How to stop your dog from stealing food

Dogs are natural food scavengers. They will eat many items that we humans know are inappropriate such as foil, plastic wrappers, and more.

Counter surfing can be one of the most difficult things to train a dog not to do.  Almost every time a dog jumps, it is reinforced by what it finds up there.  It doesn’t matter if you yell at the dog, physically punish it, give it a time out, or anything else—the dog still got the Thanksgiving turkey, and it was good while it lasted.

Management is key

Management is the key to stopping counter surfing.  If you don’t have anything on the counter for the dog to get, there is no reason to jump.  In most cases, keeping temptations out of reach and zoning appropriate areas for the dog to occupy is really necessary and successful.  This type of management is challenging for most people to deal with, so there are some things that you can do to stop counter surfing.

Teach your dog commands

Teach Down

Teach your dog to do a down-stay in a special place in the kitchen out from underfoot.  Once your dog can do a down-stay for 5 minutes, you will begin his training during food preparation times.  This will extend the amount of time it takes to prepare your meals but is well worth it.  Your dog will learn to remain on a mat or to be in the same spot.  Your timing will make a big difference in how quickly progress is made.  Catching him after he has left his place or mat and walked several steps is far from catching the first muscle contraction or intention to break the stay.  This is why you will need to extend the time it takes to prepare your meals for a few days, as this will be very time-consuming in the early stages of training.  You will need a lot of time to keep a good eye on the dog during the first few training sessions.

Teach Place

Once your dog can do a down-stay for 5 minutes, whenever you are in the kitchen, have your dog go to his “place.” Praise him every 10 seconds for the first two times, then every 20 seconds for the next two times, then every 30 seconds.  Gradually stretch the rewarding until the dog can hold his stay for the entire time you prepare a meal.  To achieve this may take several weeks, depending on how many times you practice.  If he gets up at any time during training, you give him a correction and take him back to his “place.”  Your dog learns that if he breaks the stay, he will be put back anyway, but if he holds the stay on his own, he has a good chance for a reward.

Teach Leave It

Teach your dog to “leave it” by teaching your dog what you want him to do. Place a small piece of food (teaser) on the floor with your hand covering it.  Verbally cue “leave it” at any attempts to get the teaser.  Practice this until your dog is leaving the teaser immediately after you give the cue “leave it.”  Praise for calm behavior and ignoring the food.  Then place the teaser on the floor uncovered – but be poised to cover it if your dog should decide to grab it. Praise for calm behavior and ignoring the teaser. Practice this until your dog is great at it.  Practice placing the teaser on the coffee table, the counter, etc.  Methodically add distance between yourself and the teaser.  Do short trials with you nearby, practicing with different teaser food items on the counter and different areas of the counter. Make sure you practice turning your back, and if you want to, you can have him leave the food while you go out of sight. Begin by making it very quick and returning to praise him.

Use barriers

You can restrict the dog’s access to the kitchen. You can do this with baby gates, convenient doors, or simply never letting the dog into the kitchen.  In addition to preventing the dog from helping himself to food (and some dogs can be very covert about this), excluding the dog from the kitchen while you are preparing food also avoids presenting you with the temptation to give him scraps and so encourage him to beg or steal (and also inadvertently causing the dog to become overweight or eat things that would disagree with him). It puts the dog outside the risk zone for hazards such as accidental spilling of boiling water or deep-frying oil. Additionally, you may want to exclude the dog from the room where you are eating during a meal, especially if you have guests who might be pushovers for doggie begging. If you often eat off a TV table or a coffee table while watching TV and don’t want to wonder if your dog is helping himself to your dinner if you have to leave the room for a moment, then exclusion can be a good strategy. The obvious exclusion methods are to crate the dog (possibly with his own dinner served inside the crate) or to have a stretch gate barrier to keep all dogs out of the room temporarily.

Stop the behavior before it happens.

