My dog is a counter surfer and is tall enough to get things off the counter if they are close to the edge. My dog is 4 years old and she is a Shepherd mix. We have tried everything to stop her; including yelling at her, booby trapping the counter with things that would make noise and using a squirt bottle, but she still does it. What can I do?
Counter surfing for dogs is like any other behavior—the longer it continues and is reinforced, the stronger the behavior will become. With that in mind, you will need to do a lot of prevention to ensure your dog doesn’t keep self-reinforcing by stealing things from the counter. Dogs that keep getting “rewarded” for doing a behavior will continue to do so because it pays off. All of the tactics that you have tried may work in the moment, but will likely teach your dog to avoid checking the counter when you are around of if she perceives the booby trap is there.
Since none of the things you have tried have actually worked to keep your dog off the counter, it’s time to take a different approach; which is to teach your dog what you would like her do instead. By giving your dog a different option and reinforcing that, while making a consorted effort to keep your counters free of things that will reinforce her, you should be able to get to a point where your dog will choose the easier behavior over one that no longer has a reinforcing quality.
If your dog is eating a high carbohydrate diet, you may want to look at feeding her something different. Many dogs are hungrier when eating low quality foods with high grain contents and suffer from “carb crashes,” just like us when we eat a lot of junk food. These low-end foods also give dogs a ton more energy that needs to be expended somewhere, so exploring counters might be a result of that.
Both mental and physical exercises are important to stopping any unwanted behavior, so do make sure your dog is getting a balance of both. Mental exercise can actually help make dogs sleepier than some of the physical activities (think about studying for a test!). A couple of 20 minute walks per day, or one walk and some play are a nice addition to your dog’s daily routine, and then augment that with things that are mentally tiring and you will have a dog less likely to look for trouble.
Mental exercise can be training for manners or tricks, eating from food carrier toys such as Kongs, Buster Cubes, or even just throwing your dog’s food in the backyard so she has to scavenge for her meals (just be sure your yard is chemical free if you do this). Also, there are many “food puzzles” for dogs that help satisfy the need to scavenge, which is part of the counter surfing issue, and that provide mental exercise for them at the same time. Check the local pet supply stores and on-line for many different choices.
Chewing is another way to relieve stress and energy. Rawhides, raw bones, bully sticks, etc. can help tire a dog out while still taking care of that need to scavenge. Be sure you watch your dog with any of these things to ensure she chews rather than just biting big chucks off—a chocking hazard or potential to become trapped.
Prevent your dog from going into the kitchen when not supervised. Baby gates, exercise pens or keeping your dog crated or in other rooms when you can’t watch her are all ways to keep her out of the area in question. Unwanted behaviors must be prevented if you are going to get her past this.
Teach what you want
Teaching your dog to lie down at the entrance of the kitchen would be a great behavior to train your dog. She will still be able to see you that way, but will be reinforced only for being in the area where you would like her. I like to use some sort of a visual aide for this, like a towel, small rug or an actual dog bed or mat.
Put the mat where you think you would like your dog to settle and drop 10-15 treats on the mat before you bring your dog into the area. That initial reinforcement will set the gears in motion when your dog discovers the booty you left. Now you will completely ignore your dog, but have about a ½ cup of small treats ready to go so after she finds the treats you left on the mat, you can begin to reinforce her for staying on the mat.
Your job is to toss treats to your dog when she is on the mat and ignore her otherwise. She is allowed to walk around, get up and leave, walk through the kitchen, or whatever she wants, but you will only give her a treat when she is on the mat. Be sure that you keep giving her treats at a fast pace when she is on the mat so she learns that staying there pays off really well, and that nothing happens if she leaves the mat. It won’t take long for your dog to learn that being on the mat is the place to be.
After a couple of times doing this, you can begin to reduce the amount of treats you give her because being on the mat will have become a fun thing by itself and won’t need to be reinforced as often. You could then begin to hold out for even calmer behaviors, such as lying down before your reinforce her. It shouldn’t take too long before your dog runs to the mat when you work in the kitchen and if you prevent her from having access when you are not there, the mat will begin to override the counter surfing.
Be sure to adjust your dogs meals for the amount of treats you use (you can use a portion of her daily food for this, but do add some really wonderful treats in the mix as well) so your dog doesn’t gain weight.