Friday, August 25, 2006

Counteracting the counter surfing habit

guard buffalo
Almost all dog people develop some funny "workarounds" to deal with our dog training mistakes. The photo above shows one of ours: We have a toy buffalo (and a similar toy mountain goat) that for some unknown reason scares our big dog, Mr. Gomez. So we put the toys to work for us as guards. Mr. Gomez is a dedicated "counter surfer," that is, he opportunistically patrols high surfaces for bits of food (or paper towels and tissues, which he seems to crave). The mountain goat guards the cat food, which resides on my desk, and the buffalo is deployed in and around the kitchen if needed. It's hilarious, but it also works very well.

Of course, it would be much better if we had never allowed Gomey to develop a counter-surfing habit to begin with. The best way to prevent a counter-surfing habit is to keep a dog from ever being rewarded for it. Ideally, people should have their pups under supervision at all times until they've matured with good habits, but that rarely happens in real life. So the best counter-surfing prevention tool is to keep counters and tabletops clear of anything that could look at all attractive to the puppy so that exploratory surfing is not ever rewarded (and "attractive" is in the eyes of the beholder--Gomey was fond of wooden rolling pins when he was a pup, and a friend's pup once ate $16). Since behaviors that are not rewarded become less likely to be repeated, a dog who learns that counters and tabletops never yield anything interesting or tasty will soon bore of checking them out and look elsewhere for food or fun.

But we dog owners are far less perfect than we expect our dogs to be, and thanks to our inattention and inconsitency, our dogs often develop bad habits like counter-surfing. The trouble with trying to break such a habit by yelling at a dog or using a startle noise (like a shaker can) is that the dog just learns the sport is best attempted when no humans are around. But even if you don't have a scary buffalo to protect your counters when you're not present, sometimes its possible to break a counter-surfing habit after it starts. You have to set up a "punishment from God," in other words, something startling and frightening that happens even though there's not a human in sight. A great way to arrange this is to build a precarious contraption of cookie sheets and clattery serving spoons that will tip and fall noisily when the dog goes for the tasty treat you placed as bait. You should be lurking nearby after baiting the contraption to be the "good guy"--the comfort and solace after the scary countertop experience. You will have to set up such a trap several times so the dog will learn it wasn't just an isolated occurence, and you should probably make the contraption look different every time. A lot of dogs are smart enough to figure out that the punishment only occurs when the contraption is present.

Another important caveat is to make sure the contraption is made of items that will only scare the dog--you don't want to actully hurt him!


Seth said...

Good to know. Now where can I find such a handsome toy buffalo?

Lisa B. said...

I have no idea--it was a gift!