Welcome to “Ask Crystal,” where you can ask your pet behavior questions! You can submit your question for Crystal at the bottom of the page!
My pup is always jumping up on the counters and stealing snacks. We have tried telling her no but she keeps doing it. She tries to steal the food off of the table while we are eating it! I have resorted to eating standing up because I am so frustrated with her food stealing. How can I teach her to stop this naughty behavior?
Standing up to eat
Oh my goodness, you poor dear! Let’s get you sitting down to eat again. Unless you are trying a new workout while eating that doesn’t seem like a very relaxing meal. Counter surfing is a very common problem for most dog owners. Dogs are opportunistic scavengers so given the opportunity to locate and eat food they are going to take it. The more often they have found and gotten food from somewhere the stronger the behavior is going to be. It may only take one time for the dog to get some goodies from the counter to create a problem. Once when I was a child, I found $100 bill on the ground in a parking lot. You can bet your life my eyes were glued to the ground for years in every parking lot.
Life with a dog is a great way to teach us to be neater. Hey, I just found another great reason for people to adopt a dog! In an ideal world, when we get a new dog we are being proactive and keeping the behavior from ever occurring by managing the environment, the dog and then teaching skills in the event that they do get something they shouldn’t. The more often the dog has been reinforced by jumping up on the counter the harder it will be to stop the behavior. The first thing to start doing is to keep those counters clean anytime you are not in the kitchen to supervise. That also means wiping the counters down so she can’t lick any residue off, even a little bit of food can be reinforcing.
Next, we need to make a plan to manage the dog while we are preparing food or eating. There are a few different management techniques that you can use depending on your home setup. If you crate train, you can have the dog in a crate when you need to prepare food and don’t have time to be constantly supervising. You can also crate her at meal times so that you can sit and eat in peace. If you have a galley style kitchen you may be able to use baby gates to prevent access to the kitchen. I am a big fan of using training tethers for many different situations. A training tether is just a leash or a cable attached to a door, furniture or an eye bolt in the wall. You can attach the dog to it and give her a toy to play with so it isn’t punishment but you can control where she is and keep her out of trouble. This step shouldn’t be forever just until you teach an alternate behavior and skills to manage her behavior.
There are a few different things that we can teach a dog to help with the issue of counter surfing. First, with any problem behavior you need to decide what you would like the dog to be doing instead. Try to have a concrete idea of a behavior rather than just a very general statement like I don’t want her to do it anymore. Personally, what I have found that has really worked for me is teaching my dogs to lie on a rug just outside of the kitchen. I teach this in a few steps.
First, we need to teach the dog a solid stay in a low distraction environment outside of the context of cooking or eating meals. When we first start teaching stay, we should think of it as an extended down or sit. We need to get the dog used to staying in a position for a long period of time.
Next, I would practice the stay on a rug so they can generalize the behavior. I would then move the rug to the spot where I want it and practice there as well. Separately, I teach them to stay out of the kitchen while I am in it. I do this by drawing an invisible line that they should not cross at the threshold of the kitchen. Anytime, they try to cross over that line, I use body blocking to gently make them back up. I then lure them onto the rug and reinforce sitting or downs. I like to do this a little differently in that I don’t actually tell my dogs to do a stay cue here. I don’t tell them to do a stay on the rug because sometimes they want to go do something else which is just fine with me. Also, some dogs find it uncomfortable to stay in a certain position so I leave that up to the dog to choose. I really prefer to teach dogs to offer polite behaviors on their own rather than constantly telling them exactly what to do. What I am teaching them is that you shouldn’t enter the kitchen when I am in it and if you lie or sit on the rug you are going to get fed some yummy treats. I use this same technique for when I am eating meals. You can of course, tell your dogs to do a stay instead if that is your preference. I would also teach a leave it cue for those rare occasions if you do slip up and leave some food out or even if you catch your dog jumping up on the counters to look for something. It is definitely one of the most useful cues.
Unfortunately, you will probably never be able to leave a steak sitting on the counter and go leave to run an errand and find the steak still there. Remember that she is still a dog and that isn’t really fair to be expect her to resist easy access to food. Hopefully, now you have some tools to give her some alternative behaviors and realistic expectations about what we can expect her to be able to do. Here’s to sitting down to eat your meals again friend!
Until next time,