Counter Surfing Safari

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?”Ravenous

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.

Have a Heart, Spare Your Dog

Since you’re reading this blog, I’ll bet you really like your dog. You may even take your dog with you to run errands or for company on your way to an appointment. Now, I don’t want to alarm you (ok, maybe I do, just a little) but you may be putting your dog’s brain cells, liver, and intestines at grave risk. You could even be endangering your dog’s life. Every day, people just like you, who love their dogs and take them along on errands, put them in danger because they don’t yet know this: each breath of air that a dog exhales measures 102 degrees Fahrenheit, at 100% humidity. Therefore, as the dog waits in the car for their person to finish that errand, the car becomes filled with hot, moist air. The dog (who can’t sweat) has no way to cool off, and can suffer brain damage within minutes. When the air outside the car is warm, a greenhouse effect is created and the temperature inside the car rises dramatically within minutes. Yes, even if the car is parked in the shade, even with the windows cracked, and even if you leave the dog water to drink.summerfun

You car can reach 116 degrees within an hour—even with the windows down—when it is only 72 degrees outside. (Stanford University tested it out).  In just ten minutes, your car can reach 102 degrees if it is 85 degrees outside. When your dog’s body temperature reaches 107 degrees, nerve, liver, heart and brain damage begin to occur. If you have a brachiocephalic breed (a “short-nosed” dog like a pug, bulldog or Pekingese), an Arctic breed or a giant breed, you have even less wiggle room for safety. Talk with your veterinarian if you have any questions about your dog’s health and safety related to the heat.

You may think this does not apply to you because you’re just running into the bank to make a quick deposit, or you’re only dashing into the store to pick up a couple of items. But people just like you have lost their dogs to brain damage and heart damage after they said, “I’ll only be gone for a minute,” and then found their dog suffering from hyperthermia when they returned. Perhaps the line was longer than they’d hoped, they ran into a friend and stopped just long enough to say hello, or they spotted a great sale that kept them away from the car longer than that one minute. Canine heat stroke is a summer tragedy you can avoid.

To give you an idea of how serious a threat the heat is to your dog, it is illegal in many counties to leave your dog in your car (regardless if the windows are cracked or the car is parked in the shade) if the outside temperature is 70 degrees or warmer. Leaving your dog in your car is such a threat to your dog’s life that Animal Control Officers will break into your vehicle to save your dog.

If you see a dog in a parked car and it’s over 70 degrees, call 911 (yes, the police really do want you to call because a life and death emergency could be unfolding). They may arrive themselves, or they may dispatch Animal Control officers.

I don’t recommend trying to strike up a conversation with the dog’s owner, by the way. They may feel embarrassed and none too willing to heed the advice of someone they may consider a butt-in-ski. Instead, after you call 911, leave a  fact-filled flyer on their windshield. You can print them out yourself thanks to My Dog is Cool.

Last week I backed my car out of a space and was leaving the parking lot when I heard barking. “Uh-oh,” I thought. According to my car’s thermometer, it was 82 degrees outside. Sure enough, there was a little, black dog locked in a sedan. The windows were cracked, there was a water dish inside, and he was panting like mad. His owner was nowhere in sight. I called Animal Control, and just then someone came out of the building and approached the car. Relieved, I said, “Excuse me, is this your car?” and when she replied that it was, I told her I was glad to see her, because her dog was in distress and I was just calling Animal Control. She did not check on her dog, but rather said to me, “Have a heart, I was only in there for 30 minutes.”

Please, when it’s hotter than 70 degrees outside, have a heart. Leave you dog at home.

Housetraining Hint #4–last one!

It is time to wrap up the weekly series of housetraining hints. I had a few tips in mind, but it became obvious which one to share when a big issue came up several times in training appointments this past week. The trouble rears its head when you think you are a roll; house training is going well overall, yet you continue to find occasional puddles or piles your dog has left behind. If this is what you’ve been going through, then this hint is for you:

Until your dog is house trained, do not allow her to roam unsupervised indoors.wolfpeeing

That means your dog should be outdoors being praised the moment she finishes doing her business, indoors in her crate, or indoors under your direct supervision. This means you can see her every moment and you know exactly what she is doing between potty opportunities. If you get involved with your kids, your other dog, a phone call, or your computer, your dog can slip behind a piece of furniture, into the next room or find a little-used room (like a guest room or the dining room) to relieve herself.

