Come on a CounterSurfing Safari with Me

Ah, counter surfing, that age old nuisance behavior that many dogs exhibit and most pet parents find extremely frustrating. It is probably one of the most common behaviors that pet parents bring up during consultations, even if it isn’t exactly the reason that they called me in the first place. While the consultants at Pet Harmony most often work with serious maladaptive behaviors, we are frequently asked to help folks out with things like counter surfing. And while counter surfing may not necessarily be a life altering undesired behavior, it certainly is one that can be annoying as heck for the people living with it. 

So what exactly is counter surfing? I would describe it as when your pet – most likely a dog, but I know of many cats who are stealthy counter surfers too – forages for and helps themselves to food that is laid out on the kitchen counter. But it can certainly extend to other surfaces in the household as well, like a table, desk, or even the top of your refrigerator! Sometimes their search allows them to gain access to food and once that happens, they repeat the behavior in the hopes of finding another delicacy at their paw-tips. Rinse and repeat.  

 

Dogs are Gonna Dog

You may be curious as to why your dog is so interested in stealing contraband items from your countertops. Well, a big part of the answer is because dogs are gonna dog. I recognize that is not any kind of technical answer, so here is a more thorough explanation: 

It is a very common species typical behavior for dogs to scavenge and forage for food. They are kind of hard wired to search for food in lots of locations. I strongly suspect that they have adapted over the course of thousands of years to scavenge for food sources near us humans. 

In their book Canine Enrichment for the Real World, authors Allie Bender and Emily Strong have the following to say about dogs who counter surf: “counter surfing or getting into the trash are simply dogs using their powerful sense of smell and their inquisitive nature to procure food. This one set of behaviors is meeting three separate but related instinctual needs.” They then go on to discuss what those needs are, including sensory stimulation, scavenging, and foraging. Sensory stimulation includes, among other things, a dog’s sense of smell and tactile stimulation. Scavenging means that “dogs will eat food wherever they find it, hunting only as necessary when easier food isn’t available.”  Foraging is “acting to find and procure food.” (Bender, Strong, 2019 pg. 16) You know the Descartes quote, “I think, therefore I am”? Perhaps if dogs were philosophical beings who could talk they would say, “I sniff, scavenge, and forage, therefore I am.” 

Okay, so now that we understand that there is a kind of natural drive or instinct for dogs to scavenge or forage for food that they sniff out with their powerful boop snoots, I think it is only fair to add that pet dogs didn’t get the memo about where foraging and scavenging is allowed and where it is not. They are not driven by the same social mores that we humans are taught at an early age about what is “right” vs. what is “wrong”. Until and unless they are taught what is and is not ok to forage, they will fall back on the evolutionary starter kit they’ve been provided with from birth and then, just like us, they will repeat behaviors that give them access to reinforcers they enjoy. If the consequence of them jumping on the kitchen island turns out to be a winner, winner, chicken dinner, then by golly, from your dog’s perspective, this is a behavior that works! And they should keep doing it! Because like every other species on the planet (including humans!) if an opportunity presents itself, they are gonna dog and they are gonna dog hard. Which also means that until they learn otherwise, your unattended turkey sandwich is up for grabs, my friend. 

I promise that they are not doing it to purposely tick you off. Let me put it this way: if I came home one day and found a $50 bill on my kitchen counter and someone didn’t tell me in advance, “Hey, I left 50 bucks on the table, please don’t take it,” I would probably pocket that money and thank my lucky stars. And if I continued to sporadically come home to a $50 dollar bill every now and again, how long do you think it would take for me to establish a habit of feverishly checking the countertops for some more loot? I mean, I find money super reinforcing, as most of us do, so I’m giving myself about three, four days, tops. It doesn’t even matter if I don’t find any loot every single time. If I find fifty bucks every 7th time I check, I’ll keep taking those odds, no questions asked. It is the same for our dogs. A habit born out of instinct is still a habit born when there are powerful reinforcers at work. 

And while I recognize that this is not the most serious of behavior concerns most of the time (other than you needing to make another sandwich) it actually can have some serious consequences. What if your dog gets into some chocolate that was left on the counter? Or a bag of grapes? Or decides that today is the day that your medication bottle is worth investigating? What if they decide to confiscate that interesting pack of sugar-free gum you just purchased in bulk at Costco? All of these pilfered items very likely might end up meaning a visit to the vet and can be quite frightening (not to mention, expensive) for you and your dog. I think we can all agree that having items stolen from the counter and ingested by your dog is not an ideal situation for anyone. 

