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September 30, 2011 at 7:23 AMComments: 4 Faves: 0

Counter-Surfing, what is it and how to prevent it?

By Victoria Swanson More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Paws & Awws Blog Series

I've heard horror stories of a stolen pot-roast, a missing Thanksgiving Turkey, even a plain ol' sandwich is in danger of these food stealing thieves. Who are these thieves? Our beloved fur kids.

If your dog jumps up on counters, coffee table or end-tables, your dog is counter-surfing. They are searching for food or other items and unfortunately this turns into an unwanted behavior that majority of people just don't know how to stop it. I am here to help and will give you some tips on how to combat this serious behavioral issue.

Stealing food and other items is a self rewarding behavior for dogs. What this means is that when your dog steals something the consequence is that something pleasurable and desirable occurs. This could be something like getting to eat the food he/she has stolen or receiving attention from you. This is a bad situation for us dog owners because the thieving behavior is being rewarded and therefore reinforced each time your dog steals something. This means that the behavior is highly likely to continue and will most probably get worse in the future.

Counter-Surfing Why's?

  • Some dogs steal items of food simply because they don't know any better - they have never been properly taught that it is inappropriate behavior.
  • The thieving may be a symptom of canine separation anxiety. Dogs will often steal things like socks or shoes which have the scent of the owner they are missing on them.
  • Many dogs use their thieving as a tactic to receive attention from you. They learn that as soon as they pick up a shoe or cushion it gets you to chase after them - a fun game!
  • If you don't leave some tasty chew toys around for your dog it is highly likely that they will find something else to chew on - like your expensive rug.
  • Obviously if your dog is hungry he is far more likely to scavenge (counter-surf) for food on counter tops and tables.
  • A lack of adequate obedience training can lead to this type of behavioral problem. Your dog may not respect you or may see himself as above you in the family pack hierarchy. This means that he will feel free and even entitled to help himself to anything around the house.
  • Boredom and a lack of exercise can lead to more thieving as well as many other behavior problems.
  • A young puppy that is yet to learn proper household etiquette is not equipped to be left alone around food and other dangerous chewable items.

Counter-Surfing Prevention

  • Keep food and other items out of reach - prevention is always the best option in dog training. This involves things like clearing all counter tops and locking garbage bins. By doing this you are removing the thing that is motivating and then reinforcing your dog's stealing habit.
  • Supervision is the key to correcting a thieving dog. When you are present you can provide your dog with instant feedback regarding his behavior. This includes both positive and negative feedback.
  • Only ever feed your dog from his dinner bowl or as a reward during obedience training sessions. This means never throwing scraps to your dog from your dinner plate or when you are preparing your dinner. In fact it is a good idea to give your dog a stuffed Kong toy when you are preparing your dinner.
  • Provide your dog with loads of physical and mental stimulation throughout the day. Nice long walks on the leash, fun games like hide and seek and some training is all great for this purpose.
  • Always reward desirable behavior. If your dog is sitting calmly on his bed while you are preparing your dinner praise and reward him with a tasty treat. This is really an obedience training exercise so it's ok to give your dog a reward in this situation. When a dog is rewarded that behavior is reinforced and is likely to continue in the future (which is what you desire in this example).

Counter-Surfing Training

  • Set up a "booby trap" for your dog. This method is designed so that your dog learns to associate stealing with an unpleasant consequence (not cruel or painful). This method works best for dogs who steal from one place in particular - such as your coffee table. You can achieve this unpleasant consequence through the following strategies:
  • When your dog counter surfs blow a whistle or shake a can of coins to get your dogs attention, this unpleasant noise will grab your dog's attention therefore giving you the opportunity to correct and remove the dog from the counter top or other such space.
  • You can also buy some foul tasting substances at your local pet store for this purpose. Put some of this liquid on the "bait" and wait for your dog to try to steal it. The idea is that the food from counter-tops will become unappealing to your dog and therefore he will discontinue his thieving as there is nothing in it for him.
  • Another method involves a water pistol. This method requires you to spy on your dog and then provide an unpleasant consequence to any thieving behavior - the instant it happens. If you spot your dog counter surfing the counter give her a shot of water to the face and a stern "No!" Once again this will stun your dog (not hurt her).
  • Ask for an alternate behavior from your dog in situations where he may be tempted to steal. Use a command such as this - go to your bed, this will help occupy your dog's mind and behavior. Make this spot the most special and appealing place in the whole house. If you get this one right your dog will spend a lot of time in this spot!

Counter-Surfing is an unwanted behavior that needs to be corrected and stopped. I hope the above tips help your dog to stop their thieving antics. Be patience and consistent during this training and you should quickly see results to the positive.

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  • Victoria, thanks for posting this. My parents dog counter surfs and has even been known to open up our cupboard were the trash it located to scavenge for food. He once ate a whole loaf of bread. I will tell my parents about your methods to train dogs to stop counter-surfing. It will definitely help!

  • My girlfriend's dog CJ "Moo" is a notorious counter surfer. He's had stomach problems all of his life and this had led to him being food obsessed. We can never feed him more than a handful of food at a time or he gets sick. This just makes him perpetually hungry. He's very well behaved and not in the least bit food aggressive, but he's an opportunist when it comes to food. Last summer he ate 15 cupcakes! off the counter while we ran to the store. Cupcakes are his favorite as he had previously eaten 12 at a friends house, but 15 in the new record. Loaves of bread are also never safe, he's eaten several along with dinner rolls. We've learned to never leave anything out when we leave the house, he never does it when anyone is home. When you arrive back home after he's eaten something, you'll know it because he's not there to greet you, he's hiding somewhere with a guilty yet satisfied look on his face.

    This behavior can be dangerous too as he once ate a bag of chocolate chips set out for baking as his owner was at the store buying eggs. As long as we remember to check the counter before we leave the house it isn't a problem anymore.

  • Our Izzy ate a whole bowl of dark chocolates and she even unwrappped each one before eating them, she must have a stomach of steel as she never got sick, however chocolate is very very dangerous for dogs, we no longer leave a bowl of chocolates or any type of food/treats out anymore....Izzy is to short to jump up to counter-surf, however our the chocolates were in a bowl on an end-table that was easy access from the couch :(

    Last Christmas she also unwrapped three speciality coffee's that were gifts for family members and ran around our house making trails of coffee grounds behind her throughout the house. I was only gone for 20 minutes and came back to shredded coffee bags and several trails of coffee grounds.....needless to say, Izzy now is locked up faithfully in our library every time we leave the house and no longer has "run of the house" while we are away.

  • Our dog is really only a problem with fresh green beans (from our garden). He loves them and will stand up and scarf them off the island in our kitchen. We have to keep them in a bowl or bucket so he won't eat too many. Of course, we do give him a few cut up beans when we're eating them. :)

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