Counter Productive: How to Keep Your Dog From Stealing Unattended Food and Other Edible Items

One of the toughest canine behaviors for some canine house owners to know (or forgive) is counter-surfing – when your canine helps himself to some edible merchandise that you just or one other family human left unattended. The conduct isn’t simply restricted to counters; some canine assist themselves to any meals left on tables, desks, espresso tables, or some other unguarded floor. Some canine specialise in discovering any meals you’ve got hidden in your automotive! 


Smart canine house owners perceive that canids are naturally “opportunistic eaters” – they’re genetically programmed to eat meals once they see or discover it. Of course, that doesn’t imply we should always simply allow them to assist themselves to something in the home that they will discover! Dogs are genetically programmed to do a lot of issues we don’t simply allow them to do. 

However, it does imply that we’ve got to scrupulously handle our canine’s surroundings, in hopes that they by no means study the enjoyment of counter-surfing within the first place, but additionally in order that in the event that they have already got, we will reprogram the training (i.e., modify the conduct).

Management is fairly easy. It simply means by no means leaving unattended meals wherever your canine can get it. Alternatively, you possibly can restrain or put your canine away (closed in one other room, behind a child gate, tethered, or crated) in the event you should depart meals out.

If you do that ranging from puppyhood, so your canine by no means will get a chance to abscond with the deli tray or butter dish on the counter, there’s an excellent likelihood he gained’t determine to leap onto counters when he reaches maturity. 

Still, it’s not a good suggestion to take good conduct as a right, or continuously current your canine with unnecessarily hard-to-ignore temptations. 

Our two canine have by no means counter-surfed; they’re each small (underneath 35 kilos) and have fairly good home manners, so we belief that our meals is secure on the kitchen counter or eating room desk (though they’re each fairly able to leaping that top, in the event that they needed to). I wouldn’t dream, nevertheless, of leaving meals on our espresso desk and strolling out of the room; there’s no level in tempting destiny! 

If you select to handle your canine, moderately than maintaining the counters reliably freed from meals, make good use of our common listing of administration instruments to stop your canine from gaining access to meals on counters and tables: Doors, child gates, crates, train pens, leashes, tethers, and (final however least, because it has one of the best likelihood of failure as a consequence of human error) direct supervision.

Not Guilty

Some canine appear incorrigible about serving to themselves to any meals they will discover in the home – and a few people get hopping mad about it. “I’ve punished him many times for this,” they are saying. “He is aware of he’s not purported to do it. He solely does it once I’m not within the room, and he at all times appears to be like responsible afterward. So clearly he is aware of higher!”

The factor is, he actually doesn’t know higher. What he does know is that dangerous issues occur (you get offended, or even perhaps just a little violent) if he takes meals off the counter when you find yourself there. However, nothing dangerous occurs if he takes yummy stuff off the counter while you aren’t there, so it’s okay – and secure – to do it then. 

Generally, by the point you uncover his newest transgression and punish him for it (we don’t suggest this), the punishment is simply too far faraway from his motion; he gained’t affiliate the punishment together with his taking the meals. All he actually is aware of is that generally you’re grumpy while you enter the kitchen (or wherever the meals had been).

So what about these responsible appears to be like? If your canine doesn’t know he did a foul factor, why does he look responsible? 

In 2009, canine cognition scientist Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., writer of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (Scribner, 2009) and Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell (Scribner, 2016), tried to reply that query with a research, “Disambiguating the ‘Guilty Look.’” 

Horowitz arrange a state of affairs the place the proprietor would put a deal with the place their canine may attain it, inform the canine to go away it alone, and depart the room. When the proprietor returned, Horowitz generally reported to the proprietor that the canine had eaten the deal with even when he hadn’t (the researchers eliminated the meals from the plate). In these situations, the house owners most continuously described their canine as wanting responsible, though, unbeknownst to them, the canine had not taken the deal with. Additionally, if the house owners scolded the canine, the canine continuously seemed “guilty” – whether or not they had eaten the deal with or not. In reality, Horowitz additionally discovered that when scolded, essentially the most exaggerated responsible appears to be like have been continuously provided by the canine who had not eaten the deal with!

The conduct and expression that house owners usually assume is a sign of guilt – a hunched, lowered posture, ears again, eyes averted, generally accompanied by a submissive grin – is definitely appeasement conduct; it signifies that the canine is fearful. It means he has learn your physique language, understands that you’re upset, and is making an attempt to appease you so that you don’t take it out on him. 

