Correcting “Counter Surfing” Dogs

Stopping the “Snatch and Dash”

Counter surfing, and other forms of stealing, especially stealing food – this is another case of your dog’s natural instincts kicking in.

Counter surfing, along with eating from the trash bin, the dinner table, or right out of your hand, are all behaviors that confuse a lot of dog owners. Even a very good dog will do it. I can tell you that the first time I saw it, I was baffled!

The thing is, dogs hunt in packs, and the strongest, fastest dog takes whatever he pleases. It’s literally a race, in a pack of dogs, to snatch a bite as soon as there’s an opening, with the alpha dog being responsible to make sure everyone gets at least something to eat.

Since your family isn’t a dog pack, you need to prevent counter surfing before it begins, or else deal with it after it begins. Aside from being a terrible behavior, it’s also dangerous. If your dog confuses something poisonous for food, or goes after food that’s still on the stove…

We can also count other forms of theft as counter surfing, so a bit of the advice in this article will relate to other things besides food.

Aside from the instinct, there are also household causes for counter surfing.

What Inspires a Counter Surfing Dog?

Here is a list of known reasons why dogs steal food off the counter or from their owners:

  • It’s habit-forming. Food is it’s own reward. It also tends to earn the dog quick attention.
  • They just don’t know any better.
  • A dog suffering from separation anxiety might steal your shoes because they smell like you.
  • They want attention. They steal, you chase – what fun for them!
  • They don’t have any toys they like, so they claim something of yours as a chew toy.
  • The dog isn’t getting enough food, or the food isn’t nutritious enough.
  • Lack of proper obedience training. Your dog might think he is the pack’s alpha.
  • Pent-up energy from not enough play or exercise sometimes causes counter surfing.
  • Young puppies definitely don’t know any better.

How do You Prevent Counter Surfing?

Counter surfing is an issue that’s difficult to provide “if Problem X, then do Action Y to achieve Result Z” types of solutions for. Read through the following tips, thinking about your dog’s “criminal methods” to decide on one or more that might work in your home.

This is a list of tips that work either for prevention before counter surfing begins, or as part of a training program if your dog has already picked up the thieving habit.

  • Keep their target out of reach. Put garbage cans in a closet, don’t leave food unattended, etc.
  • Closely supervise a dog that’s developing a counter surfing habit. Reward them for choosing the right behavior in the face of temptation, and use command phrases to halt theft in action.
  • Never share your food with your dog, or if you do, only let them eat it from their own bowl.
  • Make sure the dog gets lots of play and exercise. This combats several possible causes.
  • Don’t give the dog attention in response to counter surfing or theft – not even punishment.
  • Get in the habit of always rewarding the right behavior, even if it’s “normal” behavior. This is good advice to follow even with a dog who hasn’t developed a counter surfing habit yet.

How do You Stop the Counter Surfing Dog?

The tips above will still be useful if your dog has started counter surfing and other forms of theft. However, the tips below are specifically for dog owners whose dogs have started to steal things.

  1. Begin or resume your dog’s obedience training schedule. It establishes your position as the alpha, makes you better friends with your dog, and answers a psychological need that all dogs have for leadership. A thieving dog needs to know one command in particular: “leave it!”
  2. Set up a “bait and switch” trap. Unfortunately, this does involve wasting some food, but if you already have a problem, then it will help. The trap involves tying a metal can full of coins to a piece of meat and leaving it unattended. Dog grabs food, can gets yanked and makes a nasty sound, dog drops food in surprise. Make sure you take the food away before the dog turns his attention back to it, and add the “leave it!” command.
  3. Instead of the above trap, find a disgusting-tasting but harmless liquid. (Get your vet’s approval on the specific liquid.) Douse the bait, and let the counter surfing dog learn, after a few repetitions, that your food tastes nasty.
  4. If you can catch your dog in the act on a regular basis, quickly enough that you can react before they’ve eaten the stolen food, the “squirt gun to the face” method is fine here. (Normally we’d say “don’t aim for the face,” but for this problem, you need the dog to be stunned.) Add the “leave it!” or “no” command.
  5. Whenever the tempting situation is about to arise – let’s say you’re about to cook, or about to open the trash can – give your dog something to do, such as “sit/stay” or “go to your spot.” This is a direct way to tell them there’s something you expect them to do other than counter surfing.

Conclusion on Dogs and Counter Surfing

Just remember, once again, what we call “counter surfing” or theft is an instinctive behavior, and would be perfectly normal and correct behavior if your dog was part of a dog pack. Correcting against counter surfing is just a case of setting the right boundaries and establishing the right thing to do when they’re tempted. Dogs want order and structure, and they’re perfectly willing to adapt to their alpha’s expectations, even if it means denying themselves of a delicious, unguarded slab of steak!

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