will work wonders on all aspects of his behavior at home. An exercised dog is a happy dog. Also, keep him entertained with positive activities by providing plenty of chew toys. You can also hide stuffable treat toys around the house to keep him busy.
If you and your family can maintain complete and absolute consistency, and only reward positive behavior, you can keep your pooch off the counters. Just remember that training does not happen overnight, so be patient.