Counter surfing is what trainers call a self-rewarding behavior. That means it is something the dog has taught himself or herself that results in a reward — without any action or intervention from humans. Another self-rewarding behavior is foraging in the garbage.
You pretty much have two options for stopping counter surfing:
- Remove the temptation. That means no food near the edge of the counter. No food near the edge of the table. Leave nothing in reach of your dog’s roving paws and mouth. Watch your dog like a hawk when there is food around, and be ready with a firm NO!
- Make the reward less rewarding. You’re going to have to set your dog up to take a fall — let him counter surf and find a booby-trapped prize.
Removing the temptation of counter surfing doesn’t really teach your dog that snagging food from the table or counter is a bad thing. But, if keeping food and drinks out of reach solves your problem, great! For the most part, removing the temptation has solved the problem of counter surfing in my family. Sure, we have a couple of funny surfing stories from time to time, but hey, doesn’t everybody?
Making the reward less rewarding will teach your dog that snagging treats from the counter comes with some serious consequences. No, you’re not going to punish your dog. You’re going to make sure he gets a serious negative response from his self-rewarding counter surfing. The negative result is going to be much worse than the reward of food.
Expecting trouble the next time you thaw a turkey breast? Time for the old set-up. Get yourself ten empty cans out of the recycling bin and line them up on the counter behind your turkey. Stack four or five cans on top of a bottom row of five cans. Attach a two foot long string to each can on the bottom row (duct tape works well for this) and tie all the strings to the turkey. Leave the room, and wait for the crash as your counter surfer tries to grab the prize. Expect a LOT of noise — you’ve got falling cans plus the cans tied to the turkey that will chase your unsuspecting thief. Wait until the noise stops, and check the scene of the crime. If the cans and turkey are still attached, you’ve won! Your dog has realized that the reward is not as great as the ruckus that comes with it.
You shouldn’t attempt this set-up with a treat you can’t stand to lose. Don’t bet your Thanksgiving turkey on this one, for example.