Counterproductive: How to prevent your dog from stealing unattended food and other edible items


One of the most difficult dog behaviors to understand (or forgive) is counter-surfing – when your dog is grabbing an edible item that you or another household man has left unattended. The behavior is not limited to just counters. Some dogs eat food that is left on tables, desks, coffee tables, or other unguarded surfaces. Some dogs specialize in finding food that you’ve hidden in your car!


Smart dog owners understand that canids are inherently “opportunistic eaters” – they are genetically programmed to eat food when they see or find it. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should just let them help them with anything in the house they can find! Dogs are genetically programmed to: a quantity we don’t just let them do things.

However, this means that we need to conscientiously manage our dog’s environment, hoping that he will never learn the joy of counter-surfing, but that we can reprogram the learning (i.e. modify, if it is already the case) the behavior ).

Management is pretty simple. It just means never leaving unattended food wherever your dog can get it. Alternatively, you can restrain your dog or put it away (closed in another room, behind a baby gate, tied up, or in a crate) if you need to skip the food.

If you do this from puppy age, your dog will never If he gets the chance to escape with the deli tray or butter dish on the counter, there’s a good chance he won’t choose to jump on the counters when he reaches adulthood.

However, it is not a good idea to take good behavior for granted or to present unnecessarily difficult-to-ignore temptations to your dog frequently.

Our two dogs have never surfed against each other; They’re both small (under 35 pounds) and have reasonably good house manners, so we trust our food to be safe on the kitchen counter or at the dining table (though they’re both perfectly capable of jumping that high if they wanted to) . . However, I wouldn’t dream of leaving food on our coffee table and leaving the room. There is no point in tempting fate!

If you want to manage your dog instead of reliably keeping the counters free of food, use our usual list of management tools to prevent your dog from accessing food on counters and tables: doors, baby gates, crates, movement Pins, leashes, leashes, and (last but not least, since it has the best chance of failure due to human error) direct surveillance.

Not guilty

Some dogs seem incorrigible when taking care of food that they can find around the house – and some people get it Jump crazy about it. “I punished him many times for it,” they say. “He White he’s not supposed to do it. He only does it when I’m not in the room and he always looks guilty afterwards. So clear that he knows better! “

The thing is, he really does Not to know better. What he does know is that bad things happen (you get angry, or maybe even a little violent) when he takes food off the counter when you are there. However, nothing bad happens if he takes yummy stuff off the counter when you’re not there. So it’s fine – and safe – to do it then.

In general, once you discover his final transgression and punish him for it, the punishment is too far from his act (we don’t recommend this). He will not associate the punishment with eating. All he really knows is that sometimes you get grumpy when you walk into the kitchen (or wherever the food has been).

So what about those guilty looks? If your dog doesn’t know he’s done something bad, why does he look guilty?

In 2009, dog identification scientist Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., author of Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (Scribner, 2009) and Be a dog: follow the dog into a world of smell (Scribner, 2016) tried to answer this question with a study: “Make the” guilty look “clear.”

Horowitz set up a situation where the owner put a treat where his dog could reach him, told the dog to leave him alone and leave the room. When the owner returned, Horowitz would sometimes report to the owner that the dog had eaten the treat, even if it hadn’t (the researchers took the food off the plate). In these cases, the owners most often described their dogs as guilty, even though the dog, without their knowing, did so Not took the treat. In addition, when the owners scolded the dogs, the dogs often looked “guilty”, regardless of whether they had eaten the treat or not. In fact, Horowitz also found that the dogs who hadn’t eaten the treat often showed the most exaggerated feelings of guilt when scolded!

The behavior and expression that owners often take to be a sign of guilt – a hunched, lowered posture, ears back, eyes averted, sometimes accompanied by a submissive grin – is indeed so Appeasement behavior; it indicates that the dog is afraid. It means he has read your body language, understands that you are upset, and is trying to calm you down so you don’t take him out.

