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Posted on Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 11:09 a.m.

Dogs who counter surf need another job

By Julia Levitt


Julia and Beisha

Julia Levitt | Contributor

We had the most wonderful dog in the world. Her name was Beisha, a Portuguese Water Dog.

One evening my husband and I came home from dinner, and found an empty plastic bag on the floor. It had a large hole in it. We looked at each other and couldn’t remember what was in the bag. Oh yes — five dinner rolls from Zingerman's Bakehouse.

Apparently you really can taste the difference! Beisha was lying on her side like a beached whale.

While Beisha had many lovely qualities, I would rate stealing food from our counters not one of them. Like so many dogs, Beisha was just the right height to snatch any food from the counter if it was close enough to the edge.

I agree that, with some dogs, the food doesn’t have to be close to the edge of the counter for the dog to have a snack. One of my friends whose dog ate a vast amount of turkey leftover from Thanksgiving asked… "Don’t they learn?"

My other friend who is a vet, overheard the question, and both of us replied at the same time: "No!"

Now this issue is one I would not laugh off. Counter surfing takes many dangerous and expensive forms. I just got a number of tearful calls from one of my clients whose adolescent Labrador Retriever ingested… a dish towel! You might shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh it is soft. It will pass."

In this case, the towel did not pass: not long after, and several thousand dollars later, it had become life-threatening problem. The towel blocked the intestine, and the dog was vomiting as her food was blocked.

What the owners thought was a cute, funny joke turned in to a dire situation that required surgery.

Now before you ask, "Why can’t this be fixed Miss Harmony?" Miss Harmony will respond with a quiz…

Here’s how you fix the problem: Please pick a number 1-4.

1) When you see the pooch on the counter you run to the counter yelling, “Get off, get off!"

2) You approach the dog and pinch his/her feet

3) Have a squirt bottle handy and zap the dog when he/she is on the counter

4) None of the above

All of you know me by now, and the person who picked number four wins! As a professional dog trainer, I see this as a symptom of a problem. Okay, so let’s fix it!

Let’s backtrack… even Great Danes started their lives not being able to reach a counter top… what happened?

Let’s go through our check list:

Has your dog been properly stimulated since it was a pup? Do you walk it regularly? Does it attend classes for herding, agility, obedience? (Do you take your dog for a bike ride or swimming in the summer?)

How about exhibiting symptoms of boredom? Chewing furniture? Eliminating in the house?

Does the dog disrespect you? Bark constantly, jump on you, or strangers and guests? Mouthing you and others? Has the dog bitten you?

When people tell me they don’t walk their dogs, I often think of the analogy, "How would you like to be locked in your house every day?" The house is a big kennel to a dog. They need exercise and stimulation. Don’t you?

Well you say, "Tell us the end of the story with Beisha. What did you do about her counter surfing?"

Beisha got two walks a day — yes, summer and winter. This was not enough, though, so Beisha went back to school to learn how to be a Therapy Dog. Beisha gave great joy to people who could not be mobile, those who were lonely and infirm.

One man laughed and laughed every time Beisha went to visit him. She made herself at home by jumping right next to him on his bed!

When you see your dog counter surfing, put away the squirt bottle. Stop and ask yourself these questions:

Am I providing an interesting life for my dog? Do I challenge my dog? Do I ask him/her to do some of the work he/she was bred to do? Do I provide an outlet for my dog’s energy?

Last week I walked my pack past a lady out in her garden. She expressed surprise to learn I walk my toy breeds three miles a day. She went on to say that she didn’t know that toy dogs could do this. My reply was simple: a dog is a dog, no matter what the size.

So when your dog surfs the counter, don’t blame your dog. Remember that counter surfing is only a symptom…

Julia Levitt is the founder of In Harmony Dog Training ( in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at or at 734-645-4707.


Ray in Redmond WA

Tue, Aug 16, 2011 : 10:04 p.m.

