Are your kitchen counters and tabletops pristinely clear and clutter-free? Do you have to cool the brownies on top of the fridge? Had to replace your TV’s remote control more than once because it became your dog’s chew toy? If these apply to you, then you must live with a thief!  A canine thief that is.

Counter surfing is the term that dog trainers use to refer to the actions of dogs who like to steal things off of counters, tables and others places where tempting objects can be found. Mostly an issue with dogs who are large enough to reach the counters, smaller dogs can still be guilty of larceny from lower furniture.

Counter surfing can be a dangerous problem, resulting in dogs getting sick from what they’ve eaten or needing surgery because they ate something that caused a blockage. It can be a very challenging and difficult behavior to stop.

First, if you live with a counter surfer, you know that you must be diligent with keeping temptation away from the dog. No food can be left on counters and tables, and even dish towels must be kept out of reach or else they get swiped and chewed. Management of the dog’s environment is the easiest step to take to prevent unwanted behavior.

Next, ensure that you never, ever, ever chase your dog when he steals something. More than likely, this is how he became a counter surfer in the first place. He stole something he wasn’t supposed to have and someone chased him. He thought it was a cool game (because he got your attention), thus an unwanted behavior was reinforced.

I realize that it is incredibly difficult not to chase your dog if he has just stolen your expensive shoe. Instead, try to distract and divert your dog’s attention from the object.  Shake the box of dog treats, ring the doorbell, pick up his leash and ask if he wants to go for a walk, yell “squirrel” out the window. What dog can resist any of these?!  If your dog drops the stolen object and comes running, give him tons of praise and a treat.

When your dog begins to see that he gets no attention when he steals things, the behavior should stop – as long as everyone who interacts with him is consistent and never chases and scolds him. Remember that any behavior that you give attention to will be reinforced.

You can also train your dog the “leave it” command (see the Dog Training Tip of the Week – Leave It). Place a treat on a table where your dog can see it and use the “leave it” command to instruct him not to touch it. Yes, this takes a lot of practice, but a well-mannered dog is worth the investment of time. Whenever you catch your dog attempting to surf, tell him to “leave it.”  Remember to praise him when he responds.

One last thing – if you regularly feed your dog scraps when you are preparing food at the counter and you have a very smart dog, he will soon learn that yummy things come from that counter area. It’s best not to feed your dog from the counter. Put him into a “stay” in an area away from your food preparation. If you still want to give him a snack, place it in his bowl.

If you are diligent with keeping counters and tables free of temptation and not giving attention to your dog when he steals things, you stand a good chance of extinguishing the behavior.