If your dog’s counter-surfing and your anger about it are more than a few seconds apart, they have no idea why you are angry, but they don’t want your anger to come down on them. Even if you’re not overly angry, he can tell when you’re upset about something and offers body language designed to distract your emotions.

Note: While the dog’s behavior is not indicative of guilt in the counter-surfing scenarios described here, it does not mean that dogs cannot feel guilty. We do not know that, yet. It is possible that they can. But that’s not it.

Counter intelligence: change

My own unproven and untested theory, based solely on anecdotal evidence, is that the truly dedicated counter-surfers tend to be smart, confident dogs with resilient personalities. Some are true masters of the art of ingesting food – practically under your nose without you ever noticing. Such ninja skills have to be admired! You might even be in the kitchen with your dog thinking you’re doing fine, but you turn your back for a second and whoops! The holiday ham was stolen from the counter.

It certainly makes sense to change your counter-surfing behavior, especially if you have one of these experienced surfers or if the management in your household is inconsistent. Perhaps you are caring for an older parent with dementia or you have distracted, impromptu children roaming your home. If careful management is impossible, then by all means use behavior modification!

Here are some useful training tools to teach your counter-surf dog:

* Mat training. Teach your dog that their kitchen space is on their mat, conveniently in the corner. Ask her to go to her mat as needed, then make sure she goes to her mat on her own without a cue. When that happens, reinforce it happily and generously! (For more information on teaching this behavior, see Useful Matters, WDJ January 2020.)

Work on lengthening the amount of time you want her to stay on the mat until she stays there happily for a long time, with long pauses between amps. Keep reinforcing them on their mat in the kitchen (or wherever there is food) to keep the behavior strong.

* Leave it. A well-educated, well-timed, happy “Leave it!” Keyword can work wonders, especially when it’s delivered correct The moment your dog looks at the turkey sandwich that one of the kids left on the coffee table.

I teach that “leave it” means “forever” so if you do If you need to get out of the kitchen for a brief moment, your “Leave it” cue can help keep unattended food safe – but don’t count on it for more than a few seconds!

Start with the words “Leave it!” and put a treat under your foot and wait for your dog to stop taking it out from under your shoe. The moment it stops, “mark” the moment with a signal, e.g. B. the click of a clicker or the word “Yes!” and give her a reward. Keep using the marker (click or “Yes!”) And give her a random duration (but not too long) reward every few seconds as long as she doesn’t return to the shoe. If she tries to get treatment again just wait for it to stop and mark / treat again.

It’s fun to teach! They set up your dog to make the right choices and then reinforce them when they do. It’s one of those times where positive human training pays off when you see the lightbulb go on when your dog looks at the treat and then purposely looks away. (See “Go Forever,” June 2018 for instructions on teaching this behavior.)

*Go away. The keyword “Leave it” instructs your dog not to eat what he desires. In contrast, the “Walk Away” immediately moves her away from the food she is looking at on the counter or table. In many cases, this is more effective because it tells your dog what to do (and empower her) instead of just telling her what Not do.

Teaching your dog to move away from something when asked is invaluable for both your dog’s safety and your health. It has become one of my favorite behaviors to teach and apply.

We begin to teach this behavior by throwing our dog treats to hunt and eat. When he thoroughly understands the “game” of watching to see where you toss the treats so he can chase and eat them, present him with a novel but neutral (uninteresting) item that catches his attention for a moment can pull. When he approaches the item to examine it with a cold, yell “Walk Away!” and run away throwing goodies behind him so he can do a U-turn and chase the goodies.

More steps and more practice are required for a reliable “Walk Away!” Behave, but you get the idea. For detailed instructions on how to learn this behavior for your dog, see “Go Away!”. in the September 2018 issue.


Note: the leash here looks a bit tight. Do not pull the dog away from the novel. After a couple of iterations, when he hears the cue, he should anticipate the goodies and turn around with you and run away from the item.

