Teach Your Dog to Counter Surf. Perils of a Dog Trainer

I’m here to report that I’ve been doing a stellar job of teaching Cailie (our 7 month old Australian Shepherd) to counter surf.

Ok, I can hear you right now saying “What! Why would you ever want to teach a dog to counter surf?”

I definitely understand why you ask.

After all, counter surfing is something many forlorn clients call us about in hopes of stopping their dog from doing it. Counter surfing is such a common term that I likely don’t need to define it. But I will – it’s when a dog puts two front paws up on the kitchen counter or other surface and selectively takes something with their mouth that looks interesting. Then off they go to enjoy it or perhaps they eat it on the spot.

So why would I want to train that? Here’s the truth: I didn’t mean to!

If you understand how dogs learn which is, by the way, how humans learn, anytime a dog gets reinforced for doing something, the chance of the dog doing that certain “something” again increases. It’s learning by consequence. If the outcome of a certain behavior is rewarding, the dog will want to do it again.

New puppy brings new challenges.

When we brought Cailie home at 8 weeks of age, it was evident very early on that she was extremely inquisitive, had an amazing nose that could sniff out anything and was quite tenacious. Even though she was much too small to reach counter tops or tables, that didn’t stop her from being extremely interested in whatever was on the surface, whether it was a food item or not.

This was new for us in comparison to our existing guy, Cody (a 12 year old Australian Shepherd), as well as our former Aussies, Willow and Gibson. These dogs could have cared less what was on top of surfaces – even when it was food. We often thawed chicken or meats on the counter top, many times left partially eaten cat food on top of the counter and once, Brad even left out four pounds of pork tenderloin he had taken off the grill (that he was prepping for home cooked dog food) and Cody and Willow never ventured into the kitchen. Of course, we taught them to wait outside of the kitchen.

But really, unattended dogs and all that accessible food….so tempting! But, they never touched it. That’s hard to believe for most dog guardians as it really is quite unusual; however, that was just the “norm” for us in our home with own dogs. With Cailie’s inquisitiveness and penchant for exploration, we knew things were about to change.

In order to prevent counter surfing, it’s important to manage the dog’s environment.

Management means arranging things in your home so that the dog doesn’t get to practice the unwanted behavior, which gives you time to begin training an incompatible behavior. Examples of incompatible behaviors for counter surfing are: the dog lying in a down position just outside the kitchen entrance or perhaps merely standing in the kitchen with four feet on the floor.

Management strategies in regard to counter surfing are keeping your countertops clear of anything your dog might have the slightest inclination to enjoy or preventing access to the kitchen with a pet gate.

Most of the time, we keep the pet gate to the kitchen closed and do our best to keep counter tops clean. Periodically though, one of us will forget and in a nano second, Cailie, now older and taller, will grab something off the counter top and off she’ll run with it. Frustrating as heck, because it’s our fault: management fail!

One morning not too long ago while coffee was still trying to makes its way into our sleepy bodies, we had no less than four…count them 1, 2, 3, 4 management fails – one – right – after – the other! First, she got the top to the cat food can, then she got the Ziploc bag that Cody’s food was in, then she tried to lick the knife with remnants of peanut butter on it, and then there was an empty cat food can within reach that we had forgotten about. Yep, Cailie got that too.

Argh! She had just been reinforced four times for putting her paws up on the counter, all in less then 30 minutes. I was frustrated, but frustrated in myself. Screaming in frustration would do nothing to help in the moment and besides, I don’t want my dog to fear me. What I really wanted to do was take a newspaper and hit myself over the head! Silly dog trainers, better tighten up your management plan!

So that’s what we’ve been doing. With more stringent management strategies there are less opportunities for her to grab something. And now, Cailie also has a well-trained “leave it” so that when we see her eyeing something with that glean in her eye, we can say “leave it” and she will. And thank heavens we’ve taught her to trade. Such an important behavior for a dog to learn. When she does happen to pick up something she doesn’t need to have, whether it’s on the counter tops or not, we ask her to “trade” and she readily drops it.

Management and training go hand in hand in dog training.

Both are important in teaching your dog what you want them to do. Take the time to think about what it is you want your dog “to do”, prevent the unwanted behavior from occurring through management and generously and consistently reinforce your dog for getting it right!

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina.  She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities and distance consults for clients, dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. and Europe.  www.coldnosecollege.com

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