Last week, I wrote that Larry, our Chinook puppy, is getting tall enough to put his front feet on the counter. Pretty soon he'll be able to take something off the counter. If that happens, it will be the first step in his learning to "counter surf." I'm working on preventing him from learning this, and in the future, I'll work on specifically training him to ignore food on the coffee table. I'll write more about how that training can be accomplished.
One reader wrote me last week saying that her dog can actually jump on top of the counters and also opens the kitchen cabinets. I understand and empathize with this issue. Our rescue dog, Kochi, was once a street dog - a talented scavenger. Kochi can find the smallest bit of food no matter where it may be and no matter how difficult it may be to get to it. This is a natural dog behavior, not just for Kochi, but for all dogs. Dogs are opportunists and natural scavengers. Kochi also knows how to open cabinets, and while he can't jump onto counter tops, he's pretty good at jumping up and pulling off anything within reach. I came home one day to find a partially eaten banana on the floor. Kochi had consumed about half of it - peel and all.
Like many dogs, Kochi won't do anything in front of us. He has learned to "steal" only when we're not around, simply because we're not around. Dogs learn not to counter surf in front of us because we react with a negative consequence such as "Uh uh" when we see them do it. So the dog learns that we don't like them to do it in front of us. On the other hand, when we're not around, and there's no consequence for it (after all, we're not around to provide one), they learn that it's OK to do it when they're alone.
The difficulty in eliminating counter surfing is that each time the dog does it, it results in something tasty that rewards the behavior, encouraging the dog to do it again. Once a dog has learned to counter surf, there are a few things that you can try that might work. I'm a big fan of training an "incompatible behavior" - one that supersedes the undesirable behavior - but once you have this problem, it is not enough to train the dog to stay off the counter when you're around. You also will likely need to create an undesirable consequence that is worse than the reward of eating something tasty off the counter.
For most dogs, booby trapping the counter with a sound alarm or a startling physical consequence will teach the dog not to jump up or steal food. A motion-triggered repellent such as "Stay Away" combines compressed air with a sound alarm when the dog jumps up on the counter. Set it by putting a few good-smelling treats on the counter behind the detection point. Set the device, leave the room and stay nearby so you can see your dog's reaction when he triggers the alarm. Most dogs will be put off by the combination of the horn and air and might not even try again. Even so, be sure to set up this scenario several times, even after the dog has seemingly stopped jumping up on the counters. If you're not at home, make sure there is absolutely nothing that the dog can get off the counter, and set the alarm. Otherwise, prevent the dog from being in the kitchen unless the alarm is set.You also can set up a booby trap by tying a line of empty soda cans together with about 5 or 6 inches of line between the cans. Tie a hot dog in the middle of the line and spread it out on the counter within your dog's reach so when he pulls the hot dog off the counter, the cans come crashing down. That startles most dogs into not repeating this behavior. If your dog is startled into dropping the hot dog, reset this booby trap to repeat it until your dog learns not to pull things down.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email email@example.com or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.