A hugely important piece of successfully eliminating counter surfing behavior is prevention! Human food is DELICIOUS and attaining it is highly reinforcing so we need to have a good management plan in place so our dogs aren't getting to that yummy and oh so tempting food in the first place. We have two goals with this training plan: 1. Prevent the dog from counter surfing and stealing food when we aren't around. 2. Teach the dog appropriate replacement behaviors so they can share space with us while we're cooking and eating.
1. Clear counters of ALL tempting items, including those that aren't obviously accessible – dogs are determined problem solvers and if the easier to reach bits disappear but there are some they might snag if they work a little harder, chances are high they're gonna go for it! Also wipe up spills and food remnants so you don't end up with a counter licking dog instead of a counter surfing dog.
2. Make sure food in cabinets and trash cans are secure. In some households, this just means a trash can with a lid or one that lives inside a cabinet or pantry and doors that stay closed. However, some truly determined and pioneering dogs will open cabinets, pantries and even refrigerators necessitating child locks be placed on them.
3. Start reinforcing appropriate boundaries and behavior while you are cooking/eating by capturing and rewarding the behaviors you want and redirecting those you don't. If your dog lies calmly on the ground at a distance you determine to be appropriate, toss (or deliver if you have more than one dog) treats to him/her intermittently while offering calm verbal praise. Be careful not to be too loud or exciting with the verbal praise as your dog may be inclined to get up from the repose you're trying to reinforce. Once your dog is consistently settling appropriately, you can fade the frequency with which you toss/deliver treats.
4. If your dog is having difficultly settling appropriately while you cook or eat, help them out by prompting the behavior you want. Walk them to the area you want them in and cue them to lie down (if they do not know the down cue, you will need to teach it: https://positively.com/dog-behavior/basic-cues/down/) and toss treats at frequent intervals as long as they stay in position. You may need to repeat this prompting as your dog learns what is expected. Once they are succeeding with this step, you can move to step three.
5. If your dog is REALLY having trouble settling appropriately, give them something to occupy their time (we recommend a stuffed, frozen Kong or bully stick) and, if necessary, use a physical boundary (baby gates work great) to keep them out of the room or area. Once they are succeeding with this step, you can experiment with removing the physical boundaries. When they are succeeding with the physical boundaries removed, you can move to step four.
1. My dog jumps the physical barriers I put in place.
Solution: Use step five of the above plan but put your dog into a bedroom or crate (if a crate, be sure to use a proper crate training plan). If this is not possible, use a leash to tether your dog at a safe distance but be sure they have freedom to move/relax and that you can see them to prevent any choking hazard/injury – we recommend the tether attach to a harness clip on their back rather than a collar or front clip. If he/she barks, simply ignore but do be sure he/she is given a high value enrichment object like a stuffed, frozen Kong or bully stick. You will progress from this step back to the physical barriers (if he/she is jumping a baby gate, try a taller x-pen) and so on.
2. My dog was excited about the Kong and engaged at first but seems to be losing interest.
Solution: Vary the filling! Our favorite mixtures are banana + almond butter, plain nonfat yogurt + wet/canned food (can vary the flavor of canned food), and plain canned pumpkin + plain cottage cheese. The same variance is true for treats. As your dog is mastering this new skill, use high value treats and change them up to keep life exciting (real meat bits of any kind, cheese, whatever your particular pup loves).
3. My dog is generally doing well with step three or four of the plan (settles independently or when prompted) but when he/she does get up, they jump on the counter/stove and it's hard for me to stop and/or redirect them.
Solution: Keep a drag leash attached to your dog as you work your step in the training plan. When he/she moves towards the counter/stove/etc. pick up or even step on the leash if you can do that faster and use it to walk them calmly back to their area and re-settle them.
4. Can I put an aversive on my counter to keep my dog off?
Solution: We strongly recommend that you do not. Any time we hurt or frighten a dog in the name of training (that is how the aversives like scat pads work), we risk both emotional and behavioral consequences. It may work to keep your dog off the counter but the potential consequences which include the development of more serious behavior issues are not worth the cost.
Tip: Try to keep a sense of humor and empathy about counter surfing behaviors and see it from your dog's point of view. We have ALL that awesome food in the house and we aren't willing to share?! He/she is not stealing food to be a jerk, s/he's doing it because the food is there and it tastes good.
Extended Learning: Dogs who exhibit counter surfing behavior may simply be passionate food enthusiasts but there is often also overlap with dogs who could use a little work with some of their foundation skills, in particular with self control. Try the two following exercises to help your pup develop the foundation skills that will set him/her up to succeed.
1. Too Bad/Take It Game (builds self control, minimizing grabbing and jumping behavior): Present a treat in your open palm. If your dog moves forward to grab it, close your hand and move it slightly up, bringing it back into position in front of him as he backs off. As soon as he ceases to try to grab the treat, deliver it to him by bringing your open hand to his mouth and praise him with a “Yes!” Timing is key here so be sure not to withhold for too long or miss the moment he stops moving forward to reward.
2. Dr. Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol (builds focus, self-control): When working this protocol, don't move on to the next day until the one you are working through is easy for your dog (s/he makes it through without needing to reset any of the actions). Mark each successful step with a prompt “Yes!” and follow that with a treat (use tiny bits of treat to keep the calories down). If day one is too difficult for your dog, cut each of the steps in half (sit for 5 if it says sit for 10, take one step if it says take two or make your steps baby steps).
Print copy of Dr. Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol – http://dogscouts.org/base/tonto-site/uploads/2015/03/7002_Protocol_for_Relaxation.pdf + Audio files of Dr. Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol – https://championofmyheart.com/relaxation-protocol-mp3-files/
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