My dog will swipe any food we leave on the counter — last week, he ate an entire stick of butter. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer any ill effects, but I worry that he will eat something dangerous when we’re not looking. What can we do to put a stop to this?
To begin with, make sure the problem is not medical. There are illnesses that can increase your dog’s appetite, making him feel hungrier. A vet visit is the place to start — and also a great opportunity to review what you’re feeding him and make sure your dog is getting enough to eat. Once diet and health issues have been ruled out and you’re sure the problem is behavioral, it’s important to create realistic goals for your dog. No dog can be 100 percent reliable in the face of temptation, especially those with a history of a successful counter-surfing experience. Trusting your dog to restrain himself when left alone with a tantalizingly tempting meal within a muzzle’s reach is ill-advised — and may be costly if he fails. Instead, your dog should be properly guided to make better choices and ultimately protected should he experience a moment of weakness and give into the alluring smell of food.
Every successfully stolen morsel of food increases the likelihood that your dog will continue his thieving ways in the future. In addition, the attention he receives for putting his paws up on the counter or trying to swipe a bite may itself be a reward — even if that attention is all negative. Managing your dog’s environment and channeling his energy into more acceptable behaviors can help to decrease your dog’s scavenging attempts.
Stealing food can be dangerous for your dog. Counter-surfing risks can include sharp objects left on the counter and open heat sources on the stove top. In addition, there is a very real danger that your dog could choke on a stolen treat or suffer digestive complications — or worse — from eating an off-limits food.
Security measures will vary depending on the dog and the situation, but the goal is to minimize your dog’s ability to reach an off-limits meal. Baby gates, play pen areas, dog-safe rooms and crates are all potential ways to block your dog’s access to available food. If your dog scavenges in low cabinets or drawers, cabinet locks can be a useful deterrent.
In situations where supervising the dog closely may be difficult, such as during dinner parties or family gatherings where guests cannot be counted on to keep food out of your dog’s reach, you may need to make him comfortable in a quiet, dog-safe area in your house, away from food and people. Make sure he has his own food and water and plenty of toys to keep him busy. This protects him from eating anything dangerous and prevents him from pestering your guests by making off with their meal.
Be aware, though, that environmental management is important in every situation where a dog could potentially indulge, not just in moments when he is showing interest in the available food. Many dogs are brilliant at playing the “I’m not interested” game, when really they’re waiting for an opportunity to launch a successful snack attack. Your dog may not seem to notice the stick of butter on the counter, but if you walk away — or even just turn your head — he may try to grab it while your attention is diverted. It’s up to you to make sure he never gets the opportunity.
Replace the Behavior
In addition to managing your dog’s environment to help prevent food stealing, it’s important to find ways to channel his energy into other outlets. Instead of focusing on reprimanding your dog for counter surfing, find ways to provide situations where he can safely forage for his food. Food puzzles, productive chews and structured “find it” games engage his drive to scavenge and can be used specifically at times that he would otherwise be drawn to the counter, like when you are preparing dinner. Outdoor exercise, scenting games and trick training offer other ways to expend the physical and mental energy your dog might channel into stealing your dinner.
Training specific alternative behaviors can also help to minimize counter surfing and food stealing. Teach your dog to go to his spot when you are preparing food or eating a meal. Make his designated area — a mat or dog bed — somewhere out of the kitchen or dining room, away from temptation. Once he masters the command, increase the length of time you ask him to stay in his spot and reward him with a long-lasting food puzzle.
Your dog should also be taught to “leave it,” which can be used to ask him to willingly move away from enticing items, like food he is honing in on. Start the training with low-value items that can easily be moved out of reach.Once your dog learns to follow the command, progressively increase difficulty and include unattended food on the counter or floor.
“drop it” is another essential behavior to teach a dog who is inclined to steal food. In the event that he gets his teeth into something you’d rather he not have, like a bone or corn cob, “drop it” can truly be a lifesaving command.
Finally, some pet owners swear by scare tactics like booby-trapping counters with cans or pans set to fall when the dog tries to jump up or remote deterrents like air horns that can be used to startle a dog in the act of stealing food. In my experience, these types of measures are ineffective in most cases: Some dogs will endure the punishment if it means they can still access the desired food. At the same time, the dog learns that the kitchen is a scary place — not that the food is off limits. This can cause your dog to be anxious and afraid, rather than teaching him to change his behavior. In my opinion, management and training are a much better approach to ending food stealing.