If you are a fan of the 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story, you may well remember little Ralphie dreaming of receiving from Santa his very own Red Ryder B.B. gun, amidst shaking heads and repeated admonitions from the adults around him that he will surely shoot his eye out. You might also remember the Bumpus Hounds, the neighbor’s pack of boisterous bloodhounds who vex Ralphie’s already-grumpy father to no end. Their nosy noses finally lead them to their most atrocious canine crime – stealing the holiday turkey straight off the kitchen table.
Most dog owners have at one point or another lost a food item to a thief with four legs and a curious nose. My mother-in-law once had a white Lab named Whiskey who, when left alone, was known to open the fridge, help herself to whole loaves of bread (with whole sticks of butter on the side), then remove sealed bags of steak and dutifully bury them in the soil of all the houseplants. Dogs can become masters of counter surfing and food stealing, and their behavior is naturally rewarded with every bite they find. So as this holiday season rolls around, replete with trimmed turkeys and honey-baked hams, you can avoid the Christmas Story’s tragic turkey takeover by following some simple steps.
1) Keep countertops clean of food or keep pets away from the food altogether. Perhaps this seems obvious. In fact this tactic, broadly called response prevention, may appear not to be much of a true intervention at all. Because it doesn’t involve hands-on training, owners may dismiss this option from their full consideration. Yet for practical reasons, this is for many families the easiest and most effective way to prevent a problem altogether.
One reason that response prevention is important is that the dog’s behavior of searching around for food on a table is immediately and powerfully rewarded by the bite of food that might be found. Even if we come bellowing in right after with a reprimand or drag the dog away angrily (not recommended), the behavior has already been reinforced before we were able to catch it. This means that it’s likely to occur again and any attempt to punish after the fact is greatly hampered in effectiveness by the yummy morsel that already crossed the dog’s lips.
On the other hand, if we can start with a “clean slate” from the beginning by keeping food off of surfaces when the dog is around, the behavior can be extinguished on its own. That is, if a dog learns that he NEVER finds food when counter surfing, his behavior will not persist. Unfortunately, it is difficult for many of us to be so fastidious, and if a dog learns that although the counter is often clean, every once in a while there is a tuna sandwich to be snagged, he will keep searching over time, just in case…
2) Teach your dog to respond to a Leave It command. Some owners prefer to take a more active role in teaching their dog to leave alone food that is on countertops or tables.
To teach Leave It, sit down with your dog, a pocketful of treats, and an item in which your dog has no interest (e.g., a bar of soap). Place the low-interest item on the floor and cover it with your hand as you say “Leave It” in a smooth voice. If your dog sniffs the item, simply hold your hand over it, preventing her from taking it, and ignore her. As soon as she looks away from the item, even for a moment, say “Yes!” and provide a treat from your pocket. Pick up the item and lay it down again, repeating the exercise until you notice that she looks away from the item quickly each time you set it down.
Move on to other household items and then low-value edible items such as a raw potato. The key is that the item to be left must be of lesser value during training than the treat you are using as a reward for leaving it. Each dog has her own preferences, so you must know your own dog as you increase the temptation of items to be ignored, always ensuring that you are giving her something better from your pocket for responding to the Leave It cue.
When your dog will ignore a variety of low-value items in response to your “Leave It”, begin practice with higher-value items (e.g., a piece of hamburger or cheese) and then practice putting the items down further away from you (e.g., on tables or countertops.) Each time you place the item down, say “Leave It” at the same time, then take a few steps away and wait for that look toward you to reward with praise and treat. Be sure you increase the distance between you and the item slowly enough over trials that you are always close enough to maintain access to the item with a covering hand and a “Leave It”, should she swoop in for a steal. If her attention seems mightily drawn toward the forbidden item, stay closer over more practice trials.
You should treat this training as a game, practicing 5-10 minutes a day over a period of weeks until you can leave a plate with hamburger on the coffee table, say “Leave It” as you walk away, and watch proudly as your dog follows you happily with nary a glance at the forbidden food.