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Opportunity Knocks
The Counter Thief

Dogs are opportunistic beings,
scavengers by nature.

They are driven to search and find,
sniff and discover.


Basic survival instincts guide their behavior. Young puppies are naturally investigative. Things they couldn't reach yesterday are suddenly within reach today.


Prevention and supervision are the key requirements to prevent your dog from becoming a counter thief.



Circumstances train the dog.
Be proactive. Do not allow your dog to practice what you don't want him to learn. Police the counters, don't leave temptations available. Unattended food will teach your dog to come back for more. NEVER leave anything out when you are not around to safe guard it, or your dog will learn to scavenge in your absence - not because he is inherently sneaky, but because history has taught him that it is only SAFE to take food from the counter when you are not there to see him. 

You picked this puppy because she was fearless - a potential agility dog.

Prevent rehearsal! 

Clear the counters, put the butter away, keep the garbage can in a cupboard under the sink (with a child proof latch if necessary, confine the pup away from temptations when you aren't there to supervise. The puppy who learns to work to earn food and never had the opportunity to find out he could help himself to free food left out, may very well not even consider it a possibility as an adult. Be pro-active, not re-active!


He can't resist temptation unless you teach him how. If you can place a piece of food on your open palm under his nose and teach him to "leave it" and he looks to you and waits patiently instead of grabbing the food from your hand, you have achieved baby step number one of teaching him to leave your sandwich safe on the coffee table or counter. 

Teaching the dog to look to you instead of the treat on your hand or the floor is a baby step.

It doesn't mean he will generalize the lesson to every situation. You must teach him self control around all the various items in all the places that you expect your things to be left alone and practice and proof and set him up for success.


It is up to you to make leaving a temptation alone more rewarding than it would have been to take it. He must learn SELF control.  Leaving things alone becomes a habit that does not rely on a "leave it" cue.


Carefully taught manners and a rich learning history instill the behavior that keeps your dog from overstepping boundaries you have set. Your dog learns to respect that the counter, table and plate belong to you and are off limits.

Teach your dog to work to earn.

Instead of "how could I steal it when no one's looking?" your dog asks, "what could I do to EARN that thing that I want?"

Your dog does something that you want, and he gains access to things he wants. He waits, he gets. He asks politely, he may have it. When he wants something, he turns to you.


Be consistent - what gets rewarded, gets repeated. (Desireable or undesireable.)
Inconsistency and focusing on "catching him in the act" gives the smart dog the opportunity to avoid correction and find the loopholes. Supervision means super VISION. Pay attention! Did you put the butter away? or is it still left out? You must monitor your dog's behavior so you can interrupt and redirect if temptation wins, and recognize and reward proper choices.

Never miss a chance to catch him doing something right! 

You can teach your dog to stay out of the kitchen or away from the dinner table by tossing treats into the other room. As he approaches the doorway, toss food over his head behind him so he runs away from you to collect his reward. He will soon start hesitating at the threshold. Mark this pause with "yes!" or a click and reward. Pretty soon, when you begin food preparation, he will begin hanging out at the doorway, away from temptations.  Place a bed or mat where you want him to stay.  All rewards happen THERE.


A typical scenario: You are chopping vegetables and your dog wanders in. You go about your business, aware of where the dog is. The dog begins air scenting, scoping out the counter's contents. You pretend not to notice. He backs away and sits, or goes to his place at the doorway instead of underfoot. "Good boy!" Reward!


Cooper & Eddie wait politely at the kitchen doorway
- photo courtesy of Kaye Hambrook


Location, location, location.

Dogs hang out where food is likely.  Children often drop food.  Hanging around the table is reinforced by finding rewards on the floor.  Even adults can be easy marks for a cute face.  If food comes from your plate and into their mouth, they will repeat what works to make it happen again. 

They hang around because food happens there.  Change the set-up.  Make sure they never get fed from or near the table.


Teach them where to go and reward them generously where you DO want them to be at cooking or meal time.  IF FOOD HAPPENS ON THEIR BED or on the other side of a doorway, that is where they will hang out.

Teach SELF Control -
How to resist temptation without relying on a human  giving a cue.

What if he's already been successful at counter thieving?
You have your work cut out for you!  Management first! Clear that counter every time you leave the room. Put food in the microwave for safe keeping if you need to leave the room. If his learning history has proven that cruising the counter is likely to be rewarded, he will be back to check again and again for the next jackpot. Close the kitchen door. Crate him when you leave. Prevention is step one.


Counter surfing must NEVER be rewarding.

If your dog wolfs down a sandwich from the counter, it's like he just went to the casino and won a CAR.  The occasional "win" ensures that the dog will be back again and again, no matter how big the booby trap you contrive. People who win cars also lost a lot of money trying - but a little win supports the behavior on the slim chance they could make a bigger score.  No matter how much they lose, winning a little keeps them coming back to try again!  NEVER leave anything on the counter that you haven't purposely planned to leave there during a training session. Your dog is in rehab.  Don't allow him to fall off the wagon.  Crate him when you leave, baby gate rooms he can't be trusted in so he and the temptation are only in the room together when you are working on helping him learn self control.

This reformed counter thief followed directions to hop onto a chair and retrieve a pizza box off the counter as part of his movie role in "The Family Holiday."  (Performing the behavior on cue did not increase future counter stealing at home.)

"Guilty"?  No. 

He's just learned that that expression on your face is usually followed by a scolding.


You walk in and find a mess. The dog's expression in this photo is in response to the look of horror on the owner's face, not recognition of guilt or apology.  Don't assume for a moment that any tantrum you might have in response to the mess will change your dog's decision the next time he gets bored or discovers something marvelous has accidentally been left within reach.


Photo:  "Uh oh, Twix" - photo courtesy of Kristi Peplinski

This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:

© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People - ditr_training @ -

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