Counter Surfing

When your din­ner isn’t safe: what to do about dogs who clear coun­ters


When your din­ner isn’t safe: what to do about dogs who clear coun­ters.

QOur yel­low Lab Buddy isn’t a puppy any­more but he still steals food from our kitchen coun­ters when we’re gone. He’ll even do it if we’re home but are in the other room too long! What can we do?

ADog train­ers de­scribe this be­hav­iour as “counter surfing.” Some­how, for me it al­ways con­jures a vi­sion of a dog wear­ing Hawai­ian print shorts, hang­ing ten on a coun­ter­top! But the re­al­ity is not so amus­ing. Dogs have been known to steal and in­gest things such as choco­late, which can be deadly. And on a less dra­matic note, who wants a ca­nine thief in the house?

Let’s break our strat­egy into two parts: when you’re away and when you’re home. The first part is easy, and I think you al­ready know what I’m go­ing to say. Don’t leave good stuff on the counter! I know, I know, it’s not so easy to re­mem­ber and it is ex­po­nen­tially harder if you have kids in the house. But if you make it a prac­tice to vis­ually sweep the coun­ter­tops ev­ery time you leave the house, it will soon be­come a habit.

We’ve cov­ered sim­ple man­age­ment. Now let’s look at the train­ing as­pect. Dogs are op­por­tunists, and Buddy sim­ply doesn’t un­der­stand that it’s not okay to grab food. That’s not sur­pris­ing, as the only con­se­quence he’s ex­pe­ri­enced so far is be­ing re­warded with yum­mies! Those tasty re­in­forcers only serve to make it more likely that the be­hav­iour will hap­pen again. You men­tioned that Buddy will also counter surf if you’re out of the room too long. So, let’s make him be­lieve that even if you’re out of sight, you have eyes ev­ery­where!

Here’s how: Leave some­thing tempt­ing on the coun­ter­top. Set it where Buddy is likely to in­ves­ti­gate, but far enough from the edge that he can’t ac­tu­ally grab it. Now, for this next part, you can go high-tech or low-tech, your choice. For the high-tech ver­sion, aim a web cam at the scene. Al­ter­nately but still high­tech, point your lap­top’s built-in cam­era at the area and use an app that lets you view it on your phone or another com­puter. Now leave the room. As soon as you see Buddy in­ves­ti­gat­ing, rush into the room and say, “Leave it!” That’s as­sum­ing Buddy al­ready knows what “leave it” means. (If not, it’s easy to teach and there are lots of good ar­ti­cles to be found on­line.) If he doesn’t yet know leave it, a sharp “Eh-eh!” will still in­ter­rupt the be­hav­iour and get your point across.

The low-tech ver­sion of the Eyes Ev­ery­where tech­nique is to hide around a cor­ner and use a hand mir­ror to ob­serve. If it hap­pens that there is a re­flec­tion from a tele­vi­sion screen or some­thing else in the area, that’s fine too. But in my twenty years as a trainer, I hid around many a cor­ner hold­ing a hand mir­ror and I can tell you it works very well. Pro­ceed as above, us­ing good tim­ing to rush in and ver­bally in­ter­rupt the be­hav­iour. If you do this enough at dif­fer­ent times of day and you vary the amount of time you’re “away” be­fore rush­ing in, even­tu­ally Buddy will be­lieve you’re om­nipo­tent. How cool is that? Just re­mem­ber that since you’re not ac­tu­ally ev­ery­where at once, use good man­age­ment as well. Very soon Buddy’s ca­reer in ca­nine lar­ceny will come to an end.

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