Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Prevention is crucial when it comes to dogs and counter surfing
Our Chinook puppy, Larry, is getting tall. I don't mean tall when he has all four feet on the floor - although he's getting tall that way, too. I mean that he's tall when he's standing on his hind legs.
He's not the biggest puppy I've ever had - after all, I had English Mastiffs for more than 20 years - but he's the biggest, agile puppy I've ever had. A 14-week-old Mastiff doesn't have very good physical coordination. In fact, a rapidly growing Mastiff can barely get out of his own way, much less jump up on counters with the ease and agility that Larry demonstrates.
At 14 weeks, Larry is both curious, tenacious and well able to get into everything.The most challenging thing about Larry is his dogged determination. After telling him three or four times that he is not to put his front feet up on the counter, he'll lie down at my feet and bark freshly at me.
He's so darn cute when he challenges me, It's hard not to laugh at him. Unfortunately, laughter is highly reinforcing for most dogs, so when Larry makes me laugh, I know I'm rewarding the very behavior that I'm trying to discourage. So as hard as it is, I'm stifling my giggling, trying to maintain a stern, serious visage.
Given that this issue is so prominent in my life at the moment, this feels like a good time to write about counter surfing and food stealing. It's critical to prevent a dog from learning to take things off counters, coffee tables or dining tables. As soon as a dog has done this even once, it's a hugely difficult problem to eliminate.
The first rule of counter surfing is prevention. Right now, Larry is simply exploring - he's curious to see what's going on up there. He hasn't yet learned that he can take something off the counter, and it's critically important that he never learns that. It is my responsibility - and that of all dog owners - to take great pains in this area. That means when I'm in the kitchen and Larry wants to see what's happening on the counter, the best approach is to watch his body language as he's preparing to jump up and tell him "Uh uh!" to stop him before he gets up. If I'm not quick enough, or don't notice his pre-jumping body language, so he actually does jump up, I simply say "Uh uh" and push him off. I don't praise him for getting down - after all, in order to get off, he first has to jump up. I don't want to praise getting down, which would encourage him to get up first.
The second aspect to prevention is what to do when you're not around. It's important to either prevent the dog from being in the kitchen without you, or if you can't do that, make sure that nothing - absolutely nothing! - is accessible if or when your dog does jump up to explore the counter top. "Nothing" includes a spill that might taste good, or even a crumb of something tasty. It doesn't have to be something as big as tonight's steak thawing on the counter. Absolutely anything that tastes good will reinforce your dog for exploring the counter.
Preventing your dog from getting anything tasty when you're out of the room is critically important. If your dog learns there are great things awaiting him when he jumps up on the counter - while at the same time he learns that you don't want him doing it when you're in the room - he will ultimately learn that it's fine to counter surf when you're not around, but not when you are.
While this may sound "sneaky," in fact it simply means that your dog recognizes that you don't like to see him jump on the counter, but it's OK when you can't see him. After all, there's no penalty for it.
Next week some suggestions for those who already have this problem.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.