Changing Undesirable Behaviours

Counter Surfing: How to Stop Your Dog from Stealing Food

August 14, 2023

Does your dog counter surf or steal food? How can you fix an undesirable dog behaviour when you aren’t even in the room?

We’ve all heard that story of a Thanksgiving turkey being left unattended….. and disappearing. It might be funny on tv, but it’s very frustrating in real life! It’s also dangerous because your dog might steal something unsafe for them to eat such as chocolate.

I want to introduce you to Kiki, one of the worst counter surfer’s I’ve worked with.

Kiki is a notorious food thief. She’s taken countless things including chicken, a chocolate protein bar, 6 banana muffins at once, various kebobs, pancakes, pasta, toast, and her favourite: butter!

I wanted to to see if I could leave her alone with her favourite food after only 3 training sessions & zero corrections. This became a step-by-step tutorial for training your dog not to steal food. To watch on Youtube, click HERE.

Regardless of whether you have a new dog and you’re just trying to train desirable habits, or you have a dog like Kiki that has a huge history of stealing food, I think this training is really going to help you! I’m going to cover my favorite method for 1) proactively teaching dogs not to steal food and 2) how to fix it if you have a dog that counter surfs.

What you need to know to fix counter surfing:

Before we get to the actual training steps, there are a few important things that you need to understand. I know how tempting it is to jump ahead to the training, but this background info will help you be successful!

Why do dogs counter surf?

This is simple: Dogs are opportunistic scavengers, and your food smells yummy! Have you ever walked past a bakery and INSTANTLY felt hungry due to the smells in the air? Well our noses are incredibly weak compared to dogs, so that chicken on your counter is VERY enticing. How many times could you walk past a plate of freshly baked cookies in your home before you miiiiiight grab one?

The chances of your dog ignoring a tasty food on the counter without being taught to do so isn’t great! And once a dog steals food, they’ve reinforced that behaviour and are more likely to do it again.

Remember: Dogs repeat what works!

Fixing or preventing counter surfing requires two things: Management (also known as prevention) and building new incompatible skills!

What is management in dog training?

Management is anything that prevents your dog from rehearsing the very behaviour you’re trying to fix. If your dog steals food, it’s really important to prevent any access where your dog can counter surf while training the new skill of leaving that food alone. We don’t want them to self-reward for the very behavior that we’re trying to change!

I made a video explaining management in more depth which I’ll link HERE if you want to learn more.

What you need to understand for this training is that your kitchen counters or any other area where your dog can access food need to be kept cleared off and clean while your dog learns this skill. If I’m trying to eat less cookies, I’m going to have a lot more success if they just aren’t there in the first place, versus if I’m trying to use willpower to resist them. It’s very unlikely that your dog will be able to resist taking that food yet, so it’s really important to make sure that that option is not even available!

Examples of management for counter surfing could include:

  • Using doors or baby gates to limit access to the kitchen during non-training times
  • Keeping your dog in their crate or another room while you prepare meals
  • Keeping your counters cleared off whenever you’re not preparing food
  • Wiping counters thoroughly after cooking so that there’s no tasty residue for your dog to get

What are incompatible skills?

An incompatible skill in dog training is something that automatically means the undesirable behaviour isn’t happening.

For example: for a dog to be counter surfing, they need to be up on the counter, right? Then an incompatible skill or behaviour could be any version of keeping their paws on the ground when food is present. If the dog is sitting (an incompatible behaviour), then they’re automatically not up on the counter at the same time.

Training incompatible skills is very effective when trying to build desirable dog behaviours!

Very commonly I’ll hear dog guardians talk about what they DON’T want their dog to do: Don’t jump on the counter, don’t steal the food. I strongly encourage you to try to think of it the opposite way when you’re training: what do you want your dog to do instead?

In this case, I wanted Kiki to be able to be around food but keep her paws on the ground. For tall dogs like Kiki, I like building in the habit that if they’re in the kitchen, they’re sitting or lying down. Sitting is an incompatible behaviour with jumping on the counter and it’s the way that I commonly teach! If you prefer your dog to lie down, substitute that for sitting in the steps below.

Another incompatible skill is the “leave it” cue

I train “leave it” to mean: don’t move towards that thing that you want.

If your dog is successfully listening to leave it, they’re automatically NOT counter surfing.

You’ll see that I use leave it to both 1) teach the dog what I want them to do and 2) as a backup in case they decide to steal the food during training.

I find it makes counter surfing training way faster, so I’d strongly encourage you to spend a week training this skill first. If you want to see how I train leave it, watch THIS:

And lastly for fixing counter surfing you’ll need:

How to fix counter surfing or a dog that steals food:

Step 1- Train an auto sit in the kitchen

My favorite way to train an auto sit is to toss a treat out of the room for the dog to go get, call them back over to you and ask them to sit, reward them for sitting, then toss another treat out of the room.

