Jason Cook

apl-smThe first step in teaching your dog not to jump up on counters is prevention.  As much as possible, keep your counters clear of food and other tempting items so that your dog will be less likely to counter-surf.

You can teach your dog the “Leave It” cue so that you have a way of telling him to avoid the counter altogether.  You must begin “Leave It” training by teaching your dog what the basic cue means in general.  Only then can you progress to telling your dog to leave the countertops alone.  To learn how to teach your dog to “Leave It,” see below.

If you catch your dog jumping on the counter, clap your hands and say “Off!” in a firm tone of voice, then remove your dog from the area.  However, if your dog gets into food left on the counter when you are not there, do not punish him.  He will not associate the punishment with the thing he did hours or even minutes ago, and it could cause him to become frightened of you.

It is also important to ensure that your dog gets plenty of physical and mental exercise every day.  Some dogs get into trouble out of boredom.  A tired dog is a good dog!

Finally, if your dog only gets into trouble when you are out of the room, you can use “environmental punishers” to teach your dog to keep off of countertops.  For more information about using this method, see below.

Teaching the “Leave It” Cue

“Leave It” is a very versatile cue that you can use whenever you want your dog to ignore something and look to you instead.  It can be used to tell your dog to ignore things that might hurt him, such as spilled medication and trash on the ground.  You can also use your “Leave It” cue when your dog is pulling towards a squirrel, or an unfriendly dog or person.  This is an important skill to teach your dog because it could potentially save his life.

The key to teaching your dog a reliable “Leave It” is to show your dog that if he leaves something alone when you ask, he may get something even better.

Step One:  Getting the Behavior

Start by showing your dog that you have a treat in your closed hand.  Say “Leave It” while you hold out your hand with the treat enclosed in your fist so that your dog can’t get it.  Allow your dog to lick, sniff, and nibble your hand as much as wants.  Eventually, your dog will become puzzled and stop trying to get the treat.  The instant he moves his mouth and head away from the treat, say “Yes!” and offer him a better treat from your other hand.  Repeat this step until your dog immediately moves away from your closed hand when you say “Leave It.”  It may take one training session or a couple of days for your dog to get it.

Step Two:  Teaching Your Dog to Look at You to Earn the Treat

Hold the treat in your hand and tell your dog to “Leave It.”  When your dog leaves it, do not say anything until he looks up at you.  As soon as he does, say “Yes!” and give him the treat from your other hand.  Repeat this step until your dog is consistently making eye contact with you when you ask him to “Leave It.”  The goal is to teach your dog that the way to get the treat is to look at you.

Step Three:  Move It to the Floor

Next, practice with the treat visible on the floor.  Use boring treats for the “Leave It” bait and high-value treats for the reward.  For example, place a piece of kibble or dry biscuit on the floor and use hotdogs, chicken, or cheese to reward your dog when he leaves it.

Say “Leave It,” place the boring treat on the floor and cover it with your hand.  Wait until your dog stops trying to get the treat.  The instant he looks at you, say “Yes!” and feed him the high-value reward from your other hand.  Repeat this exercise until your dog looks at you instead of trying to take the treat from the floor.

Next, repeat this step but keep your hand an inch or two above the treat on the ground.  Gradually raise your hand higher and higher over many repetitions.  Once your dog is successful with your hand at least six inches above the treat, practice standing up.  If your dog tries to take the treat, cover it with your foot.  Wait for your dog to look at you when you tell him “Leave It,” then say “Yes!” and reward him with a special treat.

Put your dog on a leash and walk him past the treat on the floor.  Tell him “Leave It” as you approach the treat and reward him with something special the instant he looks away from the treat and makes eye contact with you.  The goal is for him to stop straining at the end of the leash when he sees something tempting on the ground.

Step Four:  Practice in the Real World

Practice with a variety of safe but forbidden objects in several locations and situations.  For example, use tissues, shoes, or laundry as the “Leave It” bait in your home.  If possible, place safe trash along your walking route, so that you can practice in a real-life situation.  On your walk, approach the planted item and say “Leave It.”  Wait for your dog to look at you just as he did before, say “Yes!” and reward him with something special.

If your dog does not respond to your “Leave It” cue, do not discipline him.  Just continue to practice with more planted items on your walking route.

Once your dog is responding well to your “Leave It” cue on practice walks, he should do just as well with real garbage strewn on the sidewalk.  Always reward your dog for good behavior!  Make sure you have some of your dog’s special treats with you on walks so that your dog will continue to leave things when you ask him to.

Try to make “Leave It” into a fun game.  If you say “Leave It” angrily, your dog may become frightened and not learn as quickly.

Step Five:  Teaching Your Dog to Leave the Counter

To teach your dog not to counter-surf, practice with food on the counter as your “Leave It” bait.  Place a boring treat on the countertop and ask your dog to “Leave It.”  When he looks at you, say “Yes!” and reward him with a better treat.  Practice this step while you stand further and further away from the counter.  Gradually progress to the point that you can hide around the corner while your dog is alone in the kitchen.  Be ready to enter the kitchen and tell your dog to “Leave It” when he approaches the counter.

It is important to remember that if you are not around to tell your dog to “Leave It” when he approaches the counter, he will be unlikely to leave it on his own.  Again, prevention is key.  Be sure that there is nothing on the counter that could tempt or harm him.  When you cannot supervise, block your dog’s access to the kitchen.  With a great deal of practice, you will be able to trust your dog alone.

Until he is 100% reliable, though, prevent him from getting into trouble in the first place.  Your dog will quickly learn that “Leave It” only applies when you are not in the room, so do not put him in a situation that is beyond his level of training.  The more often your dog is able to sneak onto the counter, the quicker he learns that he can get away with it as long as you’re not around.  Practice makes perfect, so be sure that your dog is practicing the proper behavior.

Using “Environmental Punishers”

“Environmental punishers” may work for dogs who have learned that it’s safe to counter-surf only when their pet parent is not around.  They work by punishing your dog directly, when you are not present.  For example, if your dog jumps from the floor onto the kitchen counter, balance some cookie sheets on the edge of the counter.  When your dog jumps onto the counter, he will land on the cookie sheets.  They will move and possibly crash to the ground as your dog jumps away from them.

If your dog doesn’t jump onto the counter, but places his front feet on the counter, you can make a “pop-can pyramid.”  You will need a dozen empty soda cans.  Tie a light string to one, and place the can a few inches back from the edge of the counter.  Build a pyramid with the cans, and place the can with the string tied to it on the bottom of the pyramid.  Tie the other end of the string to some food your dog likes, placing the food near the edge of the counter.  When your dog tries to snatch the piece of food, the can with the string attached will be pulled from the bottom of the pyramid, and all the cans will come crashing down.  This will make a racket and startle your dog, preventing him from trying to snatch food off the counter in the future.

What NOT to Do

Do not scold or punish your dog if you discover that he’s already eaten something from the counter.  He won’t understand what you are punishing him for unless you catch him in the act, and he’ll likely become afraid of you.

Do not push your dog off countertops or tables.  He could fall or injure himself.  Either pick him up and put him on the floor, or let him jump down by himself.

Do not use any environmental punishers that could potentially harm your dog.  The goal is to startle your dog.  Physically hurting your dog is not necessary or effective.

Do not use a muzzle to prevent your dog from eating things he shouldn’t.  Muzzles restrict a dog’s breathing and prevent him from drinking water, so only use them for short periods of time when you can closely supervise your dog.

Do not use environmental punishers if you have a shy or nervous dog.  He could become so frightened that he’ll avoid entering the room or develop other problem behaviors.