The Case of the Disappearing Doughnut: What to do with a counter-surfing dog

Do you have a dog who waits until you’re gone and then raids your kitchen, immediately and systematically, in a series of counter-top skirmishes? Nothing on the counter is safe: utensils, dirty dishes, whole loaves of bread, that cheese platter Aunt Tara brought to your birthday, a dish of gummy bears, the chips...and, for the love of Mike the dip, too. When you get home from work, your counter is clean and the dog bed littered with detritus. Fido is snoozing, delighted with his efforts, powdered sugar on his snout.

If this sounds familiar...there is good news, and there is bad news.

The good news first. If your dog is a counter-surfer, it really, really doesn’t mean he’s anxious, dominant, or angry at you for leaving; it doesn’t mean that he’s under-exercised, or over-exercised, or has thyroid issues, or has some deep-seated behavioural problem. It means he’s a dog, and has learned a behaviour by being rewarded for it.

Which is the bad news.

OK, OK, hold on. Let me back up a bit. To understand counter-surfing, we have to understand how dogs learn basic behaviours, including obedience behaviours like sit and come. When we train a dog to sit, for example, we get the dog into a sitting position and then give him a treat. Then, every time he sits, we give him a treat. After a while, our dog is very eager to sit. We keep him at the ready to sit whenever we want by giving him reinforcement (like delicious treats), which works in the same way that a paycheque does: it pays the dog for doing the work of sitting.

So just like how dogs will learn that they get a treat for sitting, a dog who counter-surfs has gotten a treat—all that delicious and fun stuff on the counter—for hopping up on the counter. The behaviour “getting up on the counter” goes up in frequency, as do all reinforced behaviours.

So dogs who hop up on the counter are not being bad any more than a dog who sits to get a cookie is being bad. They have just learned to do a behaviour in order to get a reward. And that’s a bit sad, I guess, because reinforced behaviours are like strong habits: tough to break. But grasp firmly to your britches. That’s not even the really sad part. The really sad part, my chips-and-dipless friends, is the cue. Just as the cue for “sit now to get a treat” is the word sit, the cue for “surf the counter now to get a smorgasbord of goodness” is my owner is gone. Let me explain.

The cue is you leaving the room

Although your dog will sit all the time when you have just trained him to sit, in that ever-eager-and-hopeful way that dogs have, in time she’ll figure out when she seems to get a treat for sitting—usually this is when you say the word “sit”, as a cue. And she’ll figure out when she won’t get a treat for sitting, too, and she’ll gradually stop sitting in those contexts.

So although it feels like a dog is being a titch Machiavellian when he waits for you to leave before starting the counter-party, he’s just learned that there is a cue for Counter Party. And that cue is Owner Gone. This feels calculating, but it's not. No-one suggests that I am a bad person or an angry person when I walk to the fridge and open it and take out some food and eat it. My “walking to fridge” behaviour has been rewarded with food over and over and over. Dogs approaching, acquiring, and eating a food item isn’t anything different.

What can I do about my counter-surfing dog?

That’s all good and fine, you may say. Thanks for the lesson on learning theory. Now what can I do about it? The answer is both simple, and painfully annoying, I’m afraid. You’ll have to keep your counters clean. Forevermore. Now sure, it will help if you make sure your dog has enough cardio-type exercise, and if she has a lot of fun food toys to drain some of her pent-up desire to scavenge. But that probably won’t be the whole answer. I’m afraid you’ll just have to get into the habit of keeping your counters perfectly tidy of stuff that a dog might take to eat or chew.

Does this seem too taxing or downright silly? An analogy may help here. Imagine a friend who tells you “my dog sits whenever I say sit. I want him to stop sitting when I say sit, so I’m giving him a treat each time he sits when I say sit.” There is a logical flaw in this protocol, you say gently. Urgently.

But leaving food out on your counter and expecting your dog to stop counter-surfing is the exact same thing.

Here is what has worked for me (I have a professional counter surfer. Or two. Or ten.):

  1. I place any food up onto a shelf which has been designated for that purpose, and which isn’t reachable by dogs. We are in the habit of putting food on that shelf: hot food from the oven that needs to cool, a plate of cookies, you name it.
  2. We think ahead and thaw food in the fridge, not on the counter. Or if we don’t think ahead, thawing food goes on that special shelf.
  3. I buy about twenty wooden spoons and silicone stirrers/flippers at a time. These are expendable. That way when one gets chewed up (and we live in a ridiculously tiny farmhouse with ten large dogs, so I’ll be frank: this happens with some frequency) I don’t feel angry or upset, I just laugh a bit, toss it, and pull out a new one. It’s more fun when they’re different colours and shapes. “Something new and shiny for my kitchen!”
  4. I close off the kitchen when none of those options will work. We have a giant expandable baby gate thing and just shut the dogs out when we’re in the “just ate thanksgiving dinner and can’t move to clean up all the fooooooood” zone.

Counter-surfing is annoying and frustrating, but it’s not diabolical or indicative of stress. It’s just a behaviour that dogs do; a behaviour that they’ve learned to do. So don’t fret, just make a plan. And there is a tiny silver lining here, my counter-surfed comrades: it’s actually kind of nice having tidy counters! Just don't forget to wipe up those little footprints. You missed one, there, out of hot sauce. Or is that jam. Cranberry sauce? Beet pickle juice. 

Photo: Chalabala | © Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images