Behavioral experts share strategies for putting an end to Fido's thievery.

By Erica Sloan
April 23, 2020
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Papillon dog mixed with Chihuahua isolated on white
Credit: Onfokus / Getty Images

If you've ever left a freshly baked loaf of banana bread out to cool, then turned around to find your dog up on his hind legs snagging a bite, you know that canines can be savvy opportunists. "They understand when you are and aren't paying attention, and often wait until you're out of a room to snatch food," says Brian Hare, PhD, founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, and co-author of The Genius of Dogs.

Other pups may be tempted out of pure curiosity, says Erin Askeland, CBCC-KA, animal health and behavior consultant at Camp Bow Wow: "He might smell something enticing, or perhaps he's jumped up in the past and found something great to eat or play with—and now he's seeking out that same reward." But in any case, punishment is not the answer. Not only is using an aversive or yelling unhelpful (unless it happens right in the moment, your dog will not make the connection between the action and the punishment), but it can even encourage more secretive stealing or signal that the items on the countertop are of high value, causing your dog to guard his spoils. Instead, follow these preventative and basic-training measures from Hare and Askeland to keep the thievery at bay.

Remove the bait.

The simplest solution: Don't leave anything edible unattended, and keep your dog crated in another room while you're cooking and eating. If he does make his way into the kitchen while some food is still out, avoid feeding him anything from the counter, says Askeland. (That means no passing him scraps while you're cleaning up after dinner.) This will help remove any association between "countertop" and "tasty food."

Train "incompatible" behaviors.

If he doesn't know them already, begin by training your dog with some basic commands—like "sit" and "stay"—and he'll gain the understanding that certain behaviors warrant rewards, and others, like counter-surfing, do not. Off the bat, that'll make Fido more likely to engage in the rewarded behaviors as opposed to the others, Askeland says. Then, teach him to do something specific that interferes with his ability to snag food in the first place (called an "incompatible behavior"), says Hare. For example, practice the "go to your place" command in a space without delicious distractions (for a detailed how-to, visit the American Kennel Club's training website). Once he has it down, give the command whenever you spot him eyeing a conquest in the kitchen, and toss him a treat if he obeys.

Another option: Teach your dog to take a certain action, like lying down on his mat or exiting the kitchen, whenever food is put out on the counter, says Askeland; one way to do this is by using clicker-training. In this case, your dog wouldn't have the opportunity to snatch any tasty morsels, since he’d be out of the vicinity by the time you’re prepping or eating.

Teach reliable "leave it" and "drop it" cues.

During training, it's likely that you'll continue to have some encounters with a pup who's in mid-grab. In this case, it's quite handy if he already knows the "leave it" and "drop it" commands. That way, if he has a lapse in judgment and lunges for your resting tuna casserole or blueberry pie, you can either signal for him to let it be, or if he already has a piece in his mouth, to drop it onto the floor.

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