Counteract Counter Surfing

By Nora Simmons

We toil for hours in the kitchen creating the perfect meal only to spend the entire evening shrieking at dogs and shooing cats. Scavenging food off counters and tables—aka counter surfing—is a common problem with dogs (especially big dogs) and cats. You can break them of this behavior with these training tips from Dan Estep, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist who’s been training owners to live happily with their pets since 1984.

Prevent. Ideally you want to stop the behavior before it starts. Don’t leave food where it’s easily accessible to animals, and watch closely so they can’t sneak a nibble when you’re not looking. “Once they’ve learned there’s fun stuff on the counter, it’s hard to get them to stop,” says Estep.

Correct. For reprimands to work, you must catch them in the act every time and deliver an immediate correction. Even if they only succeed in snagging a treat once in a while, it’s enough to reinforce the bad habit. Estep calls it “puppy gambling”—they might lose 99 percent of the time, but all they need is that rare jackpot to keep investing in the game. So as soon as his feet hit the countertop, use your correction word—“no,” “leave it,” “down”—and immediately hustle him off to a time-out spot (somewhere boring like the bathroom or laundry room). A spray bottle with water can work as a correction for cats. “If it’s hard to catch them every time, you can set up little booby traps,” says Estep. Try stacking empty soda cans along the edge of the countertop so that when they jump up, they knock over the cans. The startling noise acts as an immediate correction, and over time they’ll associate the counter with a negative experience and (hopefully) give up.

Redirect. “Ask yourself what you want Fido to do while you’re eating or cooking instead of trolling for food,” recommends Estep. “Our dogs have a futon where they know to hang out during dinner. We set them up with a bone to chew on so that they are rewarded for doing what we want them to do.” The same idea works for cats. They like to be up high so the counter is a great perch. Provide Fluffy with a similar perch where you’d rather she spend time—up high and by a window is usually a winning combo for cats.