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Combating Counter Surfing

Counter surfing, the act of a dog jumping on countertops and taking items, can be a frustrating and potentially dangerous behavior that many larger dogs engage in (and perhaps some very clever small or medium dogs). Not only can it lead to damaged items and quite a messy living space, but it may also pose health risks to our canine companions, especially if they are able to access potentially toxic or inedible items. To ensure the well-being of both your dog and your household, it is crucial to address this behavior. Many people think they need to set up something to hurt their dogs as punishment for doing this or even scare their dogs off the counter humane ways to prevent dogs from accessing countertops, even when you are not home.

Create a Safe and Secure Environment: We absolutely must remember that dogs will engage in behaviors that work for them. This is basic learning. If the behavior worked well to meet a need in the past, with positive results, they are much more likely to try this behavior again. If your dog put their paws up on the counter previously and was ‘rewarded’ with something they perceived as valuable, they absolutely will check that again and again since it was so beneficial for them. Clear off your countertops to the best of your ability. Remove any desirable items from the countertops, such as food, dirty dishes, or food wrappers. By eliminating temptations, this immediately discourages your dog from attempting counter surfing in the first place. Too many times people have dogs that are repeat offenders, yet still leave food on the stove or counter thinking the dog “knows better”. This is never the case. Dogs, by their very nature, are scavengers without a moral compass. They smell food or something interesting, they may try to access it. If they were lucky before, it’s more reason to try again. Also be sure to secure trash cans and even your cabinet doors if necessary. Dogs are often attracted to food scraps in trash cans. Invest in sturdy, dog-proof trash cans with tight-fitting lids or store the trash can in a cabinet to prevent access. If your dog is clever enough (and some really are) to open your cabinets and drawers seeking food or more, investing in child locks for these will be necessary for your dog’s safety and well-being. Prevention in the first place is better than trying to train out a well-practiced bad habit.

Training Techniques: As a start, a great way to combat counter surfing for some dogs is to teach a "leave-it" cue, or better yet, an auto leave-it for dropped items or items on the countertops. When teaching a “leave-it” cue, it should be taught so that the dog never takes the item the item they are asked to leave. That is important because you don’t want to build a habit or a game out of leaving something, then run towards it to take it after some time passes. This is most important when out on walks since there could be dangers lurking in the woods (wild animals), on trails (animal droppings, venomous snakes), and even on city streets (glass, cigarette butts, chicken bones). If you want to practice waiting a moment then taking an object or treat, using “wait” is a much better alternative for the dog. Teaching an auto or implied leave-it can be a life-saving skill and one that can benefit you and your dog immensely. This lesson teaches the dog that if an item is dropped or is on a counter, it is not theirs to access unless asked or given permission to. We usually begin to teach this the same exact way we teach a regular leave it (by rewarding disengagement or backing away from a perceived desired item) and then work to build the behavior up from there – proofing it further in different environments and with different conditions and items.

Many people opt for some kind of deterrent including automatic motion detecting air-sprays, noisemakers, and sadly, even mousetraps, to keep their dogs from jumping on the counters. This can cause a significant amount of stress or even injury for the dog and result in accompanying anxiety that can build and transfer to different situations sometimes. I’ve heard some people state that they fixed the issue because the dog no longer goes near the counter or the trash can. Sadly, the avoidance that people tend to celebrate (this is seen as well when water spray is used as a deterrent – people say that they just need to pick up the bottle and the dog stops) is a very clear indication of how much anxiety the dog has now near those items. That is not safe or effective training and usually will ultimately decrease the dog’s quality of life as well as affect your relationship with your dog.

Provide Mental and Physical Stimulation: The benefits of mental enrichment are often unfortunately overlooked in lieu of physical exercise but both are very important! Try to keep your dog mentally stimulated with interactive toys, puzzle feeders, scent work, sniffaris, manners & trick training, treat-dispensing toys and more. There is no end to how creative you can be with enrichment and it doesn’t have to be a ton of work or money. Hopefully this will help to occupy their minds and divert their attention away from the countertops, inevitably helping prevent boredom-induced counter surfing. Ensure your dog receives enough physical exercise as well through daily walks, playtime, social visits with friends’ dogs or even using a yard rental (private dog park) service like SniffSpot if you do not have a fenced area to run in. They always say that a tired dog is a good dog – this simply means having both physical and mental needs met.

Use Management Strategies: If your dog is prone to counter surfing when you are not home, consider crate training or if your dog was previously crate trained, reverting to crate usage again when you are not home. A secure and comfortable crate can serve as a safe space for your dog, as well as prevent access to countertops and other off-limits and potentially hazardous areas. For some dogs that have practiced counter surfing quite a bit (so that they are good at it) this can provide a great deal of safety when they simply cannot help themselves. Restricting access to the kitchen or areas with countertops by using baby gates or closing doors is a management technique that many can do and it is highly effective for prevention. This keeps your dog in a designated space where they are unable to access these areas. One of the biggest things to remember when training is to avoid the practice of undesired behavior (also remembering that dogs have no good or bad, just our opinion of desired or undesired actions). You can be creative with management techniques provided it is safe and fair to the dog. If your dog can get out of a crate or open doors, set up cameras to watch how this occurs. Setting our dogs up for success first and foremost is crucial.

Seek Professional Help if Needed: Consult a credentialed professional trainer or behavior consultant if you feel like this is beyond your abilities. If counter surfing persists despite your best efforts, it may be beneficial to seek guidance from a professional. They can assess your dog's behavior and provide tailored advice to address the issue effectively. Since some counter surfing can be rooted in anxiety or stress, it’s important to rule out any health issues, unmet needs, and anxieties if you are struggling and a good behavior consultant can help you.

Combating counter surfing really requires a combination of preventive measures, training techniques, mental and physical stimulation, and management strategies. By implementing these humane methods, you can create an environment that discourages counter surfing and keeps your dog safe when you are not home. Remember, patience and consistency are key in modifying your dog's behavior. When a bad habit that is self-reinforcing forms, it can take a long time to undo, and it always starts with preventing them from practicing the behavior first.

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