I swung open the door of my apartment, surprised not to see my newly adopted Border Collie’s wiggling form in the entryway. Then my stomach sank.
If he wasn’t meeting me at the door, it was probably because he’d gotten something from the countertops.
I entered the apartment cautiously, scanning. There it was – a jug of olive oil, purchased yesterday at Costco for nearly $40. Tipped on its side, the top chewed off, dripping olive oil into a huge puddle. He’d jumped on the counter to steal food, again.
Stopping a dog from jumping on the countertops is surprisingly difficult – though each step to take is simple. Even though I was a seasoned dog trainer by the time I brought Barley (the offending Border Collie) home, this problem had me in tears several times before we got it “fixed.”
Why Does My Dog Jump on the Counter?
Most dogs jump up on the counter because they want to sample some of the human delicacies to be found there.
The thing is, dogs are born scavengers. Most researchers now think that humans first domesticated dogs because they hung around our dumps, eating our scraps. Stealing your food is in your dog’s DNA.
Think of it – every time your dog sticks his nose (or paws) up on the table, he’s playing the lottery. If he “wins,” he might get the best treat of his entire week or month. If he finds nothing, no big deal. He’ll try again later.
Even if you catch your dog in the act and try to punish or scold, him, it’s hard to undo the temptation of playing the lottery (the human parallel here is devastating for some addicts). The allure of chance is just so strong!
But that doesn’t mean you just have to live with a dog that jumps on the counter. “Counter-surfing,” as it’s commonly known, is a problem that has simple solutions. It’s sticking to them that’s challenging!
Reasons why dogs jump up on the counter:
- To get to food. Most dogs jump on the counter to investigate a tasty morsel that has been left in an oh-so-tempting spot.
- For attention. While most dogs jump up to get at food, other dogs jump up because they want attention. Try an experiment: if your dog jumps up, ignore him. If he’s jumping up for attention, he’s likely to glance over at you or even get off the counter! If your dog is jumping up to get attention, your first step is to find an appropriate way for your dog to get attention and reward your dog for that instead (sitting is a good compromise for most dog-human couples). If your dog learns he can get what he wants by sitting, he’s less likely to jump up.
- For a better view. Finally, some dogs jump up because they want a better view or “perch.” This is more common in little dogs. In this case, it’s best to give the dog a better perch and reward him for choosing that instead of the counter. Hide treats up there and calmly relocate your dog when you catch him in the wrong perch.
How to Stop a Dog from Jumping Up on the Counter
As I said above, I dealt with some pretty serious counter-jumping when I first adopted my Border Collie, Barley.
Barley is a whip-smart chowhound who gets easily bored while I’m at work. Counter-surfing became his favorite past time while I was away, but I’ve been able to stop his counter-jumping ways with a few quick changes to my routine.
1. Double-Check Your Diagnosis
Film your dog to make sure there’s no unexpected mischief going on (maybe your cat, high-reaching toddler, or other unannounced wildlife critters are to blame).
Even if your dog is confirmed to be the culprit, try to evaluate your dog’s mood on camera when he counter surfs. If your dog seems distressed or panicked in the video, talk to a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant right away.
Don’t have the money for a dog camera or sophisticated monitoring device? No problem! I set up my laptop with Photo Booth rolling for a few days to ensure that I just had a food thief vs. a separation anxiety terror on my hands before I started treatment.
2. Put Temptations Away or Crate the Dog
The very first step of treatment is to remove your dog’s ability to play the countertop lottery completely. Try taping a cardstock note to your door that says,
Stop! Are the counters 100% clean and the trash/recycling is put away? If not, clean it up OR put (dog) in his crate!
This note can remind you to glance over your shoulder before you head out the door and ensure that the coast is clear.
If your counters aren’t 100% free of goodies, you cannot leave your dog out. Every time you do, you run the risk that your dog “wins the lottery” again. That makes the problem harder to deal with in the long run.
3. Hide Dog-Friendly Easter Eggs Every Day
Just keeping the counters clean isn’t enough. The reality is, you’re likely to slip up one day and forget. When you do, your dog is likely to “catch” you and “win the lottery.”
Instead, take a few seconds after you clean the counter to set up an Easter Egg Hunt.
Right before I leave for work, I put Barley in the bathroom. I then hide a few tasty brain-stimulating puzzle toys full of breakfast, a bully stick, a dental chew, and/or a stuffed Kong around the apartment below Barley’s chest level.
Doing this quickly teaches your dog that he can play the lottery (and win much more reliably) if he searches low rather than high. This way, even if you forget a dirty plate every now and again, your dog is less likely to check the counters!
4. Ensure You’re Taking Care of Your Dog
Most dogs that jump up on counters are bored and understimulated. With our long work hours, many of our dogs simply don’t get enough mental or physical exercise every day. That makes playing the lottery of counter-jumping even more appealing.
If the best thing that happens to your dog every day is stealing food, you’re not going to fix the problem. You need to add in more exercise and enrichment for your dog to help deal with this problem. I recommend:
- Canine training games. Canine training games are one of the best ways to motivate you to exercise your dog’s body and mind. Most dogs need more mental and physical exercise than they’re getting, and games are the best way to meet those needs!
- Activity walks. Instead of marching around the block with your dog, why not turn your daily excursions into a mental and physical challenge? Our activity walk tips are sure to spice up your walk and produce a tired pup!
- “Easter Egg” game described above.
- Dog walking service. Consider trying a dog walking service like Wag or Rover to make sure your pooch is getting the exercise he needs. Of course a friendly neighbor or local teenager works too!
If you’ve got a high-energy or working breed, you’ll need to do a lot more work than with a low-energy breed.
Do I Need a Dog Counter Surfing Deterrent?
Realistically, you’re unlikely to find a deterrent that works better than hiding low-hanging fruit and keeping the counters clean. It’s generally easier (and kinder for your dog) to take the route outlined above than to zap or poke your dog into avoiding the counters.
In general, I strongly suggest avoiding electronic, shock-based, or motion-activated counter surfing deterrents. They’re often glitchy, meaning they might zap or spook your dog when he just walks by (or for no reason at all, or three minutes after your dog stole the sandwich). It’s easier to clean the counters than it is to set up a deterrent system, anyway.
Setting up delicately balanced pots and pans might scare your dog out of the kitchen, but these scare tactics can also backfire. You can easily create a dog that’s scared of the kitchen, of pans, of loud noises, or of being alone. Again, wouldn’t it be easier (and kinder) to clean the counters and hide some kibble anyway?
All of that said, there are some easy DIY dog counter surfing deterrents that can help if you’ve got a dedicated counter-jumper:
- Upside-down office chair mats (pokey side up) are uncomfortable on paws and can help keep animals off of countertops.
- Crinkly aluminum foil can deter some dogs and cats as well.
Again, steer clear of shock- or zap- or sound-oriented systems, as they’re likely to have unintended consequences for you and your pooch. I’ve even met dogs that develop phobias of unrelated things (like the sound of the microwave or the phone ringing) after they were scared badly by a counter surfing deterrent.
If the suggestions above aren’t working, there’s a good chance that your dog is still bored and overly energetic.
If you show your dog that there’s nothing on the counters worth taking and that searching low is better than checking high up, your food will be safe in no time!
Again, remember that most dogs that steal food are exhibiting signs of boredom and lack of exercise. If you don’t take care of the dog’s basic needs for exercise and enrichment, the problem will only manifest elsewhere.
What’s been your experience with counter-surfing canines? Tell us in the comments!