Help! My dog is stealing food from the kitchen table, or even the counters!
Stealing food is self-reinforcing. Your dog gets a tasty treat, and even if you yell and chase after him, playing “keep-away” is a great game. Negative attention is still attention. The trick is to swap unwanted behavior for good behavior through positive reinforcement.
The first step to training a food-stealer is to puppy-proof your kitchen. Store everything of interest out of sight, in the cupboards, drawers, or pantry. Use a baby gate to keep your dog out the kitchen when you prepare food.
The next best thing is distraction. When you make supper, put your dog in his crate with a Kong toy stuffed with peanut butter. This is a positive way to redirect your dog’s unwanted attention (toward the people food) to something you want him to have (a high-value treat).
Learning to ‘Leave It’
Learning the “leave it” command is crucial for your dog. Several times a week, for short sessions, drop a low-value food item (such as a carrot) onto the kitchen floor and immediately step on it (to hide it).
Say “leave it,” and wait until your dog looks at you. The instant he looks at you, reward him with a high-value treat. Do not let your dog get the item you dropped! Repeat several times.
Learning to ‘Drop It’
Several times a week, for short sessions, drop an item such as a sock or paper towel (not food) onto the floor. Let your dog pick up the item. Show him the high-value treat. Ask the dog to “drop it.” The instant he drops it, reward with the treat. Give the treat with one hand as you pick up the item with the other. Repeat several times.
The principle behind teaching these commands is to encourage good behavior. With proper practice and patience, your dog will understand you are trading “bad” items (such as people food) for “good” items such as high-value treats.
If your dog is chewing on the edges of the counter, try applying double-sided sticky tape. Or spray down with a yucky-tasting product—we like Bitter Apple—and let your puppy come to his own conclusion!
Adapted from Take Control But Don’t Lose Control: Help for People With Dogs That Are Excellent Human Trainers by Michele Godlevski, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant.