One of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever known was one we adopted when he was 4 1/2 years old. He was gentle, funny, wise, loved people and other dogs, and had a way of calming everyone around him. He helped me teach pre-school aged kids about the right way to meet a dog, and taught our new puppy how to play politely. He used to hop out of the car when we arrived at the veterinary clinic and race up to the clinic door to get in, delighted at the thought of all the people inside waiting to see him.
But when we first got him, he was a horrible counter surfer. That means that he had his front paws up on the kitchen counters almost as much as he had them on the floor, and he likely had been rehearsing that behavior for years. The foster person who had cared for him before he came to us warned me about this. She said she had tried everything to keep him from surfing the counters to grab a snack or catch a whiff of food. She had tried yelling at him and spraying him with water. She had even booby-trapped the counters to scare him out of his habit. One time, she hid in the pantry with the door closed, silently lying in wait. When she heard the dog rustling about with his paws up on the counter, she sprang from the closet, broom in hand, making an explosive, “AArrrGgghh!” noise at him. He just looked at her, wagging his tail, as if to say, “Ha ha! Hey, did you happen to see any snacks in that pantry?”
Well, we didn’t want him surfing our kitchen counters. Partly because we didn’t want his feet all over the countertops, but mostly because I didn’t want him eating my snacks! Not to mention that there are all kinds of things on countertops that are dangerous for dogs to eat. So, we decided to solve it right off the bat. How, you may wonder, did we do it?
When solving a dilemma like this, it helps to get inside the dog’s head. The key is to recognize that dogs do what works. And most dogs just love food. If standing on their back legs, balancing themselves on the edge of the counter with their front paws means they can reach food, or even just smell food, why wouldn’t they do it? Sometimes there may be nothing there, but they figure it is always worth it to check, because chances are someone left a morsel, or a dirty dish, or (yes!) a sandwich or a roast cooling unattended. Sure, they realize sometimes humans get cranky about it, but the reward is so wonderful when it does pay off, that it’s worth doing any chance they get. Besides, when the dog food bowl is empty, the counter is the only interesting area worth investigating. Such is dog logic.
And therein lies the solution. As in nearly all matters of dog training, the most effective approach is to prevent what you don’t want and reward what you do want. (Note that if your dog hasn’t yet started counter surfing, this process goes much more quickly than it did for us, since we were undoing a 41/2-year-old habit.) Our first step was to allow the dog in the kitchen only when we were present and prepared to make interesting, yummy items available at the level where we wanted the dog’s feet—the floor. We put up a baby gate for the first week, and only went into the kitchen with him when we had prepared a meal or food puzzle for the pooch. So he started getting into the habit of checking out the floor as his first order of business any time we entered Kitchen Counter Land.
In the meantime, we had to make sure that there was no chance that our counters would ever, ever be for him a source of food, or even the scent of food. It would not have worked to just shove things back from the edge of the counters; we had to make them a food-free zone any time the dog was in the kitchen. He began to default to choosing the floor over the counters (because of the goodies we provided down below, away from the counters), and so it was time to teach him that even if we left him unsupervised, the counters in our house would never be worth surfing. We did this by leaving him in the kitchen, with spotless, food-free counters, and Kongs stuffed with goodies placed on the floor. I remember leaving the house, and peeking in through the window to see what he was up to. The first few times, the rascal would leave his Kong, and counter surf! (Old habits die hard.) But soon thereafter, I’d witness him leave the Kong and merely walk along the length of the counters, feet on the floor, with his nose held high. He was still checking out the counters, but he had clearly learned it wasn’t worth the energy to put his paws up. Finally, about three weeks after we got him, we left him with his Kong, I peeked through the window, and he didn’t even budge from his spot on the floor. Success! It didn’t work for him to counter surf any more, because it never paid off, and all the interesting, smelly, delicious stuff was happening down below, on the other side of the kitchen. (Here are some pointers if you need help with your Kong stuffing technique.)
We will never know if his former owners may have encouraged his habit by saying “off,” shoving him down (he really liked to be touched and talked to!), or perhaps they left food out frequently, fed him tidbits as they cooked, or merely pushed food to the backs of the counters where he could still smell it. Showing him that something else worked for him did the trick. Unfortunately, we forgot that his new manners wouldn’t transfer automatically to a new environment without a refresher course. Which is why, in his first visit to my parents’ house, an innocent carrot cake fell victim to our negligence. I am sure he is still wagging his tail over that one.