If your canine’s counter-surfing and your anger about it’s separated in time by greater than a number of seconds, he has no thought why you’re offended, however he doesn’t need your wrath descending on him. Even in the event you aren’t overtly offended, he can inform when you find yourself upset about one thing, so he presents physique language supposed to deflect your feelings. 

Note: While the canine’s conduct within the counter-surfing eventualities described right here should not a sign of guilt, that doesn’t imply canine can not really feel guilt. We don’t know that but. It’s attainable that they will. But this isn’t it.


My personal unproven and untested idea, primarily based on anecdotal proof alone, is that the actually devoted counter-surfers are usually good, assured canine with resilient personalities. Some are actually masters of the artwork of taking meals – virtually from underneath your very nostril, with out you ever noticing. You need to admire ninja expertise like that! You would possibly even be within the kitchen along with your canine and also you assume you’re doing an excellent job of managing, however you flip your again for a second and oops! The vacation ham has been swiped from the counter. 

There is actually worth in modifying counter-surfing conduct, particularly when you have a kind of skilled surfers, or if administration gained’t be constant in your family; maybe you take care of an aged father or mother with dementia, or have distracted, spontaneous kids roaming your house. When scrupulous administration isn’t attainable, by all means, use conduct modification! 

Here are some helpful coaching instruments you possibly can educate your counter-surfing canine:

* Mat coaching. Teach your canine that her place within the kitchen is on her mat, conveniently positioned within the nook. Cue her to go to her mat as wanted, after which look ahead to her to begin going to her mat on her personal, with out a cue. When this occurs, you should definitely reinforce her fortunately and generously! (For extra element about instructing this conduct, see “Useful Matters,” WDJ January 2020.) 

Work to extend the length of time that you really want her to remain on the mat, till she’s going to keep there fortunately for lengthy durations, with lengthy pauses between reinforcers. Continue to bolster her on her mat within the kitchen (or wherever meals is current) to maintain the conduct sturdy. 

* Leave It. A well-trained, well-timed, cheerful “Leave it!” cue can work wonders, particularly if it’s delivered proper in the mean time while you see your canine eyeing the turkey sandwich that one of many youngsters left on the espresso desk. 

I educate that “Leave it” means “forever,” so in the event you do have to go away the kitchen for a quick second, your “Leave it” cue may help guarantee the security of any unattended meals – however don’t depend on it for quite a lot of seconds! 

Start by saying “Leave it!” and placing a deal with underneath your foot, then ready in your canine to cease making an attempt to get it out from underneath your shoe. The instantaneous she stops, “mark” the second with a sign, equivalent to the clicking of a clicker or the phrase “Yes!” and provides her a deal with. Continue utilizing the marker (click on or “Yes!”) and giving her a deal with each few seconds, in random durations (however not too lengthy), so long as she doesn’t return to the shoe. If she does attempt to get the deal with once more, simply wait till she stops, then mark/deal with once more. 

It’s a enjoyable conduct to show! You are establishing your canine to make the precise alternative, then reinforcing her when she does. It’s a kind of rewarding-for-the-human positive-training moments the place you get to see the sunshine bulb come on, when your canine appears to be like on the deal with after which intentionally appears to be like away. (For extra instruction on instructing this conduct, see “Leaving for Good,” June 2018.)

*Walk Away. The “Leave it” cue tells your canine to not eat no matter she is coveting; in distinction, the “Walk Away” strikes her promptly away from the meals that she’s eyeing on the counter or desk. In many circumstances, that is simpler, as a result of it tells your canine what to do (and reinforces her for doing it) as a substitute of simply telling her what not to do. 

Being capable of educate your canine to maneuver away from one thing when requested is a useful device, each in your canine’s security and in your sanity. It has change into one in every of my favourite behaviors to show and use. 

We begin instructing this conduct by tossing treats for our canine to chase and eat. When he completely understands the “game” of watching to see the place you toss the treats so he can pursue and eat them, you current him with a novel however impartial (uninteresting) merchandise that will draw his consideration for a second. When he strikes towards the merchandise to analyze it with a sniff, you cue “Walk Away!” and run away, tossing treats behind him, so he whips a U-turn and pursues the treats. 

There are extra steps and extra follow required for a dependable “Walk Away!” conduct, however you get the thought. For detailed directions on instructing this conduct to your canine, see “Walk Away!” within the September 2018 subject. 


