When your dinner isn’t safe: what to do about dogs who clear counters
Q: Our yellow Lab Buddy isn’t a puppy anymore but he still steals food from our kitchen counters when we’re gone. He’ll even do it if we’re home but are in the other room too long! What can we do?
A: Dog trainers describe this behaviour as “counter surfing.” Somehow, for me it always conjures a vision of a dog wearing Hawaiian print shorts, hanging ten on a countertop! But the reality is not so amusing. Dogs have been known to steal and ingest things such as chocolate, which can be deadly. And on a less dramatic note, who wants a canine thief in the house?
Let’s break our strategy into two parts: when you’re away and when you’re home. The first part is easy, and I think you already know what I’m going to say. Don’t leave good stuff on the counter! I know, I know, it’s not so easy to remember and it is exponentially harder if you have kids in the house. But if you make it a practice to visually sweep the countertops every time you leave the house, it will soon become a habit.
We’ve covered simple management. Now let’s look at the training aspect. Dogs are opportunists, and Buddy simply doesn’t understand that it’s not okay to grab food. That’s not surprising, as the only consequence he’s experienced so far is being rewarded with yummies! Those tasty reinforcers only serve to make it more likely that the behaviour will happen again. You mentioned that Buddy will also counter surf if you’re out of the room too long. So, let’s make him believe that even if you’re out of sight, you have eyes everywhere!
Here’s how: Leave something tempting on the countertop. Set it where Buddy is likely to investigate, but far enough from the edge that he can’t actually grab it. Now, for this next part, you can go high-tech or low-tech, your choice. For the high-tech version, aim a web cam at the scene. Alternately but still high-tech, point your laptop’s built-in camera at the area and use an app that lets you view it on your phone or another computer. Now leave the room. As soon as you see Buddy investigating, rush into the room and say, “Leave it!” That’s assuming Buddy already knows what “leave it” means. (If not, it’s easy to teach and there are lots of good articles to be found online.) If he doesn’t yet know leave it, a sharp “Eh-eh!” will still interrupt the behaviour and get your point across.
The low-tech version of the Eyes Everywhere technique is to hide around a corner and use a hand mirror to observe. If it happens that there is a reflection from a television screen or something else in the area, that’s fine too. But in my twenty years as a trainer, I hid around many a corner holding a hand mirror and I can tell you it works very well. Proceed as above, using good timing to rush in and verbally interrupt the behaviour. If you do this enough at different times of day and you vary the amount of time you’re “away” before rushing in, eventually Buddy will believe you’re omnipotent. How cool is that? Just remember that since you’re not actually everywhere at once, use good management as well. Very soon Buddy’s career in canine larceny will come to an end.
Nicole Wilde is an award-winning author of 10 books on canine behaviour. Her books, seminar DVDs, and Wilde About Dogs blog can be found at nicolewilde.com.