How to Stop Your Dog from Stealing Food

Many or most dogs will nab edibles when our backs are turned. Learn how to prevent or stop them.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #57

Almost everybody who has lived with dogs has had that sinking feeling. You know the one: it comes when you’ve been out of the kitchen for a few minutes and suddenly realize that Dogalini is licking her chops. Also, the block of artisanal Cheddar you left on the counter is either inside her or wearing a cloak of invisibility, and since we’re not at Hogwarts, you know which it is. Not only is this a nuisance, but some foods can actually be dangerous for your dog. This week: stealing food, counter surfing, and what to do about it (for more tips on how to handle a less specific thief-minded dog, check out my previous episode on "Dogs Who Steal Your Stuff").

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How to Stop Your Dog from Stealing Food

First, let’s get morality out of the way. Your counter-surfing canine may annoy the heck out of you, but she isn’t being “bad.” Our best evidence about dogs suggests that they evolved as scavengers of human garbage and waste. Scavengers . . . scavenge. They look for edible stuff that’s lying around unattended, and when they find some, they eat it. “My people are saving that artisanal Cheddar to impress their guests, so I’ll leave it alone and wait for my dinner to show up”--well, just no. Animals that pass up chances to take in calories don’t leave as many descendants as their better-nourished peers. Our anger can upset our dogs, sure, and they’d prefer to avoid it. But eating whatever they found is what kept their ancestors alive. That evolutionary history doesn’t vanish just because some dogs live in houses now and get regular meals.

You Can Stop Your Dog’s Counter Surfing

So how do you keep any dog who’s tall enough or agile enough from looking for food on your counter? After all, sooner or later, if he has a working nose, he’s going to notice the delectable smell of your Tofurkey wafting down. And, as the Los Angeles trainer Sarah Owings writes, “no matter what you do (rat traps, spray bottles, pennies in a can, a strict clean-up policy) counter surfing is still reinforced by that peek-a-boo glimpse ... at what my boyfriend likes to call ‘the realm of the gods.’” However, all is not lost. Your best defense combines management and training.

Prevent Your Dog’s Counter Surfing by Putting Food Away

“Management” means that you do your best never to give your dog access to unattended food. Clear the table or counter, or push the food back out of reach, or close the door. If you’re actively cooking, manage by crating your dog, putting her behind a baby gate, or tethering her.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).