I wrote about this topic a little while ago, but as several people told me about how their dog's counter-surfing or kitchen-worktop diving were a huge source of frustration, I thought it was worthwhile re-visiting this little nugget – so here it is updated with added videos 😊
Loki always gives brilliant demonstrations of how easy it is to unintentionally teach your dog behaviours. Having spent a fair amount of time playing ‘Ball Pool Bonanza’ (scatter your dog’s dinner in amongst the balls, he’ll love you for it!), he now goes and stands in the ‘pool’ each time he passes it in the garden, even though there is no longer any food or balls in it.
I haven’t taught him a cue to get into the ball pool – he’s making that choice all by himself based on the reinforcement history. The behaviour of stepping into the ball pool led to the discovery of pieces of food enough times to make repeating that behaviour a fairly worthwhile exercise. The behaviour was ‘reinforced’ which means the likelihood of it being repeated was increased each time the Kelpie found the food.
And here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter what or how often we train – dogs are LEARNING 24 hours a day. Reinforcement doesn’t just come from humans in the shape of half a gravy bone biscuit or a bit of chicken. The environment is full of reinforcers.
So where does the stolen cheese come in? Stick with it, I’m getting there! If chasing seagulls on the beach gives your dog a massive endorphin rush, then yes he’s likely to do it again next time. If barking at the scary postman makes the postman go away (in the dog’s mind), then yes he will do it again tomorrow and every morning thereafter. And if jumping up on the kitchen counter results in your dog winning the bonus prize of the Sunday roast or in Loki’s case an entire block of cheese (including wrapper), then guess what folks – HELL YES, he’ll do it again.
And just like jumping in the empty ball pool, he’ll do it again even if he doesn’t always find the goodies, while ever the odds stack in his favour. By which I mean if the behaviour was reinforced enough times, or with enough intensity (a whole block of cheese, maybe?), the possibility of something good is enough of a motivator once the learning has taken place.
So how do we STOP the dog counter surfing?
• Firstly, remember the adage ‘practice makes perfect’? Well, stop giving your dog opportunities to practice the unwanted behaviour, thereby constantly consolidating his learning. That means maybe don’t let him in the kitchen when you’re not there to supervise. Close the door, fit a baby gate, leave him in a crate.
• Secondly, ensure no-one leaves anything out that the dog could possibly find to reinforce the behaviour. In theory, eventually, with enough repetitions of ‘no reinforcer’ the behaviour should diminish again, but it only takes one accidental ham sandwich (or just the crumbs, to be honest) left on the counter, and the learning is re-invigorated. This is HARD and leaves too much to chance – Humans make mistakes, sometimes involving leaving cheese out! And of course, for some dogs finding the dish cloth or a tea-towel is just as reinforcing as food.
• Finally, and most importantly, be proactive in your training. Stop yelling at him, and instead put more effort (OK reinforcement history) into training what you do want instead. I'd aim for something as straight forward as 'I want all four feet on the floor' which is probably more realistic than 'I want my dog to set the table while I am chopping vegetables' (I wish!!!)
When you first start out, that might look like a constant drip feed – maybe something like this: (Scroll on for more content)
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And then if you want to be more specific you can develop 'settle on a mat', or standing in a ball pool if that's what you'd like. If this becomes consistently more valuable to the dog because good things happen every time he is there, with a tiny bit of training you'll find yourself with something like this:
You’ve harnessed all that learning into something useful, and maybe saved yourself a block of cheese in the process.
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