How many of us have come across light-hearted YouTube compilations of dogs stealing food from the kitchen counter? As a viewer, one can see the hilarity in a dog sneakily snatching a freshly made sandwich from the kitchen.
Sure, it may be good for a chuckle, however while this behaviour may seem innocent enough, it is not always a harmless act of curiosity. Counter surfing can be a frustrating and dangerous habit for dogs to develop. Let’s look into the reasons why dogs counter surf, and how pet owners can curb this undesirable habit.
Dogs are scavengers, and it is a completely natural, instinctive behaviour to search for food. They’re also naturally curious animals, and their nose leads the way. For many dogs, the smell of that freshly barbecued steak on the counter presents an overwhelming temptation worth investigating.
With that said, even though searching for food is a natural, instinctive behaviour, it does not mean that it should be allowable in the home. As pet owners, we are responsible for our dogs’ behaviour at all times, and it is ultimately our obligation to provide structure and teach good manners.
Every year, thousands of dogs in Canada suffer illness or injury due to counter surfing. Not all food is safe for dogs. In fact, many of our favourite foods are toxic to dogs (alcohol, chocolate (cocoa), xylitol, grapes/raisins, onions, caffeine, yeast dough, etc.). Also, think about the risk of injury from broken plates as food is dragged from the counter only to smash into razor sharp shards on the floor. Hot stoves, pots of boiling water, and sizzling pans all pose serious risks to counter surfing dogs.
What are the most common reasons for a counter surfing dog?
Dogs with high food drives (calling all Labrador Retrievers!) will seemingly stop at nothing to get that next bite of food. On the floor or on the counter, it's all the same to a highly food motivated pooch.
Underfed dogs will search and scavenge for sustenance.
A bored or under-exercised dog is a misbehaving dog. Without proper stimulation and exercise, a bored dog will find their own means of entertainment, such as why not check out what’s on the counter?
Lack of proper training. If a dog has not been sufficiently trained to learn that counter surfing is not a desirable behaviour, then it quickly becomes normalized. In a dog’s eyes, normalized behaviours are completely acceptable acts.
Stress and anxiety can lead to many unwanted canine behaviours. In addition to stealing things that are closely associated with their owners like shoes and socks, taking food from countertops is another common behaviour.
How to Stop Counter Surfing
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
This is always the best practice when it comes to counter surfing. Remove the temptation altogether by keeping food completely out of reach. Leave no food items on the counter whatsoever as even the smallest morsel may be all the motivation a counter surfing dog needs.
By removing the food, we remove the reward, thus removing the temptation. If you need to keep certain foods on the counter (like a cooling pie), make sure it is far out of reach, or keep your dog out of the kitchen until the pie can be moved.
Do Not Feed a Begging Dog
Dogs are master manipulators and can easily have us wrapped around their paw in no time. Begging for food scraps in the kitchen is how it starts. By feeding food scraps to your begging dog, you are rewarding that behaviour. And like kids, if you give them an inch, they will take a mile. Feeding food scraps, especially in the kitchen may lead a dog to wonder what other delightful treats await on the counter.
Providing Proper Stimulation
As mentioned earlier, a bored dog is a troublesome dog. Without proper exercise or stimulation in the home, a dog will find its own ways of keeping entertained. What do people do when they are bored? They eat. What do dogs do when they’re bored? Many look for food, and the kitchen is ground zero for forbidden treats.
You can use food to your advantage. Counter surfing dogs really benefit from stuffed and frozen enrichment toys, such as a Kong-like toy. By having these toys on the ready, you can provide the food stimulation your pooch is yearning for.
Work With a Dog Trainer
There are several ways you can teach a dog to stop counter surfing for good, however, many of us lack the experience to do this successfully. If you are having difficulty curbing counter surfing behaviours, working with a qualified dog trainer is highly advised. They will be able to diagnose the root cause of the behaviour, and find positive long-term solutions. Remember, the dog training industry is not regulated, and not all dog trainers are created equal. Make sure you check your trainer’s credentials before hiring.
No matter what kind of dog you have, odds are he/she will always want human food to one degree or another. It is up to us as responsible pet owners to teach our dogs what good manners are in the home - especially in the kitchen where food is constantly present. Counter surfing can be a dangerous, destructive, and frustrating behaviour, but thankfully, it can be corrected.
Brandon Forder, known as The Pet Expert, is vice-president of Canadian Pet Connection, an industry leader in healthy pet lifestyles. Brandon holds multiple certifications in pet nutrition, and has more than twenty-five years' experience specializing in pet health and behaviour. He has written hundreds of informative pet-related articles for newspapers, magazines, radio, and the popular Ask the Pet Expert Blog. Brandon is highly skilled in pet problem solving, and enjoys teaching others about smart and responsible pet ownership. To learn more, visit www.CanadianPetConnection.ca.