In behavioral terms, you “erase” your dog’s anti-surfing behavior by not leaving any food on the counter that it can find – each – thus remove everything possible reinforcement. Behaviors that aren’t reinforced in any way eventually go away. But if your dog happens to get a sandwich or a savory cake while you’re trying to extinguish the foraging behavior – even just once! – The behavior is reinforced so much that it will be difficult to erase it.

So if you really want to wipe out your dog’s counter-surfing behavior, this has to be your management flawless. If your dog has access to a treat on the counter every now and then, he’ll keep looking for random prizes to snap up when no one is looking. And every time she is convinced even more that the switch will eventually pay off. The behavior will become even more permanent and she will explore the surface of the counter even longer.

Think about it: let’s say you go to work and take a look at some pretty marigolds in a roadside planter. To your surprise and delight, you will find a $ 100 bill under the leaves of the plant. Wanna bet you’ll check the planter again the next day? And the next one?

If you happen to find it four days later Another 100 dollar bill you are for for sure I will check the planter for a long time every time you come by. If you find another invoice in 20 or 30 days, you’ll only be convinced to keep looking, even if there are very long gaps between looking for a $ 100 bill and the next. In fact, even if you “just” found a $ 20 bill, you’d probably keep looking!

Counterclaim: everything fixed?

Some dogs are more motivated by the prospect of finding unattended food than others. You may never be able to turn your back on these dogs and expect to see snacks where you left them – so don’t leave snacks unattended! Management is so easy.

You have invested a lot of time and energy managing and changing your dog’s behavior. He no longer takes food from the kitchen counter when you turn your back. In fact, he is very good at relaxing on his mat in the corner when you are in the kitchen preparing food, and you are very good at strengthening him for that. Congratulation!

Can we say that it is now “fixed”? Is it okay to let go of your guard and leave food on the counter even when you’re not there?

With some dogs maybe; but for most probably not.

Some dogs have very strong foraging behaviors. For example, Labrador Retrievers, as most zookeepers know (and most owners realized this early on in their Labrador experience), are notorious Chow Hounds. It is actually suspected of being a genetically inherited trait! In 2016, researchers found a gene believed to be responsible for the Labrador’s well-known magnetic attraction to food.

Your counter-surfing lab – or any other dog with strong access to food behavior – will likely need to be maintained for the rest of its life even after an excellent modification program.

Think back to that planter with the marigolds and the occasional $ 100 bills. When you left Months Without finding more money, you’d probably stop checking every day – but you could still peek under the flowers every now and then. And if at some point you’ve found more cash – even just a $ 5 bill – you’ll likely be checking back on that planter regularly, right?

When we change behavior, the old behavioral response (neuronal pathway) does not go away. it is only overlaid by the new behavioral response. When something happens to trigger that old In response, the behavior can (and often does) reappear quickly (this is known as spontaneous recovery).

Even trainer dogs struggle with it

In my Cognition Academy we sometimes do a “Leave It Test” with trainers and their relatively well-trained dogs. The trainers put a bowl of food on the floor and tell their dogs to get out of it! As long as the trainer is facing her dog and watching, most dogs are often very reliable when they refrain from eating.

Amusingly, however, more than 90% of dogs help themselves within 10 minutes if the trainers cover their eyes, turn their backs on their dogs, or step behind a barrier. Most Eat the food within 60 seconds or less!

Also, if your dog has received counter-surfing reinforcements in the past and you have made efforts to modify their behavior so that they are far less likely to provide themselves, then follow appropriate management protocols as well. Don’t waste all of this effort seducing him into transgression – just don’t do it. If you do – and he fails, it is your fault, not his.

The author, Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s training editor. She and her husband live in Fairplay, Maryland, where their Peaceable Paws training center is located. Miller is also the author of many books on dog friendly training. See page 24 for information on purchasing a book and contact information.

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