How to Reduce Counter-Surfing

February 10, 2023

Dog sitting at the counter looking at food

Is your puppy jumping up on the kitchen counters, trying to snag a bite of your leftovers behind your back? Counter-surfing is a prevalent behavior, especially in puppies. This behavior is not only tedious but dangerous if they grab something they aren’t supposed to have. Why is it that counter-surfing is so tricky to stop?

Tangible reinforcement

Counter Surfing is a behavior that is tangibly reinforced. This means that reinforcement of behavior occurs because your dog gains access to a preferred object. Each time your puppy counter surfs, the counter-surfing is reinforced. The first crucial adjustment to reduce these behaviors is management.

Management strategies

Puppy near items on top of the counter

When you are home:

  • Have your puppy drag a 6ft leash.
  • Your puppy must be on a strict watch or confined. Your puppy needs to be in sight or put away in their kennel.
  • Do not leave items on the counter or the tables in reach of your puppy.
  • Your puppy should have at least 6-8 appropriate toys out and accessible.
  • Never give your puppy anything off of the table.

When you are not home:

  • Take the leash off before putting them away.
  • Your puppy needs to be put away so they cannot engage in counter surfing while you are not watching.

Incompatible behaviors

Dog laying in the house

To reduce counter-surfing, it is essential that we provide your puppy with an alternative behavior that you can reinforce. Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior (DRI) is a procedure in which you strengthen another behavior that is both desirable and cannot be done simultaneously as the target behavior (counter-surfing). With management, your puppy’s desire to engage in counter-surfing will decrease, and the desire to engage in other behaviors will increase. Types of incompatible behaviors we recommend for counter-surfing are:

  • Place
  • Recall
  • Wait
  • Down
  • Shaping up appropriate behavior by reinforcing anything that is NOT jumping on the counter (Differential reinforcement of other behavior)

In the short run for management, the obedience behaviors listed are a great way to manage counter surfing when you are present. In the long run, we recommend shaping appropriate behavior, which in this case means reinforcing anything that ISN’T counter-surfing. This will allow your puppy to begin engaging in free operant behavior. Simply put, if they are reinforced for standing by the table with a treat and not when they jump up on it, they are likely to choose to stand by the table again. A behavior that is more naturally occurring when you aren’t home and cannot deliver prompts.

What to do when your puppy does counter-surf

It is essential for training to set up opportunities for your puppy to engage in counter-surfing. We want to allow them a chance to engage in counter-surfing and, ideally, choose an alternative behavior. For your setup, place a safe and tempting item on the table and be sure they are dragging a leash. If your puppy approaches the table and then walks away or offers an incompatible behavior such as sitting, immediately praise and deliver a treat. If your puppy goes to jump on the table, immediately pull them off using the leash and say, “uhuhuh.” You will want to offer your puppy a chance to be successful now, so go ahead and allow them to explore the table area again. If they engage in an alternative behavior, praise and deliver a treat. Practice at least once daily and be ready to reinforce it as it naturally occurs.

If you have a serious counter-surfer that may need a little more hands-on work with a private trainer, or you have additional questions, we recommend you reach out to your local behavior consultant.