Why does my dog counter surf? And how do I stop it! Those wandering paws and hungry jaws are a common problem for many pet parents, so here’s a positive dog training counter surfing guide to help!
Keeping your counters safe is not only important for you (hands up who's lost a meal they were really looking forward to?), but it’s hugely important for your dog’s health too. Getting their paws on something they shouldn’t could result in toxicity poisoning for your dog, and a hefty vet bill for you!
Whether your young puppy is now big enough to start exploring the new heights of your home, or you’ve noticed your dog suddenly counter surfing - this guide can help.
We’ll explore why dogs counter surf so that we can apply effective management, prevention, and dog counter surfing training techniques…all to keep those counters clean and paw-free!
Why Does My Dog Counter Surf?
Have you ever walked into your kitchen and gasped…”My dog is counter surfing!”
While at the time it’s obvious to us that this behavior is wrong, to our dogs it’s perfectly natural. And we’ll explain why.
Drilling down into the reasons behind dog behavior can be a useful approach when examining all kinds of problematic things our dogs do, as it helps us formulate a plan that combats the direct cause.
The main cause for counter surfing is usually the enticing smells of yummy food! You might be leaving freshly cooked meat, smelly cheese, or other tasty treats lying around, and for a dog with no prior counter surfing training, that’s an open invitation to investigate!
Other dogs, such as more adventurous breeds, might simply be curious about exploring this new space. This is often true of larger breeds, like huskies, malinoises, and labs, who find it easier to reach the dizzy heights of your kitchen counters.
How to Keep Your Dog From Counter Surfing
To tackle a counter-surfing dog, you’ll need to take a 3 step approach - management, prevention, and training. This combined approach works to prevent your dog from rehearsing the undesirable behavior, whilst learning a new one.
In other words, they are discouraged from doing what you DON’T want, whilst learning what you DO want them to do.
Step One: Prevention
How to prevent a dog counter surfing? The easiest way to tackle this is to simply block their access to rooms where they have the urge to counter surf. This might mean installing a baby gate in your kitchen, shutting the door whenever you are not present, or restricting their access for a matter of weeks until you have worked on the training enough o be able to trust them again.
As we said above, prevention, whilst time-consuming or slightly inconvenient in the short term, is a key part of the training process. Because the more your dog rehearses the behavior of counter surfing, the more likely they are to keep doing it in the future!
Step Two: Management
Prevention isn’t always possible, especially if you need to spend some time with your dog in the room where they often counter surf, or you have no option but to leave them in that room for a period of time alone.
In these cases, you’ll need to employ some management techniques. Firstly, you can manage this behavior by simply removing the reinforcer and/or stimulus. Ie: keep all food off counters and away in drawers/fridges/cupboards. This should remove the desire to counter surf for most dogs.
If you are preparing food, or need it to be left out, make sure it’s all well away from the edge.
If you are with your dog and notice they are about to counter surf, quickly intervene and redirect or distract them.This could involve throwing a treat along the floor or asking them to offer an incompatible behavior - such as sitting or lying down.
Step Three: Training
Now for the pièce de résistance….dog counter surfing training!
A quick reminder that the optimum training method for your doggo is positive reinforcement, which you can learn more about on our dedicated guide. So if you’re thinking of disciplining your dog for counter surfing, think again. Because this action would simply encourage your dog to perform the behavior when you aren’t present, rather than addressing the root cause!
In contrast, using positive reinforcement will allow you to fully trust your dog again, and help them feel good performing behaviors that you prefer. Win-win!
To apply positive dog training counter surfing techniques, you can use two main strategies - the ‘place’ command and training a new ‘default’ behavior.
The Place Command
The place command can be a fantastic way to keep your dog safely away from food preparation…or any other distractions for that matter!
Start by placing a mat down, and seeing if your dog offers to stand on it. Mark and reward this, building up to your dog lying on the mat being a highly reinforced behavior.
Once your dog understands this concept, you can add a cue - ‘go to your mat’.
Now you can begin to add duration, by adding longer periods of time between reinforcement on the mat. This will begin to build this behavior as a desirable place for your dog to be.
Next add in distractions around food, rewarding your dog for staying put when food is nearby, or when you are moving around your kitchen.
Continue to proof and practice this behavior every time you cook - eventually, your dog will start to pair the two things, and may automatically go to their mat when you prepare and handle food.
Add in durations where you aren’t in the room, which will help to build this as a reliable behavior, even when you aren’t home.
You can use positive reinforcement training to build the habit of leaving food on sides and counters as a default behavior in your dog.
Start by having your dog on a leash, preferably in a harness to avoid any pulling on the neck, and having a really great currency on you - like boiled chicken for example.
Place some food on a plate, preferably something that could feasibly be left on your side like apples and other snacks, and stand far enough away that your dog can’t reach the food on leash.
The moment your dog thinks to turn away from the food towards you, mark and reward. Allow them to make this choice, rewarding them heavily for making it.
Continue this until your dog has got the idea that leaving food alone is a great thing to do, before moving to switch up the food on the plate. You can increase the difficulty a little by adding things like hot dogs or cooked meats.
Keep practicing this with your dog until they can successfully walk past the plate, sit next to it and stay focused on you.
Now move the food to a low table and repeat the concept, before working up to food hanging off countertops in your house. This helps to generalize the concept that choosing to ignore these morsels lying around is a fantastic choice for your dog to make.
Continue to proof and practice this behavior in different scenarios (at other houses for example) and with different foods. So have practice sessions when you are cooking a new dish or preparing a new smelly food.
Don’t add a cue to this behavior - as you want it to be a default, not a request. Of course, if your dog needs a quick reminder and you have it as a reliable cue, you can use a 'leave it' to reinforce this in a moment where you see your dog might be contemplating stealing!
Don’t let your dog get any food! To really build this behavior as a solid default, it’s super important that your dog doesn’t sneak any food from the practice surfaces during these training sessions. So make sure you take small steps and set your dog up for success every time.
How to Stop Counter Surfing Dog Training - The Wrap Up
We hope this guide helps you keep a dog from counter surfing in your home. Because we all want clean counters, happy dogs, and a better bond! Taking a positive and proactive approach to this behavior is the best way to achieve this.
Good luck, and well done to all the good doggos nailing their counter surfing training as we speak :-)
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