Counter Surfing - Tips From A Professional Dog Trainer
It’s classical conditioning. When your dog goes counter surfing or dumpster diving and finds some tasty tidbits he is rewarded for his efforts. And no matter how much you come in screaming, he won’t understand what you’re so mad about as much as he understood that counter equals food because the timing of the behavior and good consequence there was so much closer. A very small gap exists between the behavior and the reward, vs the behavior and your punishment.
Dogs learn by simple associations. The trick then is to get him to make another association. Ideally we want him to make the association that waiting patiently away from the counter will earn him a treat. Afterall, dogs have become such a successful species because they’ve learned to use humans as a tool. So that's the end goal, teach them how to use you as a tool properly. But use these tips and you’ll find a well rounded approach that get’s you to the same place with better results. Let’s start with step one: you must remove the reinforcer.
Half the battle is actually management. Like simply putting a trash bin behind a closed door or getting one the dog can't access, you can set your dog up for success. Don't leave things out where he could get them in the first place. It seems easy, but management takes a keen eye, awareness, and proactivity. You can't let getting in trouble be worth it. If you can prevent the behavior from being reinforced early on you'll set yourself for much easier work down the line. Habits are easier to make than to break.
To teach dogs not to jump on the counter pretend that when there's food on it the counter is covered in hot lava that only humans are impervious to, and it spills off onto the area around the counter – about a 1 foot radius surrounding the counter. You wouldn’t want your dog to step in that hot lava would you? If your dog got anywhere near actual hot lava you would come screaming across the room to save his life! That’s how serious you should make this for the purposes of teaching your dog not to counter surf. Come in with that energy. Really reach within and deliver an Oscar worthy performance. If he steps anywhere near that counter you have to come running over and back him away with your body language and intensity, every time.
Use body language more than words to communicate to your non-verbal friend. No sitting near the counter watching you prepare food, ever. Ask for space. It means no sniffing the counter, ever. It definitely means no paws on the counter, EVER. Now you’ve established a boundary. This is good. Dogs need rules, boundaries, and limitations. Dogs are color blind. Help them understand the world by painting things in black and white!
Another terrific method introduced by the amazing Dr. Ian Dunbar is to build a system of booby traps. For a message to really sink in for a dog it's better to have the punishment be intrinsic rather than coming from you, which in essence detaches the behavior and consequence on top of the already more delayed timing. Try setting up a perimeter of coke cans filled with pennies all around the edge of the counter. If Fido comes snooping and knocks it over it can spook him, and he's less likely to try again. For bad counter surfers try a Scat Mat from the pet store. It's an electrically charged mat that you can lay on the counter. This method is not right for every dog. Don't use it on nervous ones. You could severely injure the dog's psyche, which is much worse than losing a pie.
There’s one more trick I’ve picked up over the years and this one’s a doozy. Stop getting mad at the dog. Get mad at the counter! Bang the counter as hard as you can. Don’t even look at the dog. Just yell at the counter and make loud sounds. Between your hatred for the counter and the scary lava floors that surround it and make up it’s mysterious surface your dog isn’t going to want to go anywhere near that thing. It sounds crazy, but it works.
Once you’ve set up your imaginary perimeter you must hold the line. Tell him to “get back” or whatever simple words you choose to pair with this action. It’s important to pair it with a command. The second you start seeing your dog obey the line, or backup in response to your command, it’s time for some good ol’ fashioned positive reward training. Use that one command and your strong, serious body language to back him up, and the moment he takes a step back away from the counter and outside the lava perimeter you can reward him. Good dog! It’s always very important to use positive reward training whenever you can. You should work it in to every. single. lesson. It's NEVER enough to teach a dog what not to do. You have to teach them what to do instead as well! So the second part is about teaching them a great alternative. Like, go to place. Send them to a spot where rewards are aplenty when you've got food out. Check out this video to see how. This last piece is absolutely the most important step. It's much easier for a dog to succeed when you've given them a correct alternative to the behavior you don't want.
Oh, one last tip. Keep your dog tired and he won't go looking for things to do. Seriously, unspent energy in puppies leads to bad habits and destructive behaviors. Hire a San Francisco dog walker like us!
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YOUTUBE LINK: tab289: https://youtu.be/FRM0LeSBjxA