Your dog smells delicious bacon or roasted chicken on your kitchen counter. Their scavenger instincts take over and they quickly grab some food and eat it. They might even wait until you’re not paying attention to get a quick bite without being noticed.
Scavenging is a natural canine behavior and counter surfing is an excellent opportunity to find new food. It takes very little to pique your dog’s interest to see what is up on the counter. It might be something delicious like beef or chicken but it could be an onion, avocado, or grapes, all of which are toxic for dogs.
What is Counter Surfing? Counter surfing is when your dog stands on its hind legs, sniffing and pawing at the kitchen counter in the hopes of scoring food. Most dogs will stand on their hind legs, take a look at what’s on the counter and reach for anything they think might be edible.
Some dogs learn to do this by accident when they are exploring the kitchen. Other dogs discover counter surfing when they see food fall from the counter and search for where the food came from. In most cases, they can simply smell delicious food, and, following their nose, they find the counter.
Is Counter Surfing Common? Counter surfing is far from unusual. Your kitchen’s delicious aromas, combined with a dog’s natural curiosity, make your counter irresistible. However, counter surfing is a bad habit that can be dangerous and lead to serious health problems. Your dog might eat food or materials that are harmful or toxic, including:
- Chicken bones
- Plastic wrap
If your dog eats food that is potentially harmful or toxic, we recommend reaching out to ASPCA Poison Control for advice and treatment options.
Why Does My Dog Counter Surf? Your dog may have started counter surfing because they may be:
- Bored or frustrated
- Smelling delicious food
If your dog has been able to get food off the counter once, they’ll try again and again — even if they can’t always get a reward for their efforts. Think of slot machines in Las Vegas: random reinforcement keeps us glued to the chair, pulling the lever to see if maybe this time, the big payday is here. It’s the same for your dog; if they can get food occasionally, there’s that tantalizing chance that this time is the payoff.
Your dog can smell the food that’s on the counter, whether it’s chicken, bacon, fruit, or bread. James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, studied dogs’ sense of smell. He explained that if you compare the sense of smell to vision, what we humans can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and even further. No wonder dogs can pick up scents much more quickly than you or me! Fortunately, there are many ways that you can discourage your dog from counter surfing.
The 5 Best Strategies to Keep Your Dog from Counter Surfing
- Remove opportunities for counter surfing. Remove all food from the counter, and place it in the pantry, microwave, fridge, or drawer. When your food is in the proper place, your dog will be less likely to smell it and won’t have easy access.
- Provide your dog with opportunities to scavenge. Dr Crista Coppola, a Certified Animal Behaviorist for SeniorTailWaggers.com, recommends using “an appropriate toy like a snuffle mat, tricky treat ball, or Kong wobbler” to give your dog an opportunity to scavenge while reinforcing appropriate behavior. This can be especially helpful if the dog is inclined to counter surf at certain times (when you are cooking meals, eating meals, washing dishes, or when you have left the room).
- If your dog puts its paws on the counter, give them a firm “Off!” Use “off” instead of “down” because they mean different things. Use the command “down” for lying down, and use “off” when you want them to get off of something. When they get off the counter, say “Yes!” and reward them with praise or treats. If you opt to use goodies, avoid using treats from the counter.
- Use baby gates or a crate to block your dog’s access to the kitchen, especially when you’re cooking.
- Ensure your entire family is consistently redirecting your dog’s behavior. If one family member isn’t following the rules, it will be more difficult for your dog to learn what to do.
Should You Punish a Dog Who Counter Surfs? You should not. Punishment does NOT teach dogs what they should do. Teaching using positive reinforcement is a lot more effective. Avoid punishing your dog using shock mats, yelling, physical corrections, holding a dog’s mouth closed or alpha rolls.
These kinds of punishments may cause your dog to fear you, or the kitchen, become aggressive, urinate submissively, become anxious, or distrust you, weakening the bond between the two of you.
It’s understandable to be frustrated with your dog when you catch them counter surfing, particularly when you have to clean up the aftermath. But you should not punish your dog: putting a few proactive strategies into place to remove any opportunities for counter surfing is the best strategy to prevent your dog’s paws from leaving their mark on the counter.
Editor’s note: This article was written in partnership with our friends at Senior Tail Waggers.
About the Author
Julie Burgess is a Certified Veterinary Technician and a Professional Dog Trainer CPDT-KA with more than 20 years of experience. Julie started training dogs because of one of her own dogs, Maya, who was nervous and fearful. She enjoys helping people train their dogs, and now does so entirely online through “Julie’s Canine College” in Kremmling, CO.