I call it counter surfing, you might simply call it stealing. Food just seems to disappear from the kitchen counter, off the dining room table, from the baby's highchair or even from the barbecue grill. Sometimes the culprit does it right in front of you. Perhaps you've been called to the phone and the bandit cannot resist the impulse to take the waiting loaf of bread. We all want the same thing in these and so many other scenarios of opportunity; we want the family dog to please stop scavenging food!!
So let's discuss some strategies to help your dog learn that just because food is in the offing doesn't mean it's free for the taking.
The first place to start is with ourselves. Monitor the counters and put food away or place it where there isn't any chance for your dog to dash and dine. If your dog has had the chance to scavenge food and has been successful at it, even if it only happened one time, you can lay odds that he will continue to check that magic food spot with skill and great patience. It might seem futile to you, but your dog managed to get a huge food jackpot and that's immensely reinforcing to him so he won't forget.
This second strategy works great when you are home and paying attention as your stealthy ninja dog makes his way into the kitchen and begins to rise up on hind legs in hopes of snatching the roasted chicken. It's a method we've used for years with children and athletes, and it's called a time-out, meaning into the penalty box for you. Yep, a time-out . Here's how it works. Your dog walks into the kitchen and starts to survey what's cooking. He'll either place his nose as close to the counter surface as possible or start to rise up to place his paws on the edge of the counter itself. I don't like to wait for contact to be made with the surface. If I spot the nose rising or the paws lifting I will issue an immediate “excuse me” and calmly walk my dog to his nearest time out area where he will remain for ten seconds. After the ten seconds, I'll say “okay” and let him out. If he repeats, you repeat.
A time out area can exist behind any type of barrier that removes him from the “action” and takes away any possibility of gaining a reward. Time-outs take awhile for your dog to learn so be consistent and set your criteria before starting. Clarity and follow through are important so set in your mind that you are going to say excuse me exactly when the paws are in the air or when the nose begins to press against the counter edge. Your dog will make mistakes and they are important to note because those mistakes begin to teach him that unless he modifies his own behavior a time out is absolutely sure to be issued.
Another strategy for the hectic days that we all have from time to time can be prepared before it begins to get crazy! What!? The scheme involves frozen work to eat puzzles which can buy a whole lot of environmental enrichment for your pup and some quiet time for you in the kitchen. When you have five minutes during the week, fill a couple of work to eat puzzles and pop 'em in the freezer. When one of those hectic days seems to be developing, drop a puzzle for your lovely Fido, take a breath and enjoy some dogless time. In fact, work to eat puzzles are great every night of the week! Work to eat puzzles also have the beneficial advantage that you are allowing your dog a legal way to channel a natural behavior - scavenging – while having him “do” something else. This is called Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors and it allows us to reward a desirable behavior while it prevents undesirable behavior. Pretty good... a two for one!