I think Hannah has it perfected. She is very tall and can reach almost to the back of the counters if given the chance. Take this loaf of homemade freshly baked bread. I forgot that I had left it cooling on top of the stove while I took a shower. ‘Nuff said.
On another occasion, my roommate and I both silently blamed each other for having eaten all the freshly baked muffins out of the muffin tin. I did notice that the lid was not snapped on tightly, but figured my roommate had not bothered to replace it properly after eating the last muffin. Or at least that’s what I thought until Hannah had a lovely case of the runs, complete with millet and pumpkin seeds in the deposit.
My roommate and I have a good laugh about these incidents and blame ourselves for them. After all dogs will be dogs. I never used to have this problem with Hannah when I lived alone, but my little kitchen doesn’t have enough space for two people’s food so some gets stored on the counter. Having figured this out, Hannah is getting extremely good at helping herself. Lately, Mira has been figuring this out as well, although she’s much shorter an can only reach stuff left right along the edge.
So what to do about this? Well, the number one way to fix counter surfing is to not leave food out. Plain and simple. It is much easier to train yourself not to leave food out on the counters than it is to un-train a dog who’s learned to steal from the counter. Counter surfing is a perfect example of positive reinforcement, and once they learn it, it tends to be imprinted for life. Sure you can teach them not to do it when you are around – none of mine would dare steal food while I’m in the kitchen, or even on the ground floor. But once I’m safely off somewhere, like the shower or outside, it’s all fair game.
I’ve read about people setting up booby traps that will go off when you are not around to teach the dogs not to counter surf when you are away. This is called using negative reinforcement, a method that can be effective if the timing and association is precise, but can also backfire very easily. If the timing is not perfect, the dog may not associate the correction with the act of stealing. Or perhaps the timing is correct, but the dog may still associate the event with something else. This is why shock collars are so potentially harmful. I’m ashamed to admit I tried one once to get one of my dogs to stop barking. I put it on her, then waited until something made her bark. She received a shock, but associated the feeling with the floor for some reason. She then became quite afraid of the floor and spent the rest of the day walking on the back of the furniture. The collar went back to the store and I found better methods of training. But I digress.
Getting back to counter surfing, some people place upside down mousetraps along the counter (I’d be afraid to try this), or reverse scotch tape so the dog’s feet stick (which seems much less likely to backfire badly). Another idea I’ve heard of is tying the food item to a stack of empty tin cans or pots and pans, so that when the dog grabs it, the cans or pots all come tumbling down. I expect this might be very effective, unless the dog later comes back and eats the food (because you are not there to put it away), and decides the noisy interruption is worth the end result.
Any of these efforts might be effective, but do you want to risk it? Just how much food do you want to loose, and how will you know what will get the dog to try again? So maybe he’ll ignore the loaf of bread, but what about that pie or pot roast? I expect that the effect of the correction might last for a while, but eventually the dog will try again, and if they discover the counter no longer is booby trapped, you’re back to square one.
Rather than setting booby traps up around my kitchen to try and (un-)train my dog, I am doing my best to train myself not to leave food out. I do believe that positive reinforcement works best, and since I haven’t been able to think of any way to positively reinforce my dog not to steal food when I’m not around (the stealing will always yield a stronger reward), I have been trying to apply some positive reinforcement training to myself instead. My first step is to put up some extra shelves in the kitchen so we have more surfaces on which to store stuff, cool bread and so on. We need to do this anyway.
The next step is to train myself to place all food being left out onto the shelves. It could be argued that there is a combined positive and negative reinforcement training here, as when I don’t do the correct behaviour, something bad happens. You’d think it would only take losing one loaf of made-from-scratch bread to remember to put all subsequent loaves on top of the fridge to cool. But the effect eventually wears off, as is evidenced by the fact that this has actually happened to me more than once. Ok, more than twice even. A good example of how negative reinforcement is not so terribly effective. On the flip side, the positive reinforcement (having delicious food waiting for me to eat) that comes when I do the correct behaviour (put food out of reach) is quickly getting me to put things up high. And once this pattern is established (getting there) it becomes my default behaviour. Or that’s the theory anyway. I’ll keep you posted!