I like to move to different spots in the kitchen to help them understand and generalize the skill. Repeat this process at least 15 times so that your dog really understands their new game!

After that, when your dog comes into the kitchen, DON’T cue them to sit. Instead, wait for them to sit on their own, mark and reward them for sitting, then toss another treat out of the room to reset.

Repeat this about 15 times so that your dog quickly offers an auto sit in various spots around your kitchen.

Note- As you progress through the training steps in the upcoming days, it’s a good idea to warm up with this easy step 🙂

Step two- food on the counter and cue the dog to leave it

This time when your dog comes into the kitchen, I want you to put something relatively boring on that counter as you say “leave it”. I often recommend starting the training with something undesirable like lettuce so that it’s easy for your dog to leave it alone. For now, we want to make sure that whatever we’re putting on the counter is less rewarding if they take it than the treat that they would have gotten for ignoring the counter food. By doing so, you’re making the habit an easy choice for your dog.

Repeat the treat toss, un-cued sit, and cued leave it sequence about 10 to 15 times to make sure that your dog understands that you want them to enter the kitchen, sit, and ignore the food you place on the counter.

Again, as you progress through the steps on upcoming days make sure that you go through a few repetitions of steps one and two as a warm-up with your dog before progressing to step three.

Step three- no verbal cues (training it all as automatic behaviour now!)

After your dog has gotten good at the cued leave it, I want you to phase out that verbal cue and start building a strong reinforcement history of your dog making that choice on their OWN.

After a treat toss, I want Kiki to come into the kitchen and both 1) sit down and 2) leave the counter food alone without me telling her to do either. They need to be her automatic choices now. This is how we will eventually be able to trust her when we’re out of the room!

If she ignores the food on the counter, she gets rewarded. Make sure that your dog is really good at this with lower value items, then progressively choose things of higher value while repeating steps two and three with each new food.

What if your dog tries to take it?! If your dog tries to grab the counter food: simply cover it or say leave it to prevent them from taking it, then practice a few more repetitions of cued leave it. Afterwards, progress back to this step and phase out all verbal cues. It’s important that we build this as an automatic behaviour.

Progressing difficulty: As the middle value item, I like to use the training treats themselves on the counter because then you’re practicing leaving an item of equal value to the reward itself. Once that is easy for your dog, progress to step four!

Step four- Add distance

Using the same treat on the counter and as a reward, I now I want you to start adding in some distance.

Repeat the sequence where your dog enters the kitchen, sits & gets rewarded, then you place the food on the counter. Reward them for leaving it, then take a small step back so that your dog is closer to the counter treat than you are.

There are two acceptable options here and both deserve a reward:

  1. Your dog stays sitting and doesn’t try to take the counter treat
  2. Your dog follows you and moves away from the counter treat

The ultimate goal of this training is to be able to leave your dog alone in a room with that food item. Therefore, them either sitting there patiently waiting OR choosing to walk away by themselves are both desirable options that deserve a reward!

Step five- practice heavily with increased distance and duration

With that same item, practice repetitions where you either 1) walk farther away or 2) you stay away for longer durations, therefore giving your dog the opportunity to take it.

It’s really important to progress slowly here since it’s much harder for you to intervene if your dog does decide to take it! Remember: it’s important they don’t self-reward for making an undesirable choice.

Step six- repeat these steps with a higher value item than what you’re using as a reward!

At some point there’s going to be something on that counter that’s higher value than whatever you have. Your training treats aren’t going to compete with turkey dinner, are they?

Therefore, it’s important to build a strong reinforcement history of your dog choosing not to take these really awesome items so it becomes a habit for them not to take them. This is why I can trust my dog with something like a burger when I leave the room: It’s a step that we’ve practiced a lot!

To do so, work through these steps with progressively higher and higher value options.

Want to see if Kiki managed to be left alone with her favourite item (butter) after three sessions? Watch this tutorial on Youtube:

If your dog has a strong self-reward history of stealing food, you’re not going to undo that in just a couple training sessions. That’s ok!

With practice and repetitions your dog can ABSOLUTELY get there.

Remember these two things:

1) There needs to be reward for desirable behaviour otherwise there’s no reason for your dog to repeat it.

2) It’s important to manage their environment to prevent food stealing while learning this difficult skill!

Happy training 🙂

Disclosure: Happy Hounds uses affiliate links. Purchasing with these links will not cost you any extra, but I get commissions for purchases made through these links. Affiliate links help me to continue to offer free resources & blog posts. I would love if you used them!

Counter Surfing: How to Stop Your Dog from Stealing Food

About the author:

Stephanie Rombough, DBTMc, is a force-free dog trainer in Edmonton, Alberta. She owns Happy Hounds Dog Training, offering private in-person or virtual dog training services. 

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