Adequate exercise is important to all animals (including us). However the notion that lack of exercise creates problems in dogs, or that more exercise is the cure-all for dog misbehavior is dangerously close to the false science perpetrated by Cesar Milan. The so-called dog-whisperer's favorite ploy is to exercise a problem dog past the point of exhaustion, then proudly proclaim the dog is cured since it no longer has enough energy left to do anything. Funny thing is they never show what happens the next day, after the dog is rested. Your dog should look to you as the provider of all things good—a trip to the park, a ride in the car, a walk around the block, a toy to play with, a game of fetch or tug. This is especially true when it comes to food. Your pet's food should not just come from that magic bowl in the corner, you know, the one that's always magically full. Your pets should realize that it's you that gets the bowl from the cupboard, you that puts the good stuff in, you that puts it on the floor in their regular eating spot, and especially that it's you that signals when it's okay to eat. This is in keeping with the comments of bunnyabbot above who also emphasizes training your dog to realize that you are in control of food (and all good things.). That being said, we must accept the fact that all dogs are food scavengers, some more so than others. It's their favorite activity when bored, as in being left alone for long periods of time. A stuffed Kong, kibble ball, marrow bone, NylaBone or other tasty chewie can help keep them occupied for part of the time you're gone. For the rest of the time, stow food securely.

Julia Levitt

Thu, Aug 18, 2011 : 11:50 a.m.

Ron- What a a thorough carefully thought out response. Thanks for reading all the way from Washington! Thank you-Julia


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 11:38 p.m.

Thanks for the advice, Julia! Recently, we added a Jack Russell/Border Collie mix puppy to our household. Needless to say, she's quite energetic, and yes, counter surfing is one of her favorite past-times.

Julia Levitt

Thu, Aug 18, 2011 : 11:49 a.m.

What a lively pup you have-thanks for writing-Julia


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 7:59 p.m.

Yes, most if not all discipline problems are exercise problems. I agree that dogs should get some good walks, that being said, if this were an impediment to dog ownership the kennels at the shelters would be much fuller and the euthanasia rate much higher.


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 7:19 p.m.

I once came home to find that my puppy had eaten an entire loaf of bread including most of the bag and twist tie. I still don't know how he had gotten it as it wasn't on the counter but on the microwave and pushed back. After that I didn't leave anything on the counter including paper towels, dish sponges or soap. Now that he is grown he no longer counter serfs, I imagine if there were something really tasty like eggs or bacon this would not hold true but I don't leave stuff that tempting out. However I will include what I did to train my dog. anything I dropped that I didn't want my dog to eat I would say "poison" and overtime me digging whatever out of his mouth along with the keyword it conditioned him to not try to get it/eat it or even think about picking it up or rushing to smell it. This went for anything outside like leaves, small sticks, landscaping chips, flowers, litter or cigerette butts that people leave on the sidewalk. (luckily I never had a used condom episode but I had a friend that had to dig one out of her dogs mouth while walking through a park!) additionally I trained my dog by dropping something on purpose to sit and wait for eye contact, until I said "poison" (can't have) or "it's for you/dog/take it/free" (can have). I should also say that I also taught him "leave it" for stuff I just want him to not pick up or want him to put down, so poison and leave it can be used interchangably without confusing him. I can say the poison thing has worked well as I have dropped raw meat, an avocado pit (poisonous to dogs), food wrappers, medicine! and ear swaps along with countless other things.

Julia Levitt

Thu, Aug 18, 2011 : 11:48 a.m.

you are so innovative! Julia


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 8 p.m.

Did you use the word "Nixon" as a command?


Mon, Aug 15, 2011 : 5:36 p.m.

@ rs: That's not very nice. I consider articles regarding UoM football meaningless (to me) but I wouldn't call it a waste of bandwidth because I know other folk find it interesting. I inadvertently trained my counter-surfer to keep away from the counter. I had a pile of metal lids drying on a kitchen towel. The pup grabbed a corner of the towel and tugged. The crashing sound was very impressive but not as impressive as watching a 75 lb pup try to hide under the rug. I don't consider him to be fully trustworthy though and have trained myself to keep things off the counter.

Julia Levitt

Thu, Aug 18, 2011 : 11:47 a.m.

good solution-thnaks for writing