Millie is a master counter surfer. Soon after we moved into our current home, she discovered that the counter produced really amazing rewards (thanks to a new housemate who hadn’t lived with counter-surfing dogs before). Really, what’s more rewarding to a dog than an entire defrosting pork loin? It’s like winning the doggy lottery, so the tendency to repeat this behavior increases exponentially after just one payoff. Let’s say you find a $100 bill in the cookie jar. You’re probably going to keep checking that cookie jar over and over for a really long time because that one time you found a $100 bill and it. was. awesome.
So, how to combat this most annoying of behaviors? First develop a plan to prevent your dog from repeating the unwanted behavior by managing the environment. Here are some ideas:
Prevention & Management Plan A: If your floor plan allows, simply prevent the behavior by gating dog(s) off from the kitchen, closing doors, etc. when not supervised. Dog can’t get to the counter in the first place, dog can’t steal pork loin, dog doesn’t get rewarded. Simple.
This worked in my last house, but now with an open floor plan it’s a little more complicated. Our current prevention and management plan looks a little more like Plan B.
Prevention & Management Plan B: Instruct everyone in the household not to leave stuff, especially food, on the counters. Period. If anyone, myself included, forgets, then it’s the humans who get reprimanded, not the dog(s). Dogs can’t make associations over time, so if you reprimand them now for stealing a pork loin off the table 2 hours ago, they simply learn to fear you and your angry-sounding voice, nothing more.
Next, identify the behavior your want and develop a training plan to get you there. Last week’s post on jumping up on people describes matwork and teaching an “off” cue. Both skills would also be helpful in this scenario.
Or, perhaps you’d like to have your dog go “out” of the kitchen on a verbal cue. This would be appropriate when your dog is allowed in the kitchen at certain times, but not at others. To train this, happily say your cue word or phrase. In our house, we happily say “out of the kitchen” and then move in the direction we want the dogs to go. Once they’re sufficiently “out” we mark this with a “yes” and reward with lots of yummy treats outside of the kitchen. Repeat this several times until your dog is happily going out of the kitchen on your verbal cue in anticipation of his reward.
Since Millie once received a considerable payout from the almighty kitchen counter in the form of a defrosting pork loin, I admit, she still surfs from time to time. At least I have the assurance of our household prevention and management plan and know she’s not going to find much in the way of rewards anymore if and when she does counter surf. If I happen to be nearby and she starts to get curious about what’s on the counters, because I’ve trained a solid “off” cue, she’s just as happy to put all 4 paws back on the floor and come over to see what I’m up to rather than spend any more time on a fruitless quest for thawing pork.