Contrary to popular belief, she is not being sneaky, rather, she is trying to keep the areas in which you eat and socialize clean by going off to do her business. Don’t put her in that position and create housetraining problems. Make sure you can see her, so that if she gets restless and you suspect she may need to go, you can quickly get her outside to continue to build on success. In order to watch her closely enough, you may need to close doors, use baby gates or an exercise pen, or tether her near you with a chew toy to keep her busy. It’s a small, and very temporary, inconvenience for the peace of mind you’ll have knowing you’re on your way to a house trained dog.

Housetraining Hint #3

If you just got a puppy and are considering paper training, you may want to give that a second thought. Your likely ultimate goal with housetraining is to have your dog eliminate outdoors, on outdoor substrates like grass, mulch, dirt, or concrete. If that is the case, then teaching your pup an intermediate step like going indoors, on a surface like paper, could be pitting your dog’s normal biological tendencies against you. That is because during the period between 7 and 9 weeks old, puppies form preferences for location and surface material on which to eliminate. Which brings us to Housetraining Hint #3: If you want fewer “accidents” and better success short- and long-term, choose the location and substrate you want your puppy to eliminate on as an adult, and start using that right off the bat. Of course, this means having a comprehensive house training plan that includes a potty schedule and a confinement strategy, and that works with your busy schedule. puppypeeingYou can find an example of such a plan here. No two situations will be the same; I enjoy helping my clients figure out a way to get their puppies and dogs housetrained quickly and in a way that makes most sense for their lifestyles. In fact, a while back I helped someone litter box train their tiny, tiny toy breed puppy, because as an adult their dog will not have many outdoor potty opportunities. (Yes, it’s true, you can litter train a dog or teach them to “go” on a type of backyard in a box that you can change out. These may be particularly good options if you live in a high-rise apartment building or in a freezing cold part of the country!)

Use that 2-week developmental window to your advantage; make sure your puppy does not develop a preference for paper, carpet, and relieving herself indoors. Get her outdoors, on surfaces that she’ll need to readily eliminate on later, and you’ll have far fewer speed bumps on the road to a house trained pooch.

What? More chewing?

Most people who live with a very young puppy come to expect a lot of chewing. On everything. Not just on toys, but on the corners of rugs, on electrical cords, plants and pant legs; these are all fair game to a puppy whose mouth is driving him bananas as his teeth come in. A lot of human effort and prevention goes in to teaching the right habits. And then it happens–the pup’s chewing phase subsides and all seems right with the world. The puppy doesn’t require as much supervision, dog chew toys seem to do the trick, and the crate has been put away in favor of leaving the dog confined to a couple of rooms in the house. But look out. The humans have been lulled into a false sense of achievement and security, because no one told them about Chewy Phase Part Two.

Just when you are resting on your laurels, when the your pup is no longer a baby, but rather a young adolescent between roughly seven and nine months old, the chewing may start again. This is totally normal, tends to wrap up much quicker than the initial puppy chewy phase, and is particularly no big deal if you are expecting it. You’ll know it’s happening when you come home to gnawed-on furniture legs or cabinet baseboards, for example. Before you assume your dog is acting out or developing separation anxiety, address the fact that his mouth is probably bothering him one last time (most dogs have a mature set of choppers at around 10 months), and/or that he needs to work that extra energy out of his system.

The fix is simple: provide adequate aerobic exercise and appropriate chew projects to complete while you’re gone. He may need 2-3 sessions daily of truly aerobic exercise (a brisk, 20-minute walk may do the trick as long as he maintains a strong trot and keeps moving). Provide him with chewies and food puzzles in your absence (visit the dog supplies links to the right). Hide a couple so that he has to work to find them, which will keep him extra entertained. And pull out the crate again for a couple of weeks or more, just to help keep him out of trouble if he is really sinking his teeth into your possessions. Just make sure he has an appropriate outlet for his need to chew while he is confined, whether he’s crated or baby gated in a dog-proofed room. 

One more thing to chew on…Many thanks to everyone who participated in the 25% off Top Notch Dog training appointments in May by donating to Saving Grace Animals for Adoption. The funds they received will help them take more rural shelter dogs into the program to be matched with new families.

Housetraining Hint #2

A housetrained dog has both the physical ability to “hold it” (bladder control) as well as the mental awareness to do so. Puppies have neither the physical ability to keep themselves from peeing if they really need to, nor do they yet have the mental awareness required to choose to eliminate only outdoors.