Note: The leash right here appears to be like just a little tight. Don’t pull the canine away from the novel merchandise. After a pair iterations, when he hears the cue, he ought to be anticipating the treats and begin turning and working away from the merchandise with you.

In conduct science phrases, you “extinguish” your canine’s counter-surfing conduct by not leaving any meals on the counter for him to search out – ever – thus eradicating all attainable reinforcement. Behaviors that aren’t bolstered not directly finally go away. But in case your canine occurs to attain a sandwich or a savory pie when you are making an attempt to extinguish the food-seeking conduct – even simply as soon as! – the conduct can be so strongly bolstered that it will likely be troublesome to extinguish once more. 

So, in the event you actually wish to extinguish your canine’s counter-surfing conduct, your administration needs to be flawless. If your canine has entry to a goodie on the counter now and again, she’s going to proceed to seek for random prizes that she will be able to snatch when nobody is wanting. And every time she does, she’ll change into much more satisfied that the counter will finally repay. The conduct will change into much more sturdy, and she’s going to preserve scouting the floor of the counter even longer.

Think about this: Let’s say you’re strolling to work and also you occur to look at some fairly marigolds in a street-side planter. To your shock and delight, you discover a $100 invoice tucked underneath the leaves of the plant. Want to guess you’ll examine the planter once more the subsequent day? And the subsequent? 

If, 4 days later, you occur to search out one other $100 invoice, you’re for certain going to maintain checking the planter each time you go by, for a very long time. Finding one other invoice in 20 or 30 days will solely persuade you to maintain wanting, even when there are very lengthy gaps between discovering one $100 invoice and the subsequent. In reality, you’d in all probability preserve wanting even in the event you “just” discovered a $20 invoice!


Some canine are extra strongly motivated by the prospect of discovering unattended meals than others. You could by no means be capable to flip your again on these canine and count on to see snacks the place you left them – so don’t depart snacks unattended! Management is that straightforward.

You’ve invested intensive time and vitality into managing and modifying your canine’s conduct. He not snags meals off the kitchen counter while you flip your again. In reality, he’s excellent about enjoyable on his mat within the nook when you find yourself within the kitchen getting ready meals, and also you’re excellent about persevering with to bolster him for that. Congrats!

Can we are saying he’s “fixed” now? Is it okay to let your guard down and depart meals on the counter even while you’re not there? 

With some canine, maybe; however for many, in all probability not. 

Some canine have very sturdy food-seeking behaviors. For instance, as most animal-care professionals are conscious (and most house owners realized early of their Labrador expertise), Labrador Retrievers are infamous chow-hounds. It’s truly suspected of being a genetically inherited trait! In 2016, researchers discovered a gene believed to be accountable for the Labrador’s well-known magnetic attraction to meals. 

Your counter-surfing Lab – or some other canine with sturdy food-accessing behaviors – is more likely to want administration for the remainder of his life, even after a wonderful modification program. 

Think again to that planter with the marigolds and the occasional $100 payments. If you went months with out discovering any extra money, you’d in all probability cease checking on daily basis – however you would possibly nonetheless take a peek underneath the flowers each on occasion. And if sooner or later you discovered extra money – even only a $5 invoice – you’d seemingly return to checking that planter commonly once more, proper? 

When we modify conduct, the outdated behavioral response (neuron pathway) doesn’t go away; it simply will get overlaid by the brand new behavioral response. If one thing occurs to set off the outdated response, the conduct can (and infrequently does) shortly pop again up (that is known as a spontaneous restoration). 


In my Cognition Academy, we generally conduct a “Leave It Test” with trainers and their comparatively well-trained canine. The trainers place a bowl of meals on the ground and inform their canine to “Leave it!” Often, so long as the coach faces her canine and watches, many of the canine are very dependable about abstaining from consuming the meals. 

Amusingly, nevertheless, if the trainers cowl their eyes, flip their backs to their canine, or step behind a barrier, greater than 90% of the canine will assist themselves to the meals inside 10 minutes. Most eat the meals inside 60 seconds or much less!

If your canine has a historical past of getting reinforcement for counter-surfing, and also you’ve put effort into modifying his conduct so he’s far much less seemingly to assist himself to accessible meals, sustain affordable administration protocols as nicely. Don’t waste all that effort by tempting him into transgression – simply don’t. If you do – and he fails, it’s your fault, not his. 

Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT‑KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She and her husband reside in Fairplay, Maryland, website of her Peaceable Paws coaching heart. Miller can also be the writer of many books on dog-friendly coaching. See web page 24 for ebook buying and make contact with data.

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