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During the holidays, my dog discovered the joys of entertaining — beginning with cookies and hors d’oeuvres on the coffee table, then graduating to leaping onto the counter for other delectables while we were busy entertaining our guests in another room. She never did this before! How do I train my dog to keep off the counter without resorting to crating her when we’re home? Other than this, she’s a great hostess.
For starters: put yourself in your dog’s paws. The next time you’re hungry, place your favorite food on the table and see if you can resist taking a bite. Even humans who have difficulty controlling themselves expect their pups to resist temptation when food is placed right in front of them (impossible!). Here, my advice for preventing your dog from devouring your countertop spread:
How to stop counter surfing
In order to set up your dog for success while ensuring their safety, it is much more realistic to use a mixture of management and training techniques to keep dogs from counter surfing. Dogs are opportunists; the more successful they are at getting food from kitchen counters or the table, the more they will try.
Blocking access by using baby gates or putting your dog in another room if you have company is one way to ensure they don’t have an opportunity to surf and thus, reward themselves for this activity.
Work on training by drawing an imaginary line along the floor and teaching your dog to stay behind that line. If they try to cross, gently block them with your body until they retreat behind the line again. When they stay behind the line, reward them at various intervals and they will see the area as a positive place to be. It will take time and patience for your dog to learn this skill, so it’s important to keep up blocking access when not actively training.
As Karen B. London writes, “Teaching a dog to do something is one part of dog training, but most of the effort is about getting them to do it regardless of what else is going on — helping them learn to succeed no matter how distracting the environment and how enticing the treasure.” A reliable sit-stay cue also needs to be taught first so that they understand what is expected.
High-tech training solutions
As counter-surfing happens mostly when no one’s around (dogs are smart!), you can try going high-tech with a special two-way radio collar that allows your dog to hear your voice right next to their ear even when you’re in another room.
Put some food on the counter and then walk away to a place where you can still see the food. Pretend to be doing something else so your dog thinks your attention is off them.
Wait for your dog to go up to the counter, and just before they jump up, ask your pup to “leave it.” If they back away, praise them.
Start this exercise using low-value food before making it more difficult with your dog’s favorite treat. This technique might cause a little confusion at first, but your dog will soon learn that the “all-seeing eye” is everywhere, even if you aren’t in the immediate vicinity. While you are entertaining, you can also provide your dog with something else to focus on by giving them an interactive toy such as a treat ball or a Kong filled with food. This will most likely tire them out while filling them up — and ensure your food goes untouched.
Here’s an example of what not to do if you have a counter surfing dog: One of my clients, fed up with her dog stealing food when her back was turned, placed “scat mats” (electrified mats) on the kitchen counters. On his first encounter with the mats, her dog received such a jolt that he squealed and ran out of the kitchen. The scat mats seemed to have done the trick, and the woman was pleased with the result.
The “success” was short-lived, however. The only entrance to the backyard was through the kitchen, and when it was time for the dog to go outside, he flatly refused to go anywhere near the kitchen area. Not surprisingly, he also began to have accidents inside the home. A counter-surfing issue had turned into major anxiety for the dog, and it was some time before the dog would walk through the kitchen to go to the backyard.
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Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer and star of It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, TV personality, and founder of both the Victoria Stilwell Academy and Positively, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.