Q. During the holidays, my dog discovered the joys of entertaining—from cookies and hors d’oeuvres on the coffee table, she graduated to leaping onto the counter for other delectables while we were busy entertaining our guests in another room. She never did this before! How do I train my dog to keep off the counter without resorting to kenneling her when we’re home? Other than this, she’s a great hostess.
A. Put yourself in your dog’s paws. The next time you’re hungry, place your favorite food on the table and see if you can resist taking a bite. Even people who have difficulty controlling themselves expect their dogs to resist temptation when food is placed right in front of them.
How to Stop Counter Surfing
In order to set up your dog for success while ensuring her safety, it is much more realistic to use a mixture of management and training techniques to keep dogs from counter surfing. Dogs are opportunists and the more successful they are at getting food from kitchen counters or the table, the more they will try.
Step 1: Blocking access by using baby gates or putting your dog in another room if you have company is one way to ensure she doesn’t have an opportunity to surf and thus, reward herself for this activity. If this isn’t an option, try tethering her to you so she is with you at all times. The point here is to limit the act of self-rewarding.
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Step 2: Working on training, draw an imaginary line along the floor and teach your dog to stay behind that line. If she tries to cross, gently block her with your body until she retreats behind the line again. While she stays behind the line, reward her at various intervals and she will see the area as a positive place to be. It will take time and patience for your dog to learn this skill so it’s important to keep up blocking access when not activly training.
As Karen B. London, PhD writes, “Teaching a dog to do something is one part of dog training, but most of the effort is about getting her to do it regardless of what else is going on—helping her learn to succeed no matter how distracting the environment and how enticing the treasure.”
A reliable sit-stay cue needs to be taught first so that she understands what is expected of her.
Hi-Tech Training Solutions
As counter-surfing happens mostly when no one’s around (dogs are smart!), you can try going hi-tech with a special two-way radio collar that allows your dog to hear your voice right next to her ear even when you’re in another room.*
Step 1: Put some food on the counter and then walk away to a place where you can see the food. Pick up a magazine or pretend to be doing something else so your dog thinks your attention is off her.
Step 2: Wait for the dog to go up to the counter, and just before she jumps up, ask her to “leave it.” If she backs away, praise her.
Start this exercise using low-value food before making it more difficult with the yummy stuff. This technique might cause a little confusion at first, but your dog will soon learn that the “all-seeing eye” is everywhere, even if you aren’t in the immediate vicinity. Using these management and training techniques with your dog will ensure they keep their paws off counter!
Counter Surfing Deterrent
Here’s an example of what not to do if you have a counter surfing dog. One of my clients, fed up with her dog stealing food when her back was turned, placed “scat mats” (electrified mats) on the kitchen counters. On his first encounter with the mats, her dog received such a jolt that he squealed and ran out of the kitchen. The scat mats seemed to have done the trick, and the lady was pleased with the result. The “success” was short-lived, however. The only entrance to the backyard was through the kitchen, and when it was time for the dog to go outside, he flatly refused to go anywhere near the kitchen area. Not surprisingly, he also began to have accidents inside the home. A counter-surfing issue had turned into major anxiety for the dog, and it was some time before the dog would walk through the kitchen to go to the backyard.
While you are entertaining, you can also provide your dog with something else to focus on by giving her an interactive toy such as a treat ball or a Kong filled with food. This will most likely tire her out while filling her up, quenching any desire to seek out food—leaving your dog satisfied and your food safe!
*You can also try various two-way video and audio monitors intended as baby monitors.