Mr. Pratt was the only person I’d ever met who was actually happy his dog was stealing his food. That’s because the 80-something-year-old had been seeing a psychologist to address the episodes of forgetfulness he recently started experiencing. Or so he thought.
Each morning, Mr. Pratt would put his toasted bagel on a plate, place it on the counter, and turn his back to get peanut butter out of the refrigerator. When he turned around, the bagel was gone. There wasn’t a trace of it anywhere—not a crumb on the plate. He didn’t suspect his recently adopted 3-year-old standard Poodle, Marvin, because whenever this happened, Marvin was lying quietly on his bed in the opposite corner of the kitchen. Poor Mr. Pratt decided he was suffering “problems of an elderly mind” (as he put it), and on the advice of his children he sought out a psychologist who specializes in eldercare. His psychologist suggested that Mr. Pratt try not turning his back on the bagel.
Lo and behold, the bagels stopped disappearing.
One morning, on the day of his sixth psychological session, after Mr. Pratt had finished putting peanut butter on his bagel, the doorbell rang. He went to the door, and when he returned, his bagel was gone. This time, however, he noticed that Marvin was loudly licking his lips. Upon closer inspection, he found peanut butter all over Marvin’s mouth. Wanting to test his theory, Mr. Pratt made another bagel, turned his back, and voilà, it disappeared. He quickly looked at Marvin and caught him mid-gulp. After two more trials, the bagels were gone, Marvin was full, and Mr. Pratt had fired his psychologist. And that’s when he called me.
Understandably, most people are not as pleased to realize their dog is stealing their food as Mr. Pratt was. But try not to respond with anger. Yelling, pulling the dog off the counter, and hitting are not effective and serve only to teach the dog, if anything, not to attempt a theft when you’re in the room. Also, corrections that ID you as the bad guy can really ruin your relationship with your dog. To make sure that your dog always sees you as the good guy (the guy he wants to run to when you tell him to “come”), try some of my suggestions below.
Remove the Temptation First, make sure that nothing—not even a crumb—that your dog might want to take is on the counter or coffee table. I call this the Empty Bird Feeder Effect. After you stop filling a bird feeder, the birds eventually stop coming around. And if you fill the feeder again, they’ll be back in a few hours. The same works for dogs. Keep the counter clean, and your furry scavenger will stay away. So what about when you need to leave food out? Easy. Put your dog away. I understand that you need the entire kitchen to properly assemble hundreds of holiday cookies, but your dog doesn’t share your holiday gift-giving spirit. Keep him confined and out of the kitchen.
Make It Fun There are games you can teach your dog that will earn him treats while keeping him out of the way. For example, if he runs into the kitchen and starts air sniffing and running toward the counters, you could tell him to “back up” or “go to place” and reward him for doing so (these commands are also helpful if you accidentally drop a hunk of chocolate or break a glass). Just put a little time into teaching him the “tricks,” and soon your dog will ignore the counters and instead give all his attention to you.
The only way to ensure that your dog graduates from “counter-surfing rehab” is to set him up for success. That means that your counters and tables are clean and clear, you’ve taught your dog new behaviors to earn reinforcement and rewards, and when you do have food out, someone is always supervising. When your dog’s training is solid, you can command him to “stay” or “go to place” so that you can allow him to be in the room with you while you’re cooking or eating. (But be warned: There are some dogs who, no matter how well trained they are, will have a momentary lapse in judgment if you leave the room with a temptation on the counter.) With a little practice and planning, you’ll soon be able to throw away those takeout menus, once and for all.
This article originally appeared in the Training & Behavior column of AKC Family Dog.