Counter Surfing Basics

Feb 16, 2018

Dog are by nature opportunistic scavengers. Counter surfing is basically scavenging behavior and hunting breeds such as the Labrador Retrievers are especially good at it. While it is a natural behavior for dogs, people find it unacceptable. Counter surfing is a self-reinforcing behavior and as such it can be challenging to modify.

Counter surfing also known as stealing can cause destruction and has associated costs, some pretty high such as veterinary expenses if the dog ingests dangerous items.

Things to consider when you are addressing a counter surfing problem include food and nutrition, is the dog getting enough? Particularly important for recently rescued dogs. Exercise itself is not usually a big factor but it can be related to the following items. Attention seeking behavior, the dog steals something, humans give chase which results in a fun game for the dog. Not so fun for the human. Mental stimulation can be a big one. A bored dog will find ways to amuse himself! Be sure to provide appropriate items to chew on. Stuffed Kongs, raw bones and natural chew products are much more appetizing to dogs than plastic bones. Providing your dog with opportunities to scavenge constructively can be helpful. Food search games, food toys and puzzles. Snuffle mats have recently become popular and are a great way to allow constructive scavenging. Nose Work games are also great.

Management is an important first step. Clear the counters. By not allowing access you will no longer have a counter surfing problem. I know, easier said than done; especially when you have more than one person in the house. Baby gates will prevent access to the hot spots. Crating at appropriate times such as when you leave the house will also prevent access. It is possible that by using these no training required techniques the behavior will go away due to a lengthy period of non-practice/non-reinforcement. Management though tends to fail at some point.

So, let’s move on to training ideas. Teach your dog that food comes from below not above. Drop treats on the ground so that the dog’s focus is on the floor and not up towards the counters. Only reinforce the dog for four feet on the floor, never for being vertical. Only reinforce the dog when he is in the standing, sitting or lying down positions.

Training alternative behaviors such as training your dog to leave the room on cue. Station training your dog so that he goes to a specific place on cue and remains there. You can even train the dog to respond to an environmental cue to go to station such as when the table is set or people enter the kitchen. Boundary training is another option. Teach your dog to respect the threshold of the kitchen. You can use blue painter’s tape to indicate a line not to be crossed.

Having a solid recall and drop it cue will be highly beneficial especially for those dogs that are scavenging for attention.

Finally teach your dog food refusal. You can start with a cued “leave it” but can also work up to the dog learning that unattended food is off limits.

Here is an excellent video by Emily Larlham on her YouTube channel which is called Kikopup:

Chirag Patel’s YouTube channel Domesticated Manners is also excellent. This video is on introducing food manners:

There are also some much less desirable methods to try to dissuade a dog from counter surfing. These methods involve using things your dog finds unpleasant. When you train using aversives you risk fallout from these techniques. They can result in fear, anxiety or stress in the dog. These effects can have long lasting impacts that can be difficult to change. The dog may also develop an unintended association. One of the more common methods is to stack a tower of cans in a way that when the dog goes for food the cans fall over startling the dog. This is not a very effective method and the dogs typically learn to avoid the cans. It can also cause sound sensitivity in the dog. It is also not fun for the human who has to collect and restack the cans.

To sum up, the best plan is prevention. Provide your dog with physical and mental stimulation. Train appropriate behaviors before counter surfing occurs. Practice good management from the day you get your puppy or dog so bad habits do not have a chance to form. Finally, if counter surfing does start begin training to modify the behavior right away.