Making Manners Fun: Counter-Surfing (Holiday) Edition
With the holidays rapidly approaching, many dog owners are going to be faced with GREAT opportunities to work on counter-surfing with their dogs. As we have family over to celebrate the holiday season, there will inevitably be mouthwatering treats and other great smells out on the countertops. It’s so important to remember that our dogs aren’t trying to be naughty by stealing food. To dogs, food left out with no one claiming it is just wasted opportunity!
Regrettably, dogs are often punished for counter-surfing - a behavior that really just comes so naturally for them. Dogs have historically been scavengers, and as such, they tend to be opportunists. Come on now, tell me that you wouldn’t stop to grab a 100-dollar bill on the ground if it seemed unclaimed? We know that dogs learn by association. While the dog MAY make the connection between counter-surfing and the punishment, he runs an even greater chance of associating something else unintended - like people in the kitchen mean bad things. Or just that kitchen is a bad place to be in. Or that the counter tops are scary. Or that my human isn’t nice in the kitchen so I should only go in there when he or she isn’t there. Finally, what punishment fails to do is tell the dog what you would like them to do instead. Rather than fussing at the dog, let’s go ahead and move toward teaching him what is more acceptable kitchen etiquette instead.
MANAGEMENT: When people come to me and complain about their dogs counter-surfing, my very first prescription is to not leave food out on the counter. This instantly fixes 99.99% of all counter-surfing problems as we have removed the source of the problem. Dogs won’t counter-surf for items that aren't there. When you cannot watch your dog, do both yourself and your dog a favor by not leaving food out on the countertop. This will ensure that your dog isn't rewarded for counter-surfing when you’re not there to redirect the behavior. Management can also include crating your dog when you won’t be able to watch him or putting up a baby gate in the doorway of your kitchen to keep the dog out of trouble. At the very least, if you can't remove your dog from the environment or put all food away, you can utilize the space in your oven or microwave. Remember: if your dog counter-surfs successfully, this behavior has been reinforced and will most likely happen again.
CAPTURE THE GOOD: My partner, Robbin, is a brilliant cook, and he loves being in the kitchen. However, I'm not the only one in the house that has noticed. He faces the problem of living with five furry opportunists who have learned what an exceptional chef Robbin is. Before working on it, our dogs were always underneath him as he moved around the kitchen. In addition to counter-surfing being an issue, there was also a problem of safety. There was huge risk of tripping over one of the dogs while cooking that could result in human OR dog injury. Because we knew that punishment wouldn’t work, Robbin and I first focused on capturing polite kitchen behaviors. As Robbin cooked, I would reward our dogs with tasty treats for doing ANYTHING that included four paws on the floor. If the dogs stood nicely without jumping up on the counter or on one of us, I rewarded them. After that, I started rewarding other behaviors they offered. Sits and downs were heavily rewarded.
The problem transformed from dogs counter-surfing to humans not being able to move around the kitchen due to the 5 bodies sitting - beautifully, I may add - in Robbin’s immediate body space. Management would work in this situation - we could easily put up a baby gate in the door of the kitchen and let Robbin cook in peace. We do this sometimes, especially when we have company over. However, I’d like my dogs to do something else on their own that doesn’t require management and doesn’t crowd the cook’s personal space. This brings me to my next point.
TEACH INCOMPATIBLE BEHAVIORS: I taught my dogs how to go to lie down on their beds on cue. We say, “hit the hay!” and they all run to their beds and lie down. To teach this behavior:
- Reward your dog for walking onto his bed.
- Reward your dog if he sits or lies down.
- Add duration: treat your dog every 2 seconds. Then see if he’ll still stay there after 3 seconds. Then after 4. Slowly add length to this behavior.
- Be prepared to reward this behavior if it’s offered to you - ESPECIALLY when you’re in the kitchen.
- Add the cue. We used “hit the hay!” You can use any cue you’d like. I tend to pick silly behavior names because I hate to sound like I’m bossing my dogs around.
By using the management suggestions above (no food on the counters, blocking access to the kitchen) and treating them often for being on their beds, our dogs are much less interested in being underneath Robbin while he’s cooking. Counter-surfing problem solved! Now we can have friends and family over for the holidays without the worry of dogs getting in the way.
- Take things slowly and only train in short bursts (5 minutes or less). The type of training listed above requires a lot of concentration - especially in an environment as distracting as your kitchen.
- Realize that your dog does not know better. Remember that scavenging (e.g. counter-surfing) is something that is genetically ingrained in our dogs. They can’t help it! It may take some time for your dog to solidify these good habits. Our dogs show us on a constant basis what is valuable and important to them. Help your dog learn to find the fun and the value in behaviors that don’t involve counter-surfing or bullying the cook! 😉
- Be patient and enjoy learning with your dog. Not only will you find that this will help your dog's house manners, it’ll strengthen your bond in huge ways.
- Most importantly, HAVE FUN!
Have ideas for future training articles from Kevin? Email [email protected] for suggestions or training questions! You may just see your question with answer show up on the blog!
Kevin Ballance is a service dog trainer at Canine Assistants, a non-profit organization which provides service dogs to children and adults with physical disabilities, seizure conditions, and other special needs. Kevin’s method of training is called Choice Teaching, a technique created by Canine Assistants founder Jennifer Arnold that empowers dogs to think and make choices on their own. You can find more from Kevin at www.lifetheuniverseanddogs.com or on Twitter and Instagram - @kevinballance.
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