I have a pretty hard-core counter surfer at my house too. There was just that one time someone left a whole plate of corn bread out when she was about 9 months old and that was it. A full dose of Jack-Pot-At-Las-Vegas-One-Trial-Super-Learning event that I just don’t think she’s ever going to get over.
Even after a year of never achieving so great a coup du scarf again, just a few crumbs here and there now and then, the behavior really hasn’t diminished. So, being the good behaviorist I decided to try and figure out exactly what was continuing to reinforce it in spite of all our strict precautions. In an attempt to experience the kitchen from Zoë’s perspective, I got down on all fours and crawled around for a bit. (Very professional, I know).
First of all, when you are a dog, the edge of the counter looms enticingly overhead, but everything else is a mystery. And even though I had just been upright a second before and knew that all there was up there was a clean cutting board, coffee maker and toaster oven, my first thought as a dog was “I wonder what is up there now?”
This made me think about how you can play peek-a-boo with babies forever and they are always surprised when you suddenly reappear. So even if Zoe has stood up and checked the counter just a minute or two previously, by golly, something may have changed and she is pretty convinced it’s necessary to check it again. To a dog it’s a whole new world each and every minute. So one of these minutes, who know, she might be right. Installing a glass countertop with see-through panels might help because then the dog could see there was nothing up there and wouldn’t bother … but I supposed that would be pretty impractical for most people.
My conclusion: No matter what you do (rat traps, spray bottles, pennies in a can, a strict clean up policy) counter surfing is still reinforced by that peek-a-boo glimpse (plus, don’t forget, some pretty amazing smells), up over the edge at what my boyfriend likes to call “the realm of the gods.” – that strange flat, infuriating surface just barely out of reach, where the cruel humans daily flaunt before them some of the greatest treasures in the world (ie pancakes, sliced cheese, peanut butter sandwiches …).
How is this helpful? Well, now that I understand her better I don’t get quite as frustrated anymore, and changing my own perspective about how my dog is behaving really is often half the battle. She’s not trying to be a pest. She’s just a dog living in the moment, constantly tempted by the great mystery above. Any self-respecting person with a shed of curiosity would do the same. If you found a $100 bill in a trash can one day, I dare you to not go check it again the next.
Oh, and there is a solution I’ve found. It doesn’t eliminate the counter surfing and we still have to keep the kitchen cleaned up, but teaching a solid, default go-to-place is very livable. I mean solid. Zoe has been so reinforced for being on that bed that is acts like a magnet. You can put a bowl of dog food down on the floor and leave the room and she won’t touch it until you back and release her from her bed. Whenever I’m at the counter, or sitting at the table eating a meal, or preparing her dinner, or even opening the fridge … 95% of the time she’s on that bed, because we’ve taught her that being on her bed is a guaranteed way to get paid – maybe not as exciting as a jack-pot at Las Vegas – but I have to say that 95% of the time she isn’t counter surfing and that is very liveable.
So the go-to-place training DOES work and maybe now you have a bit more insight into WHY your dog feels the need to check a counter he knows is likely empty!
Another Option To Stop Counter Surfing
Still want to try to stop the surfing? Changing the dog’s behaviour when he first gets into the kitchen might be what it takes.
Dani Weinberg, PhD, of Dogs & Their People in Albuquerque, NM, put her powers of observation to work and found that her dog would enter the kitchen and immediately raise her nose toward the counter.
Of course she could have waited until the dog jumped up and then told her “off” but that doesn’t remove the rewarding feeling of knowing what’s on that counter. Instead, she decided to change where her dog’s nose pointed by adding a small toy basket to the floor in her kitchen. This keeps the dog’s nose focused on the floor.
She says “I had never used a toy basket with a dog before because I thought any right-minded dog would just take all the toys out immediately and strew them all over the house. And that’s what Lovey did – on the first day. But never again.”
Dani rotates the toys in the basket so that there are always “new” ones. Her dog now makes sure she checks the toy basket often to see if a new toy has appeared. And anyone who has a toy box for their dog knows it’s great fun to watch them carefully deliberate about which toy they want and then work to get only that one out of the box. And of course it’s usually the toy on the bottom that takes the most work to get.
Dani also says “The basket is still there, and Lovey (now 22 months) has not counter surfed since we started this. Even if no one is in the kitchen, she gets reinforced for focusing downward instead of upward toward the counters”
So give these methods a try. Who knows, you just might find a peaceful solution to counter surfing.