How Do I Stop My Dog From Stealing Food Off the Counter?

So cute but so guilty.
So cute but so guilty.

The Problem -- Stealing Food

Dogs make great pets and loyal companions, but often develop behavioral issues that need to be dealt with. You want to live in harmony with your dog and not have to watch him every minute to ensure he behaves.

One common problem -- especially with rescued dogs -- is when your dog gets up on kitchen counters or tables to grab food that has been left unattended. This is a self-rewarding behavior. If the dog succeeds in getting food, he is rewarded for his actions and therefore wants to do it again. This makes it very hard to correct this behavior and it will require a lot of patience, consistency, and attention on the part of the dog's owner.

Dogs are natural-born scroungers. They're born to search for food and get food from any source. This is another thing that makes it difficult to train away bad behavior such as stealing food off the kitchen counter.

The first thing to do if you encounter this problem is to ensure that your dog is getting adequate food at appropriate intervals. Dogs are more likely to steal food when they are hungry, obviously! Check the back of the dog food bag for the suggested amount of food for your dog's size. If you find your dog is up on the counter a lot at certain times of the day, coordinate their feeding schedule so he has a full belly at those times.

Solutions To Fit All Types of Dogs & Owners

It would be nice if there was one solution that would work for all dogs and one solution that would appeal to all dog owners. However, like people, dogs all have different personalities and can be motivated by different rewards and/or punishments. Likewise, every dog owner is unique and has preferences for certain dog training methods. Some dog owners have time to watch their dog carefully. Others lead busy lives and cannot attend to their dog's behavior every second. Some owners would like to use praise as a form of behavior correction, but not all dogs will respond to this technique so alternatives must be presented.

Here are four common strategies for controlling the undesirable behavior of your dog going on the counter to steal food.

  1. Control the kitchen environment.
  2. Reward the dog when doing something positive other than stealing food.
  3. Booby trap the counter.
  4. Train the "leave it" command.

All techniques require patience and consistency. Never give in and give the dog a treat from the counter or dinner table. You will undo all the previous training!

Source

Control the Kitchen Environment

This may seem like common sense but the easiest way to stop your dog from stealing food off the kitchen counter is to never ever EVER leave food unattended.

However, this can also be an unattainable goal in busy households with many family members. If it's not possible to always keep your kitchen counters clear of tempting treats that your dog would love, try to keep food pushed to the back edge of the counters, out of reach.

Other solutions are to put a baby gate on the kitchen door to keep dogs out, or enforce the rule that the dog is never allowed in the kitchen for any reason. Be sure all family members are clear on the limits you have set for your dog.

Eliminating food temptations and rewards for your dog in the kitchen will eventually lead to the dog not even bothering to go check to see if there is anything there he would like to steal.

Positive Reinforcement of an Alternate Behavior

When the dog is in the kitchen, reward him with dog treats -- never human food -- when he is in a designated area. Train your dog to either sit or lie down in a spot away from work spaces in the kitchen, not underfoot while you're cooking and preparing food. Set up a mat, dog bed, or special corner that is for the dog only. Reward the dog after they have successfully maintained a sit or lie down in their area for several seconds.

The best type of praise is intermittent. Give the dog a treat or kind word at varying intervals, and gradually lengthen the time between rewards. At every session in the kitchen start generously with treats and praise to encourage the dog to stay in the accepted zone. Taper off to less rewards as they learn to stay.

Watch for your dog to demonstrate a relaxed posture and reward them for remaining calm. If he jumps up from his "kitchen spot" when praised, gently and firmly return him to the spot and start over. Stay calm and resist the urge to get angry if your dog takes a long time to learn. He will eventually get it!

Booby Traps

This technique should only be attempted when the owner is present and fully attentive to the outcome and results.

  1. Make the reward unrewarding! Cut open a hot dog and put hot peppers or cayenne powder inside. Leave the hot dog on the counter for your dog to steal. Remember to leave out fresh water for your pup's burning mouth! Another option is to use Bitter Apple spray on a piece of bread. However, some dogs don't mind the flavor of this so be sure to watch his reaction. Hopefully your dog will learn that the food on the counter may smell good but it certainly doesn't taste good!
  2. Make the counter scary! Fill soda cans with pennies, screws, or other small objects so they rattle a lot. Put a tempting treat on the counter and attach the cans to the treat using string or wool. When the dog pulls the treat off the counter, the cans will come rattling down to scare the socks off him! Most dogs will learn that stealing food results in a frightening experience and will avoid it from then on. However, some dogs will realize that after the loud noise, they can still go back to get the food. This is why you must supervise this technique and immediately go into the kitchen to grab the food so the dog cannot get a reward.
  3. Make the counter uncomfortable! Put something on the counter that your dog doesn't like to put his paws on. This can be double-sided tape, aluminum foil, or plastic spikes like on the back side of some rugs. Unfortunately, this technique may not persist if the deterrent is taken away but it's good to use in combination with other techniques if your dog is extra stubborn.

The trick to these techniques is the dog associates the bad experience with the food and/or counter, not with you. Don't rush in and scold or punish the dog for stealing the spiced food or setting off the booby-trapped cans. Just calmly take the food away or reset the trap. Ensure your dog is not injured from a fearful reaction. Encourage the dog to come to another room with you and praise them when they do.

Teaching "Leave It"

A smart dog that is concerned with pleasing and obeying their owner can be taught the "leave it" command. This can apply to all things, not just food.

  1. Start by telling your dog to sit.
  2. Place a plate of food on the floor a few feet from the dog.
  3. As soon as the dog moves towards the food in any way, even a head motion, tell them "leave it". Put your hand between the dog and the plate.
  4. If the dog breaks from the sit, tell them "sit".
  5. Repeat. repeat, repeat!

This technique will be harder to enforce on alpha dogs, dogs who regard food as a better reward than pleasing their owner, dogs with other food behavior issues such as food aggression, and dogs with a history of food deprivation.

Teaching "Leave It" Video

What Worked For You?

Have you had problems with your dog stealing food from the kitchen counters or dining room table? Have you tried any of these techniques? What worked for you? Do you have some new suggestions?

Please leave a comment below to help other dog owners who are having troubles with their dog taking food.

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