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I love to give my dogs a good treat now and then; I might even invite them to come help “clean up” some spilled food if I know it’s safe for them. The thing is, though, I want to make sure my dogs are only taking food on invitation; NOT helping themselves to whatever is on the counter when my back is turned.
If you have a counter-surfer in your household, it can be really frustrating and, frankly, dangerous.
When you look online for solutions, you’ll find a lot of management solutions. Some of these solutions look like:
- Put away food out of sight and smell of your dog.
- Make sure your dog is not hungry.
- Keep your dog tired.
- Fence your kitchen, use a baby gate, etc.
- Crate your dog while any food is out.
Management solutions are all fine and good, but they are not training. They don’t change the behavior of the dog, and the moment your management fails, food will be stolen again.
How I Stop Counter Surfing For Good
The following protocol is one I’ve used with my own dogs as well as many board-and-trains with a proficiency for stealing food not intended for them.
This is an e-collar training protocol, so you really need very few things.
- Your e-collar
- A crate (or any separate room/area to briefly confine your dog)
- A spoon
- Some sort of bait; peanut butter or a warmed-up cut of meat are great options
- (Optional) A camera. This can be helpful, especially for multi-dog households, but is not a requirement.
We call this “stealth” dog training. This is because this training protocol is designed to ensure your dog avoids stealing food both when they know you can see them and when you aren’t even in the room. You will not be giving commands, and for the actual training measure you will not be in the same room as your dog.
Before doing this training, you should take a little extra time to ensure your dog is already e-collar conditioned. You can find information on the early phases of e-collar training below.
How to Condition an E-collar or Remote Collar
How to Make Good Contact on the E-Collar
How to Find Your Dog’s E-Collar Working Level
First, set up the training:
- Make sure your dog has their e-collar on, and that the remote collar is on and connected properly with the receiver. You should be working with a quality e-collar, not a generic shock collar.
- Settle your dog in their crate, in a separate room, or outside, depending on what you have available to you. You want to make sure your dog is not able to see you while you set up the training scenario. Setup should only take a couple of minutes, so your dog will not be confined long. However, in a multi-dog household, start this protocol off by training each dog separately before moving to having all dogs out at the same time.
- Place your bait. A common one is a metal spoon with a dollop of peanut butter or some warmed aromatic meat. Set the food in the spoon and then place the spoon on the edge of the counter or kitchen table where your dog will be able to reach.
- If you’ve chosen to use a camera, set that up on the counter where you can see your bait. A camera may be necessary for training multiple dogs out at the same time. We have some camera recommendations listed below, but you can also use an extra smartphone with video chat or some other device that you likely already have around.
- Set your e-collar to your dog’s indoor working level and add around 10 levels to that. If your dog is particularly sensitive you may get away with less, and if your dog is particularly driven when it comes to food you may need more. 10 is a good rule of thumb, but feel free to adjust based on your dog.
Doing the Training
At this time, you can release your dog from the crate or other confined area. Go to a room or area where you can hear into the kitchen or dining area where your bait is set up and settle down there with your e-collar remote to do something quiet.
You may either open your camera if you’ve set one up, or listen for silverware hitting the floor.
This is when you will be making a correction on the e-collar. For this protocol, I typically just hit the momentary stim once, or the continuous for no more than one second.
The timing you use will depend on whether you are using a camera or not.
On the camera, apply the correction when your dog’s paws hit the counter, regardless of whether or not they get any food.
Without a camera, apply the correction the moment you hear the spoon hit the floor.
For both, do not say anything. Do not get up. Do not even act like you’re aware that the dog has tried to steal any food! You want your dog to change their behavior whether they think you’re watching or not.
After the initial correction, give it ten or twenty minutes, and then go retrieve your bait and repeat the setup steps listed above. At the second round, set your e-collar to ten levels higher than you had it on the first round.
Why Do You Use Higher Levels for Counter Surfing?
Counter surfing is such a common unwanted behavior specifically because it is so incredibly self-rewarding. Think about it this way: if your dog would roll over for a training treat, what would they do to “earn” a steaming turkey leg or a whole plate of spaghetti?
Every time a dog steals food from the kitchen counter or dining table, they are being rewarded immensely in the form of some tasty human food.
We can’t make human food less tasty for our dogs, and we can’t make a dog treat more motivating than a whole mess of food. Even if we managed to train our dogs to “leave it” while we’re watching, they will inevitably still self-reward the counter surfing when we are not around to provide a reason not to.
The dog is going to be motivated enough by, and have a history of reward with, the behavior, which makes a small correction on the e-collar working level moot. Whatever is on that counter is just going to be “worth it.”
I talk about this in another article, The Economics of Dog Behavior, where I discuss how motivators compete and how we can influence them to get different choices and behaviors out of our dogs.
Because of these motivators, we use higher levels, increasing by 10 each time it is necessary to do the protocol. However, it is rare for clients to need to repeat the experiment more than two or three times. This protocol works very fast, and often counter surfing is stopped in as little as one day.
You can always really test how proofed the new behavior is over several days with many different types of bait (a camera setup will be helpful for this), but often you will find that the day is enough.
In Multi-Dog Households
If you have more than one dog with a tendency to steal food off the table or counter, do this protocol first for each dog separately. Any other dogs who are not doing the training can be crated, outside, or in another room.
Repeat with each dog until each one has an understanding of the new expectations. Then, you can add a camera, if you haven’t yet already, to see if having all the dogs out at the same time causes a change in behavior.
In these sessions, you’ll want to see which dogs are interested in counter-surfing if their buddies are around, and which ones are sticking to their new rules.
You can always use an extra tablet or smartphone with something like Zoom, Skype, Facetime, etc. Just make sure that the device near the bait is silent to eliminate any possibility that the dogs might catch on.
Aside from extra devices, you can also get any number of awesome pet cameras, like the ones below.
With your camera set up, repeat the protocol by going to another room where you can watch the camera and see which dog, if any, are trying to counter surf. When paws hit the counter or table, you can apply another correction to only the dog or dogs that try.
After doing the protocol with each dog separately and then doing one or two sessions of all dogs together, your counter-surfing troubles will be a thing of the past.
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