That brings us to this week’s housetraining hint: Don’t wait for your puppy to signal that she has to go. She can’t yet tell when she needs to go, much less signal to you that she needs someone with opposable thumbs to please let her out. Your main priority with a very young puppy is to guidewolfpeeing her to her designated outdoor potty location before she ever has a chance to eliminate indoors.

“Wait a second,” you may be thinking, “If I am not supposed to wait for a signal, then what will tell me it is time to take her out?” The answer is, your watch will tell you. When you are at home, take her outside every 30 minutes. Otherwise she should be under your direct supervision or confined (for more information, see this complete housetraining plan). For every three days your puppy has eliminated outdoors only, increase the time between potty opportunities by 15 minutes, meaning take her out every 45 minutes when you are at home together. Continue using your watch (set a timer if necessary), to let you know when to take her out, gradually increasing the time between potty opportunities over the coming weeks. Before you know it (when she’s about five months old), she’ll have better bladder control and, just as important, thanks to you and your wristwatch she’ll have had oodles of opportunities to eliminate only outdoors. (Note: Most puppies sleep through the night just fine; their metabolisms slow down and they don’t need to eliminate. See the earlier post on helping your puppy sleep through the night.)

If you have a new dog who is over about 6 months old, he or she likely has the physical ability to hold it. That’s great news, because it means you’ll need to provide far fewer potty opportunities. Start with every couple of hours and adjust depending on your success. Your remaining job  is to teach your dog to eliminate only outdoors by providing plenty of reward for doing so. Soon your schedule and your dog’s elimination schedule will match up, such that he or she will need to be taken out about 4 times a day.

How to teach your dog to play fetch

Playing fetch is one of the ways many of us like to exercise and spend time with our dogs. Some dogs seem to take to the game in no time. Others lose interest quickly, become distracted, or trot away with the ball once they’ve chased it down. (I have often heard people say, “Well, he’ll chase the ball, but he won’t bring it back.”) And then there are the dogs who bring it back, but won’t let you take it from them.

I recently had a friend’s Golden retriever visiting me. Now, you may think that such a breed would be a snap to engage in a game of fetch. But unless the dog is taught the game, at least the way the human wants to play it, even (some would say especially) a natural retriever can be a real ball hog. This dog would gleefully chase down the ball, and then take it to a nice spot to lie down with it and enjoy chewing on it. So much for exercise and having fun together!boyWithWhiteDog300

Here is the game that I played with her that turned things around immediately. This game is called two-toy fetch. It can hook a reluctant retriever into playing fetch, and even get a ball hog into the habit of dropping the ball at your feet.

Two-toy Fetch

Goal: to teach the dog to race back to you with the ball, quickly drop it, and take off after the next ball

What you need to play: two toys that are perfectly similar, so the dog won’t be able to prefer one to the other. A tennis ball and a squeaky ball are not similar enough. You must play with two identical toys (i.e. two of the very same squeaky balls). Keep these toys out of your dog’s reach until it’s time for fetch.

Rules: dog should sit quietly to start the game. Thereafter, require no more sitting, just play. Game ends when the dog is still eager for you to throw one more time. If that means you can only throw the ball twice at first, so be it. Always leave them hoping for more, and you’ll find you can gradually increase the number of throws.

Critical ingredient for success: you must be willing to make a total fool of yourself. You’ll notice that starts right off the bat…


Excitedly introduce the dog to the two toys by holding them and remarking on how wonderful they are. (Never hold the toys up to the dog’s face; that is a sure-fire way to annoy the dog and convince her fetch is not too great.) If necessary to pique her interest, do this for a couple of days before ever throwing the toys.

Position yourself in the center of a 20 foot area, which could be an indoor hallway if your dog is easily distracted, or in a fenced-in area.

With an underhand motion as though you’re bowling (technique is very important; overhand throws usually cause the dog to utterly miss the toss!), throw the first toy out only 10 feet to your right. The dog will run out to get it. (If you need to, before you play with toys, play this game with food that rolls—-such as tortellini or cheese balls—-until your dog has the hang of it.)

