You’ve just found out you have a counter-surfing dog. All you did was leave the roast pork dinner on the counter for just a minute while you answered your phone.  And in that small amount of time, your adolescent dog had jumped up and pulled the whole serving tray to the floor. He’d devoured half of the loin before you had a chance to intervene. What happened to your sweet puppy? How do you stop a dog from stealing things?  We’ve got proven counter-surfing solutions for you. Read on.

Dog stealing food from plate

Don’t set your adolescent dog up for failure by leaving him unattended with food nearby on a low table or easy-to-reach counter.

Dogs are inherent opportunists. This natural tendency is what led braver wolves to get closer to our ancestors’ garbage and ultimately for the self-domesticated dog to take its place in our homes today. This is worth keeping in mind. Dogs aren’t being sneaky or purposefully naughty when taking things that aren’t meant for them. Counter-surfing dogs are just doing what’s in their canine DNA – if there’s something that might be good for him to have, he’s going to go after it when he has the chance. Every animal will repeat behaviors that work for them. That’s science, that’s learning theory.

So, given the opportunity, a dog is going to investigate something that might be worthwhile for him/her to have.  One of the easiest tools for solving problems with counter-surfing dogs is to take away those opportunities. We’re talking management.  Can you keep the puppy/dog out of the kitchen by closing the door or setting up a baby gate? How about containing the dog in a puppy-safe area if you aren’t actively supervising him/her?   We encourage all of our clients to establish limits with their young dogs as soon as they bring them home (read our post on Establishing Limits). Prevention is so much easier than finding a cure. If you prevent your young dog from ever discovering how rewarding it can be to jump up and take things that aren’t meant for him/her you can often avoid a counter-surfing problem altogether. Your young dog simply does not need free access to everything in your house.

Puppy-proofing your home is just sensible. You wouldn’t leave a toddler to stick its fingers into electric sockets or grab fistfuls of chocolate cake from a low-lying table, so take prudent steps to ensure your dog isn’t being left in an unsuitable environment. We get it though, busy households have teenagers and spouses who leave sandwiches on coffee tables and roast dinners on counters that are easily within grabbing distance of an adolescent dog. But every time that a dog finds something like food on a low-lying surface, he will look for similar opportunities. Preventing the rehearsal of such behaviors is so important, and just requires a little forethought. Teenagers and spouses (unlike an untrained dog) can understand English so talk to them, and prevent them from leaving food in places that an unsupervised dog might have access.

Dog stealing cake from cooling tray

Your dog is a natural opportunist. Teach him self-control rather than punishing him when he makes a bad decision.

So you’ve done all of that, but perhaps your dog is still grabbing whatever he can – papers, towels, tablecloths, toys, remote controls. Dogs don’t have hands. The only way they can explore the world is with their mouth. Yes, some dogs are grabbing things because they’re curious. More often than not though the dog is seeking entertainment. Taking things off counters, tables, and shoe racks can be a great resource for the understimulated dog. But it is often a really easy way to get your attention too. Sure, it might be fun to chew on that book for a little while, but chances are it’s much more entertaining to watch you spring to your feet and then chase him/her around the house in an attempt to recover the stolen item. Adequate physical exercise, mental stimulation, training, and containment are all important tools when solving this sort of attention-seeking counter-surfing.  If you are making sure that all of your dogs’ needs are being met, they shouldn’t need to resort to a favorite game of “Keep Away” just so you pay attention to them.

So, proven solutions this far include: the prevention of unwanted behavior through management, and making sure that pup is getting sufficient attention from you in other ways. Now let’s switch focus from what you don’t want pup to do to what you do want him/her to do. If you don’t want your dog taking food from the counter or the remote control from the coffee table, what do you want your dog to do? Do you just want him to lie somewhere quietly? Great, now we have something that we can train. If you’re happy for your dog to be in the kitchen with you while you’re cooking, try setting up a bed for him/her on the other side of the room. Reward them for staying put.  If you see him getting up and moving towards forbidden items, call them and then redirect him/her or train a “leave-it”. Tell him what you want him to do before he does the unwanted behavior.

Here’s a short clip of how you can go about training your dog to chill out in the kitchen. Teach a “place” behavior and reward your pup for staying on that location. Of course a very young puppy is going to struggle with this – help them out by using some form of containment be it a crate, ex-pen or even a tether (with you nearby at all times).  You aren’t going to get a change in behavior though if you don’t prevent pup from doing the exact same behavior.