This week I look at stealing food off furniture and work surfaces – AKA, ‘counter surfing’ – the gambling dog’s game of choice!
But first a tale of skulduggery…
A wee while ago I had a friend’s dog come to stay. One day, there I was, making a sandwich for lunch, radio blaring. My guys and Bonzo (names changed to protect the guilty!!) were just chillin’ out on mats watching me. The phone rang. Darn! Without thinking I picked it up and wandered off to chat somewhere a bit quieter.
Fast forward 5 minutes. I return to the kitchen to find a gaping hole where my lunch had been and Bonzo lying in the same spot trying to look innocent. Unfortunately for Bonzo, he doesn’t much like pickled cucumber so the evidence of his thieving ways was lying next to his mat for all to see. Oops!
(Note to self: not all dogs are as trustworthy around food as my guys are!)
Not just an irritation.
This is an unusual happening in my house but it’s pretty common in plenty of others. It’s a right royal pain and can be dangerous too. If your dog steals something potentially toxic (chocolate, sultanas, grapes) or dangerous (cooked bones!) you can end up with a hefty vet bill as the very least of your worries.
So why is it SUCH a common problem and what can we do about it?
Why do they do it?
Dogs are natural scavengers and opportunistic feeders, so counter surfing and bin-raiding are basically hard-wired behaviours. The thrill of working out how to access forbidden fruits, followed by the joy of success, can quickly lead to an almost obsessive level of commitment for some dogs. They just can’t seem to help themselves!
Prevention is better than cure.
Due to its almost addictive allure, the best way to deal with counter surfing is to never let it happen in the first place. If it’s happened once it can become almost impossible to curb. A proactive approach BEFORE stealing food becomes established is far more effective!
Take these steps to prevent counter surfing becoming a sport in your house:
Management is absolutely critical for the first months (year?) that you have a new dog or puppy. Quite simply, don’t leave an untrained dog loose in the kitchen unsupervised. That way he’s not going to get the chance to find out how interesting bench tops can be.
Discourage paws on tables or benches AT ALL TIMES. If I see my young dog cruising the kitchen, sniffing up at the benches and ‘thinking bad thoughts’ he gets a “don’t even THINK about it!” and asked to do something else such as go to his mat.
Scavenger-proof your kitchen:
- Don’t leave anything edible on benches or tables.
- Put fruit bowls in cupboards.
- Put ‘nibbles’, bread and snacks in cupboards or dog proof containers (screw lids are best).
- Put the rubbish bin in a cupboard, with a child proof catch if needed.
- Don’t leave used cutlery/crockery or cooking equipment by the sink.
- Don’t leave toys or potentially fun items on benches. Gloves, hats, sunglasses – you’d be amazed at what dogs will steal if they look interesting!
Make sure your dog is being fed appropriately and adequately.
If you have a ‘good doer’ who puts on weight at the sight of a kibble, fill them up with frozen Kongs stuffed with cooked, minced veggies and a little natural stock to add flavour. One of my dogs is on an almost permanent diet. He gets these veggie-Kongs a couple of times a day in addition to his actual food. It gives him something to do and makes him feel fuller.
Does your dog have a job?
Stealing food can be addictive because it’s hugely fun and rewarding. The food isn’t always the biggest reward – the problem solving and mental stimulation can be the ‘driver’, not hunger as such. If your dog is getting plenty of mental and physical stimulation they’re far less likely to try counter surfing as a new vocation.
Teach an alternative behaviour when food is around.
My guys are allowed in the kitchen when I cook, BUT they have to lay in their beds or on their mats. The signal to go to a bed or a mat is the chopping board coming out. This way I don’t get counter surfing or dogs underfoot while I’m busy. I can also trust them to stay on their mats if I have to leave the room for a short period. Eventually, the sight/smell of food on the bench triggers ‘find a mat!’ behaviour rather than ‘try to steal it’ behaviour.
This was easy to teach:
- Have a mat/bed in easy food tossing distance from where you usually prepare food.
- Separately from cooking, teach your dog to lie there.
- Add a ‘go to mat/bed’ word.
Once that bit is done:
- Get out your food prep tools.
- Cue your dog to go to the bed/mat.
- Toss titbits to your dog as you prepare your meal.
Over many repetitions:
- Build up some duration for staying put even as you move around the room.
- Gradually reduce how frequently you toss ‘treats’.
- Start leaving and entering the room for very short periods.
If the prevention horse has bolted…
So, you’ve found this article a bit too late and your dog is now an Olympic level counter surfer. Now what?
Quite simply, your only real solution is management. Prevent access to the kitchen or food areas by installing doors, baby gates or x-pen barriers. Alternatively, confine your dog in a pen or crate while potential edibles are being prepared.
If you slip up and he gets lucky, don’t correct your dog unless you actually catch him in the act of stealing food. Correcting after the act is pointless. Even if he’s sitting with crumbs round his mouth and cucumber on his mat (remember Bonzo?) he won’t associate your ire with his crime. He’ll just think you’re an unpredictable crazy who’s rather scary.
What about deterrents?
There are many products on the market that claim to cure stealing. Unfortunately, most deterrents are ineffective. Hard-core counter surfers are typically addicted to the activity. All you end up with is a dog who gets better and better at circumnavigating (or ignoring) your deterrents!
Prevention, prevention, prevention. If you can’t train your family to be tidy in the kitchen, either don’t allow your dog in there at all or teach a strong alternative behaviour in the presence of food items.
If you already have a problem all you can really do is keep your dog out of the area where temptation resides.
In both cases, consistency is key. Nothing like setting up a gambling scenario (“Can I get it THIS time??”) to keep a dog in the counter surfing game!
Sarah and the Gang
PS New to using food in training? Find out how to use it effectively by downloading the HotDogs guide, Top Tips for Food Use.
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