At the moment the dog takes the toy in her mouth, turn your back and run in the opposite direction, whooping it up over the second toy. Toss it skyward, sniff it, and pretend to drop it. Really go for that Academy Award in Keep Away. This is the part that works like magic. I have never, ever seen this method fail to get any dog playing fetch. Some dogs may need a few minutes of you acting like a real noodle, but it always works. Inevitably, the dog will approach you with her ball, fascinated by the “better” one you have, and drop the one in her mouth.

Be ready. This is the moment that counts:

When she drops her ball, you will instantly say, “yes!” and begin the process again by throwing ball #2. Off she’ll go, after ball #2. Quickly step on ball #1 (don’t reach for it), pick it up and reposition yourself in the center so you’ll be ready to run away again. (Note: do not touch the dog, feed a treat or praise her. Say, “yes!” and throw.)

Over the course of a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to throw the ball further, and you won’t need to run away or make such a big production out of it, because your dog will have figured out that the faster she brings the toy to your feet, the faster you will throw the “better” one. From then on, you can play with two toys or just one toy.

When I demonstrate this technique for owners in training appointments they are amazed to see their dog play fetch, but of course the trick is I am quite enthusiastic in my Oscar-worthy performance. You must believe your toy is better, and show no interest in your dog until she drops her toy.

Two-toy fetch can help you achieve fast, enthusiastic, reliable fetch. Before you know it, you’ll be standing with your morning coffee in one hand and tossing the fetch toy with the other.

Should you get a new dog?

As the school year winds down, this is the time of year when many families think about adding a dog to their homes. Fortunately this works out most of the time, especially for those who know what they are getting into and have asked themselves a few important questions as they begin their search (for a complete list of questions and information on what to do next, see Open Paw). Sometimes, however, it doesn’t turn out so well. It ends up being the wrong fit, or the dog has serious behavior problems, or the family was not really prepared to get a dog. Here are some things to avoid and some things you can smilingdogdo to stack things in your favor:

Common pitfalls:

1. Rushing into it. The new dog could ideally be part of your family for 10-15 years, which is a huge commitment. Make sure you have the most up-to-date information on what to do. Slow down. Take your time. Use your mind as well as your heart. You won’t regret it if you do.

2. Letting pressure from someone else drive the process. A dog takes a lot of time, energy, money, and emotion to care for properly. Getting one for the wrong reasons, like guilt or pressure from a family member, the dog’s owner, or others, is no way to start off a successful relationship. (Note that children cannot be the dog’s primary caretakers, for reasons adults are not aware of until it is too late and they are up to their eyeballs in stress.)

3. Pity. Getting a dog mainly because you feel sorry for him is not the right way to start a healthy relationship. The dog or puppy you are considering might be the right dog for you, but it’s crucial to be sensible in evaluating him or her, or you could both end up regretting it. Learn what to look for, what to ask, and adopt the dog who would truly be the best fit for both of you.

Resources to help you succeed: 

Paws to Consider: Choosing the Right Dog for You and Your Family by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson. Honest descriptions of many breeds, mixed breeds and what you should know before you start looking. You might be surprised!

Successful Dog Adoption by Sue Sternberg. What to know before looking for a dog online or at a shelter, step-by-step instructions on what to do when you meet dogs and puppies, how to smoothly integrate the dog or puppy into your household, including housetraining and basic obedience instructions. A great resource regardless of where you plan to adopt or buy your dog.

Both of these books are very popular and available at most libraries. The Open Paw link above has free training advice, videos, and information on what to do before and after you get your new dog. For specific advice on how to find the right dog for children, see Happy Kids, Happy Dogs: Building a Friendship Right from the Start, also available at libraries. Happy searching!

Mother’s Day Special

You mother taught you to share, didn’t she? And she liked good behavior, right? Well here is your chance to make your mother proud by sharing with homeless dogs and teaching your dog good behavior. Receive 25% off your dog training appointment fee at Top Notch Dog in the month of May murphywhen you donate a minimum of $25 in cash or needed supplies to Saving Grace. I’d be glad to help you with leash manners, coming when called, helping your kids teach tricks, and even how to get your dog to say, “Mother may I?” instead of jumping up.


To find out more go to Top Notch Dog and enjoy your dog more, starting today! 

Pictured is Murphy Brown, the pride and joy of Lauren Collins. I teamed up with Lauren to help her train Murphy shortly after she adopted him from Saving Grace. Thanks to her efforts and to Saving Grace, he has had the chance to blossom into a wonderful companion.