So if dogs are counter surfing because they are just being dogs, does that mean that we have to just resign ourselves to half eaten sandwiches, partially licked potatoes, and pilfered pancakes? Heck no! We have big giant brains with complex prefrontal cortexes! We can certainly outsmart our pets by coming up with some workable strategies! 

 

Work Smarter 

Now that we’ve established a way to allow your dog to engage in an activity they most likely will enjoy, let’s talk about some “work smarter” strategies. At Pet Harmony, we are all about working smarter a good deal of the time. When I say work smarter, I am typically referring to the use of management in your environment that helps prevent an undesired behavior from occurring in the first place. In the case of counter surfing, management strategies that can help prevent or limit the thievery that occurs during a counter surfing event are fairly easy to implement. One of the things I often tell people is to keep their counters clear of any food that their pets might find appealing. Yes, that might require more diligence in putting away groceries right away or not leaving a loaf of bread on the counter, but the payoff is that you won’t have just spent a lot of money on groceries that never made it to anyone’s belly other than your pet’s. 

You can also use gates to keep your pet out of the kitchen. This doesn’t have to be an every minute of the day thing, either. Let’s say you are hosting a party. Of course you want the food you set out on the counter tops for guests to remain safe. Using a barrier to limit your dog’s access to the kitchen can make all the difference between your pet embarrassing you as they help themselves to some canapes and crudites vs. your charcuterie board remaining dog saliva free. 

You might also consider putting your dog in a safe space with a bone or other long term chewing or licking project that they enjoy while you are serving food to your guests, then let them out later to enjoy the company of your guests, if they are into that kind of thing. Management can be a life saver for more than just counter surfing, so I encourage you to board the management train if you haven’t already done so. No thanks necessary! 

 

Let Them Be Dogs

The first thing I do when I am working with a family who has a dog who likes to forage for tasty tidbits is to make sure that the dog is given plenty of appropriate opportunities to engage in this beloved (and important!) activity. Look, most everyone knows that dogs love to use their noses. We’ve clearly established that they especially love to use their noses to procure food. So instead of denying them the opportunity to have fun with this, let’s provide them with a more human-friendly way to participate in their food-finding adventures. Scatter feeding is an easy, inexpensive way for humans to provide their dog with foraging occasions. It takes minimal effort and for most dogs, the pay-off is big. Other ways to provide similar experiences is to use a snuffle mat or to hide food in boxes around your house or yard. If your dog is not used to searching for food in this fashion, you may need to introduce them to the concept slowly and build from there. Regardless of how you do it, the most important detail is that the scent trails that lead to food should lead to the floor and away from the kitchen so that your dog learns that the scent trails that lead up to countertops and your kitchen don’t pay, but the ones that lead to the floors around the rest of your house pay out big time. You really are only limited by your creativity and your dog’s desire to work, so experiment with different options and see which ones rock your dog’s world in a good way! 

 

Build Skills 

If you are looking for a way to teach your dog that counter surfing is an off limits activity for them, there are certainly many different ways to do that too. This will require more energy on your part, as you will need to help your dog learn new skills. You may want to think about what it is you would like your dog to do instead and then start working on teaching them how to do that. For example, would you like your dog to hang out just outside of the boundary of the kitchen while you prepare food? While this isn’t necessarily a difficult skill to teach a dog, it will take many, many repetitions of teaching this new behavior for your dog to master it. You will have to do what we in the training profession call “proofing” the behavior, which basically means helping your dog understand that the behavior of hanging out in this particular spot is what you are asking them to do in lots of different contexts, not just the one where you initially taught them the skill. This can be a little tricky and if you really want to do it well, hiring a professional to help you with a training plan can be a nice way to get some support for you and your dog. 

 

Now What? 

I hope I have helped you understand a little more about what might be motivating your dog to help themselves to your goodies and also why the behavior might be so persistent, even though you tell your dog “no” or “off” ten times a day. Here are some final thoughts to recap: 

  • Be creative and find some interesting ways to allow your dog to scavenge and forage for food in a safe and productive way. It may seem silly to you but your dog will thank you for it! 
  • If you have a counter surfer at home, think of something you would rather have your dog do instead and start training for that behavior. 
  • Using management is not a failure on your part. On the contrary, it is the easiest, cheapest, safest, and most convenient way to prevent the rehearsal of a behavior that you would like to change. 
  • If you are looking for support for you and your dog, the Pet Harmony team is here to help! 

 

Happy training, 

MaryKaye

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