Sunday, October 9, 2011

Taking Back the Kitchen!

I once read an article featuring a local dog trainer who visited the interviewer/journalist's home and decided to perform a "behavior diagnosis" of sorts on said journalist's dog. During the trainer's visit, the dog raised itself up on the kitchen counter. Per the author, the trainer immediately stood tall, stepped next to the dog, and calmly pushed its front paws off the counter. Afterward, this trainer announced that the dog had been "claiming the space" on the counter. Apparently, our trainer friend succeeded in defeating the evil dictatorship of The Dog, won back the counter space, and lived to tell the epic tale.

Those of us with a less clouded sense of reality know that dogs who hang out around counters have slightly less sinister reasons for doing so. Maybe this particular dog had become accustomed to being able to snatch food from that spot or maybe that spot regularly brought her closer to people? Either way, she had never been properly taught not to get up there and found it to be rewarding. Did pushing her down harm her? Not likely. But misunderstanding her intention could lead to some very poor training later down the line. Face it; you're more likely be overly harsh and angry toward a dog who you believe is trying to take over your space/territory than you are to one who simply doesn't understand what's supposed to be going on.

He's not a huge fan of this
blog post...
Understand that your dog is not deliberately disrespecting you or trying to rule the kitchen. She simply likes food and just happens to know that counters can be a source for this. Being an opportunistic creature by nature, a canine is going to take a shot at grabbing a bite from the countertop, especially if you aren't there to tell her otherwise and/or she's been able to do it in the past. If your goal is to keep your dog from grabbing food off of the counter, start by never leaving food out on the counter. It's by far the easiest way to put an end to this habit. Out of sight, out of mind. Eventually she won't even think about the countertop as a food source.

Of course, it's not usually quite so simple. Often, counter surfing or being fed from the counter leads to a dog who makes the entire process of cooking or eating a meal extremely difficult. Maybe you find yourself constantly guarding food on the counter while you're in the middle of preparing it? Perhaps you've had to seriously worry about whether or not your dog might shove his face in the oven when you pop it open to check on the rolls? Some dogs just make themselves a complete nuisance by staying underfoot the entire time, posing the risk of tripping you up. It is very important to take a situation like this under control. A strategically placed baby gate can help with some dogs, but if you have one like Obi you will have to put in a little more effort. I prefer to teach my dogs the "out" command so that everyone stays safe.

Follow these steps to teach your dog to stay out of a room when asked:
  • Identify the doorway leading to your kitchen. This is the boundary line between where your dog is and isn't allowed to go.
  • Call your dog over to you and have her sit in this acceptable area so that she will be facing into the kitchen where you can keep an eye on her. Give her a treat when she's calm and take a few steps away as if you were going back to the counter to prepare food.
  • If she tries to follow you into the kitchen, gently tell her "out" and walk toward her, causing her to step back into the acceptable area. Do not become hostile or physically push her with your hands. This particular step will require some repetition and a lot of patience but even the most stubborn of dogs will start to catch on quickly if you stay calm and consistent.
  • Reward your dog when she is in the acceptable area and being calm/quiet about it. If your dog is good at catching treats in her mouth, it's easiest to just toss one in her direction so that you can quickly go back to what you were doing (and so that she doesn't try to follow you back in to the room after you deliver her treat). She must know that she'll be rewarded only for being in that area and never if she steps over the boundary into the kitchen. As she gets the hang of the routine, you can reward less often and at random so that she never quite knows when a treat is coming, but understands where she needs to be when it happens.
  • "Out" is your cue for having her leave the room. Once she gets the hang of it, you can use the word as well as a hand signal (I just make a shooing motion with my hand) to ask her to leave. It never hurts to reinforce this with a treat as long as she is in the right spot.
  • Refrain from using the "stay" command/cue. We don't mind if the dog breaks position (i.e. from sit to down or vice versa) or even if she goes into another room. Our goal is only to make sure she does not step into the room that you are in! The distractions and duration that would be involved in a "stay" for our purpose would likely be beyond the skill level of a dog who is still trying to jump up on countertops. In addition to this, we do not want to muddy up the "stay" command or confuse your dog.
  • It is perfectly fine for your dog to go into the kitchen when you haven't given the "out" command. If you've given the command but now it's ok for her to enter, give her a happy release cue such as "Free dog!" (as in "liberated" not "to a good home") and lots of pets/praise.
  • You can use this technique for any room of the house but in some cases you may have to do a little "retraining" when applying it to a different room. However, most dogs do begin to understand doorways as boundary markers fairly quickly.
You can tell who is new at this and who is the
"old pro." Cricket hangs out in the background
patiently waiting for a possible reward while
Obi looks ready to spring back up for action.
You don't have to use this particular method to teach "out" and with some dogs, you may want to go a different route. If you are familiar with clicker training (using the sound of a clicker to tell your dog that it did something you like) then you can simply click and treat as soon as your dog steps into the correct area. You can even combine clicker training with the steps I listed above. The reason I chose this particular technique for teaching "out" is admittedly because it's been the easiest one for me to incorporate into my everyday life. This is something that I usually end up teaching on a whim when I'm in the middle of cooking (or more recently, helping Matt who happens to be the better cook). The dogs can't hop up on the counter or put their head in the oven during training if you aren't allowing them into the room to begin with so this eliminates a little bit of the choas that you might experience otherwise.

All of this may sound daunting at first, but it is very simple and quick to teach if you can keep your cool and stay consistent. If you're more prone to losing your temper and thus skewing the lines of communication, it might be better to use a management method such as a baby gate, crate, or confining your dog to a seperate room with a door.

As always, feel free to leave a comment with questions or concerns. You may also send an email to:

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