Have you ever walked into your kitchen and thought “Hmm… I could have sworn I left a WHOLE CHICKEN right here on the counter?” Then you turned to see Sparky smugly licking his lips, proud of another successful counter conquest. Maybe you’ve even caught them in the act – front paws (or even all four!) up on the counter cleaning up your leftovers.
This is Counter Surfing. A fun term for a very annoying, and potentially dangerous, behavior.
WHY does my dog do this?
Dogs, like many of us, repeat behaviors that feel GOOD. Eating your chicken, feels (and tastes) GREAT! If your dog is rewarded every time they jump on the counter or even SOME of the time, they now have a positive association with counter surfing, and a good reason to continue testing their luck every time they pass by. Sometimes they may only get a crumpled-up paper napkin, but it’s still worth it to try if SOMETIMES they score that roasted chicken jackpot!
Step 1: Consider Health
Before attempting to modify the behavior itself, consider that a health issue may be the culprit. Dogs may counter surf for the following health related reasons:
- Imbalanced nutrition or malnutrition: Dogs will seek out nutrients missing in their diet in other sources, even sometimes eating non-food items. Look for other symptoms such as lethargy, abnormal stools, and changes in coat/skin condition. Even if the only symptom is an overactive drive for food, contact a veterinary nutritionist to rule out a nutritional issue.
- Lack of exercise: If your dog is not getting the proper amount of physical or mental exercise, they will expend that extra energy in inappropriate ways, like counter surfing. The amount of exercise your dog needs varies based on age and breed. Try increasing your pup’s activity level by incorporating fetch, tug, doggy daycare, or canine enrichment games like treat puzzles or snuffle mats.
- Anxiety: Is the counter surfing only happening when you’re out of the house? Maybe this isn’t just a crime of opportunity, but an expression of separation anxiety. If your pup is experiencing other symptoms of separation anxiety contact your trainer! Check back for how to prevent separation anxiety and how to fix it!
- Boredom: Related to both lack of exercise and anxiety, boredom often leads to unwanted behavior. Try keeping your pup busy with something more interesting than what’s on the counter, like chews (supervised), puzzles, stuffed kongs, or playtime!
Step 2: Puppy Proof
Clean off those countertops! By managing the environment, you will have an easier time modifying the behavior. This will help in 2 ways – 1) you are reducing your dog’s desire to counter surf in the first place and 2) if your dog does jump on the counter, you are removing the reward.
Remove Access to the FREE Rewards!
If they continue testing their luck, hopping on the counter every time they pass, but each time there is no reward, then eventually that behavior will DECREASE.
Here are some tips:
- Keep food and other tempting objects out of range. Remember, if your dog gets ahold of that chicken even once, he was rewarded for the behavior and the counter surfing will INCREASE! Consistency is crucial.
- If you have to have food on the counters, but can’t monitor your dog closely, block off the kitchen with a gate or door, or keep your dog in a separate room.
The next step, teaching Alternate Behaviors such as obedience commands, will be easier and more successful if the distraction level is lowered i.e., instead of a whole chicken on the counter, you have a lower value item like a vegetable, or nothing at all!
Step 3: Teach an Alternative Behavior
Once the environment is managed and you have lessened your dog’s desire to jump and he is no longer being rewarded for counter surfing, you can start implementing basic obedience skills to teach your dog alternate behaviors!
- “Leave It” – When your dog starts sniffing around the counter, use the “Leave It” command. When they redirect their attention to you, mark with a “Yes!” and reward with a high value treat!
- “Off” – If your pup already has their paws on the counter, you can use “Off” to ask them to return all four paws to the floor. When all four paws touch the floor, mark with a “Yes!” and reward with a high value treat!
- “Sit” – Ask your dog for a sit EVERY TIME they enter the kitchen, mark with a “Yes!” and reward with a treat! Now their new routine is, “when I enter the kitchen, I sit and I get rewarded.” It’s pretty hard to jump on the counter when your butt is on the ground!
- “Place” – Send your dog to their “Place” while cooking or eating dinner. Make sure you give treats intermittently, so your pup learns that they are more likely to be rewarded for staying on their Place than they are for counter surfing!
- “Out” – Get your dog to walk out of the kitchen (or any room) on command. Tell your dog ”Out” and toss a treat out of the room. Say “YES!” and reward them again once they have all four paws out of the space.
Step 4: Reward What You DO Want
Once you have incorporated basic obedience, now you must reinforce the behavior you WANT to see, four paws on the floor. Every time your dog walks by the counter and makes the decision NOT to counter surf, reward with a treat! We want to create a positive association with keeping all four paws on the ground.
WARNING: This step can also create a positive association with simply being in the kitchen, so we suggest teaching the “Out” command at the same time to make sure you are also rewarding them for leaving the kitchen altogether.
How to reinforce the positive behavior:
- Start with low value items like a vegetable or a paper towel on the counter. If these items are still too tempting, then start with an empty counter.
- Frequently treat your pup for keeping all four paws on the ground. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are interested in the counter at all. Not jumping is the behavior we want to see, so reward it!
- In addition to the treats you give, you can prep the kitchen floor with FREEBIES when your pup isn’t looking. This way anytime they go in the kitchen they will be focused more on the floor than on the counter.
- You can gradually increase the distraction level by placing higher value items on the counter. Be careful not to increase the distraction level too quickly. The goal is for your dog to become disinterested in whatever is on the counter and VERY interested in the treats that come from YOU (and the floor)!
- Continue to use your “Leave It” and “Off” command if necessary, just make sure to reward!
- If you can’t be present in the kitchen to monitor and reward the good behavior, go back to Step 2 and make sure there is no Counter Reward present to temp your dog!
Step 5: Incorporate a Negative Consequence
If, and ONLY if, the above steps have been taken to no avail, AND the dog’s health and safety are greatly at risk, AND you have consulted with a Certified Dog Trainer, a negative consequence may be needed to seal the deal. By adding a negative consequence, you are creating a negative association with counter surfing, rather than a positive one. Your trainer must be involved in choosing a consequence in order to avoid any possibility of trauma.
A few other things to keep in mind:
- Timing is crucial here. We are teaching the pup that counter surfing is bad, not that eating chicken is bad. So, if you’ve caught your dog post jump, mid chicken gobbling, it’s too late and you CANNOT use a negative consequence.
- The moment you see your dog lift their paws to jump on the counter, mark with a “no” and follow with the consequence.
- Continue using Positive Reinforcement as well! When their paws land back on the ground, mark with a “Yes!” and follow with a treat.
After some consistency from you and a lot of treats, Sparky now has better impulse control in the kitchen. Does this mean that if you leave Sparky alone with that whole chicken, he will be able to ignore it every time? Probably not! That is too high value of an item for many dogs to simply ignore. But by managing Sparky’s environment, giving him other activities to do, rewarding the good behavior, and if necessary, punishing the bad behavior, you will be setting him up for success in the kitchen. Sorry Sparky, no more surfing for you!