Updated: Sep 23, 2020
By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Dogs taking food and other items off of tables and counter tops is not only an inconvenience for owners, but can present safety issues. We enjoy our puppies when they are young and focus on teaching basic obedience and basic boundaries to make them enjoyable companions. Sometimes, we forget that they will soon by large, and the boundaries we have taught may need revised since they will have greater access to things given their size. Larger dogs generally are able to get more access to things than smaller dogs, although I have occasionally seen dachshunds, yorkies, and other small dogs on the countertops over the years!
Owners frequently do not understand why dogs do this. They have their food, chews, and so many toys. Why do they want the papers off the countertop? Why do they feel comfortable stealing a roasted chicken off the stovetop, or licking the food off the side of your plate on the coffee table?
Counter-surfing is scavenging behavior, and this is a natural motor pattern that our dogs are bred to perform. Dogs are believed to have been domesticated over 20,000 years ago because they were the less skittish of the wolf-type canids. They were comfortable enough to come close to human settlements to scavenge food from their garbage dumps. In other countries around the world, the majority of dogs are free-ranging and not owned by humans. They exist by scavenging from garbage dumps, as well as handouts from strangers. Contrary to popular belief, domestic dogs are not pack animals. I shared meals with dogs like this during time spent in Turkey. Local communities not only co-existed with these dogs but actually went out of their way to feed large groups of these feral and semi-feral dogs every day. Unlike what we might see with breeds popular in Western culture, I never witnessed any resource guarding as locals put out canned food and other scraps for large groups of dozens of dogs. Each waited patiently for his turn at getting some food, although I would like to note that none of the dogs appeared to be starving either.
An item does not have to be edible or even that interesting to be valuable to your dog from a scavenging perspective. There is value in practicing this opportunistic behavior to take something because it is available, because it is novel, or providing some brief entertainment. The items I see scavenged most frequently in clients' homes are pens and papers, not roasted chicken or pies. These dogs are looking for enrichment in the wrong places and are lacking boundaries. There is something so satisfying for dogs in scavenging something in an opportunistic manner...because it is a natural motor pattern they NEED to perform.
People commonly approach counter-surfing as a behavior that needs to be punished to be eliminated since it can be difficult to control a dog's access to these surfaces without a very strict management protocol. Punishments may suppress the behavior temporarily, but it may compromise the dog-human relationship. However, if we approach the problem from the perspective of counter-surfing as a need that must be satisfied, we end up approaching the problem from a different angle. Increasing opportunities to perform scavenging behavior, providing readily available enrichment at the downward floor level, and teaching boundaries with raised surfaces and countertops can yield a confident dog whose needs are satisfied, and has a strong reward history for avoiding items on countertops.
I like to introduce boundaries with raised surfaces when puppies are small, using surfaces that they can access even as little pups. I teach them value in leaving those surfaces alone, as well as any food or objects on them. Then, they understand this concept so that it is easier to apply when they are large and can easily access more surfaces. Most people know that I like to eat my meals at the coffee table and frequently leave plates of food there as I take phone calls or walk out of the room to refill my drink. My dogs need to have firm boundaries.
Prevention through early training and management is the ideal solution, but it is not everything. Dogs have a need for this scavenging behavior, so meeting that need is essential. I like to hide treats or kibble around the house for scavenger hunts. I also use snuffle mats for meals, and rotate numerous food type toys and chews so that there are lots of enriching opportunities available to them. Plenty of exercise and mental stimulation are also important so that they are not looking for novel experiences where they should not be.
Older dogs can learn these skills, too. Sometimes, the solution is as simple as providing more enrichment. Once the need to scavenge is met, the dog is no longer as tempted to look for ways to fulfill that need on his own. Other times, we need to adopt a multi-faceted approach of both satisfying that need with greater enrichment while teaching the boundaries. We have to institute firm management protocol of not allowing access to the countertops except during training scenarios while we working on training those boundaries. We do not want dogs to practice behaviors we want to extinguish. Then over time, we can give the dog increasing amounts of freedom once he is able to abide by the boundaries due to the strong reward history for doing so. This is similar to housebreaking a dog in that once they understand the rules and boundaries due to the strong reward history for pottying outside, we give them more freedom to roam the house.
The bottom line is that suppression of the behavior is often overlooking genuine needs. Counter-surfing is an extension of a natural behavior for dogs. If we approach the problem from that angle, we often have better training, better solutions, which make for a happier dog and happier owner.