Let’s face it: many dogs, most likely including your own furry companion, are food-motivated, opportunistic scavengers. That’s not really surprising, given that dogs are thought to have descended from wolves who foraged for leftover food from human settlements.
Today, however, the scavenging activity that dog owners refer to as counter surfing is more than an unacceptable behavior. It’s a potentially dangerous one that can result in injury or poisoning if your dog breaks a glass container or eats a potentially poisonous — to dogs — food like grapes, raisins or onions.
And for those who have counter-commanding cats? We’ll be addressing strategies for keeping your cat off kitchen counters in a future post.
What is counter surfing?
According to Mikkel Becker, a certified professional dog trainer and behaviorist who writes for Vetstreet.com, counter surfing is the term dog trainers use to describe a specific food-seeking behavior of dogs — namely, stealing food from counters and tables. Some small, agile dogs will jump onto the counter with all four paws to feast, while large dogs need to use only their front paws to snatch a snack.
Why dogs hang ten
Food-seeking behavior is fairly common and, in some cases, may be second nature to your dog, making scavenging (including counter surfing) part of your dog’s normal behavior. Although food-seeking can be related to an underlying health issue such as diabetes or poor-quality pet food, dogs who counter surf have also learned that kitchen counters, dining room tables and coffee tables are easily accessible sources of tasty treats. And because dogs are natural scavengers, they tend to seize any opportunity to eat.
Counter surfing is also a self-reinforcing behavior — in other words, it has its own rewards. If your dog finds food within easy reach only once or twice, they will continue to look for it.
For those reasons, counter surfing can be a difficult habit for dog owners to eliminate.
What you can do to reduce counter surfing
The simplest solution to reduce and possibly prevent counter surfing behavior is to manage your home so that your dog doesn’t have access to food on the kitchen counters. The goal is to arrange the kitchen and countertops so that your dog doesn’t have the opportunity for reinforcement — finding food — which encourages future counter surfing. Consider these tips, provided by Best Friends Animal Society and Mikkel Becker:
- Don’t keep food on your counters. Food kept, or left unattended, on kitchen counters is simply too tempting and too reinforcing for counter-surfing dogs. But if there’s no food, there’s no reward to be had. Use storage containers, cupboards and high shelves so food is never left unattended within reach of your dog. Even if you think your dog can’t reach the chocolate cake at the back of the counter, you may be mistaken and arrive home to find your dog has enjoyed it.
- Clean countertop spills and crumbs thoroughly after food preparation. Licking up a tasty sauce or tidbit can be rewarding and reinforcing to a counter surfer.
- Confine your dog in another room or in his or her crate during cooking. Meal prep often means food is spread on the counters, making it easy for your dog to sneak a bite (or more) when you’re not looking or your hands are busy. You can also use a baby gate to keep your dog out of the kitchen.
- Train your dog to “leave it,” “off” or to go to his or her special “place.” These verbal cues are valuable not only for managing counter-surfing dogs but for many other situations. To learn how to train your dog these cues, check out this short video on training your dog to “leave it” featuring Mikkel Becker or download step-by-step instructions for teaching “off” and “go to place.”
Reprimanding or punishing your dog for behaving in a normal-for-them manner won’t prevent future episodes of counter surfing. And using booby traps to deter counter surfing can make your dog anxious or fearful while damaging the bond between you and your dog. Preventing access to unattended food in the first place and training your dog to obey key commands, however, can effectively thwart a counter-surfing dog.