Even if your dog has never had a counter-surfing problem, you will want to set the dog up.  By doing so, your dog will learn that it is ALWAYS dangerous to try getting up on the counter.  The main objective is to make counter surfing so risky and unattractive that the dog gives up.

One method involves booby traps.  BOOBY TRAPS are when you leave a temptation available but gimmicked in a way that when the dog tries to touch it, something sufficiently startling or aversive occurs. The most usual booby traps would be mouse traps (including for easily discouraged dogs, the variant called “Snappy Trainer,” which has a plastic flap attached that causes increased startle effect but prevents any stinging pinch if a paw or nose gets snapped).   You can sprinkle enticing food with hot sauce, cayenne pepper, bitter apple spray, lemon juice, etc.  Provided your dog doesn’t love strange things and doesn’t thoroughly inspect food before eating, you have a chance at teaching your dog that food on the counter tastes nasty.

Some people report success from arranging a pile of tin cans or pie plates that will fall with a crash when jostled.  If you use pop cans, put several pennies or pebbles in them and tape the cans shut with duct tape.  Also, select some very delicious, temping, and smelly food to use as the BAIT.  Put the food in a plastic container with a lid (small butter containers work well) and punch holes in the container’s lid (the container keeps the dog from getting the food).

There are several versions of this method.  You can try placing several pop cans right at the edge of the counter with just two or three inches between them. One jump from your dog will bring down all the cans and make a terrific racket, which will also bring down the dog.  Another version involves empty cans stacked in a pyramid fashion with a string loop around the bottom row. The bait of choice is tied to the string and left within the dog’s reach. The dog grabs the bait and upsets the stack of cans, which fall with a crash. The dog runs for cover and, in so doing, learns a lesson.

Another version involves enticing food, a cookie sheet, a thin rope, several pennies, soda cans, and a good place for the human to hide.  Put the food on the cookie sheet—the smellier, the better.  Put the cookie sheet far enough back on the counter so that the dog can’t easily see it.  Surround the food with soda cans that have pennies placed inside.  Attach the string to the tray so that you can hide while still holding the string.  Wait for the dog to come in and find the food.  As soon as it commits to being bad, pull the string.  The trick is for the dog not to see that you made everything come crashing down.

There are several commercial products that you can use to deter your dog from getting on the counter.  The first product to consider is the Scat Mat.  You place the mat on the surface you want your pet to avoid.  If the dog touches the mat, it will give a very mild zing of shock, unlike static electricity.   You can also look into the X-Mat, an inexpensive plastic mat with raised plastic nubs.  Like the Scat Mat, the S-Mat is placed on the counter, and the dog touches it when it jumps up.  Unlike the Scat Mat, no shock is given; the aversion is that the bumps don’t feel very nice.

A more expensive option, which can be very effective, is a remote stimulation collar.  Without showing the dog what you are doing, but with the dog in the room, give him a tiny morsel of the food so that he might “think” about stealing it from the counter.  Set up your trap.  Not too easy—place the food where it might be if you were distracted by the front door.  Pretend the doorbell rang and leave the room.  You will need to be hiding where you can still observe the dog or hear the noise.  As soon as the dog commits to counter surf, press the stimulation button.  The feeling is unpleasant and will startle the dog causing the dog to sense a correction without being involved.

Odds are he will not touch it again today.  But he will try again tomorrow.

It isn’t learned the first time, but having a dog create his own corrections, helps eliminate the behavior quickly.

The Moral of this story

The MORAL is: PREVENT your dog from having the opportunity to learn to regard the kitchen counter, kitchen trash can, and outdoor trash cans as sources of food to be raided. Be prepared to TRAIN the dog through whatever means necessary to regard this temptation as one worth resisting. And in any case, teach your dog that food on a table is just as much YOURS as if it were in your hand, even if you leave the room for a few minutes. Finally, TRAIN YOURSELF will not leave excessively tempting goodies (or dangerous ones like chocolate) within the dog’s potential reach.

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