Dog Caught Stealin'
December 24, 2008 9:19 AM   Subscribe

How do I keep my dog from grabbing food off the table/counter when when our backs are turned? Penny, our 6 year old adopted stray (we think she's a Jack Russel/Austrailian cattle cross) has a horrible habit of stealing food that's on the table when we're not looking.

some background: She was approximately 6 months old when she showed up on our doorstep. We used to feed her kibble twice a day, but she'd ignore her food when she's in the large fenced yard during the day and only eat her dinner. She seems to be too busy chasing squirrels to eat. Because of this, we've reduced her to just one meal a day in the evening. We have a 19 month old that enjoys throwing food from the table to her, and we're working on him too, but this behavior in Penny existed before there was a baby in the picture. We do tend to feed her some table scraps mixed with her dry food after our evening meal. Personality-wise, Penny is a moderately well behaved dog for me, but seems to often be in competition with my wife, and my wife has to struggle to make sure Penny knows who the alpha female is. She doesn't interact much with our toddler, as she seems to get nervous when she's enclosed by baby gates, but does well with him when they are both outside. She's a smart dog, and will do most of the standard tricks (sit, stay, laydown, rollover, shake, beg.) If she thinks you're going to give her a treat, she'll run through all of her tricks at once trying to get you to give her the treat.

Now, about her bad habit: She knows she shouldn't because she runs and hides in her bed as soon as we spot her stealing food. My solution is just make sure food is in the center of the table and not near the edge of any counters, so mainly she's stealing food from my wife, who's very tired of me telling her to make sure her plate is not near the edge. Since I can't seem to change the habits of the creature I can use language and reason with, what suggestions do you have on correcting the bad behavior of the dog? I have been successful in stopping some bad barking behavior in the past by rushing to the dog quickly and gruffly telling her not to bark, but when she steals food it is like she has already worked out the cost/benefit of stealing this turkey sandwich and decided that no matter what the punishment, this turkey sandwich is SO WORTH IT.

Should we kick her outside when we catch her? just yell at her? Be more proactive and remove her from the kitchen/dinning room when we're preparing food/eating? My wife is ready to feed her to a polar bear, but that might not be as easy as you'd think.
posted by jrishel to Pets & Animals (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Surprise shocks are useful in teaching a younger dog -- e.g. empty 2-liter plastic bottles set as a booby-trap that falls noisily on top of the dog if it looks on the table; a clattering pile of empty tin cans; anything you can rig as a sudden nasty surprise -- but it might take a 6-year-old longer to get the message if she's confirmed in the bad habits. Post-theft punishment won't succeed with an adult dog, but I can't think of any good positive reinforcement that would work in your situation.

I think I'd follow your idea and just shut her out of the room when food is around.
posted by airplain at 9:47 AM on December 24, 2008

Best answer: Several years ago we worked with a highly respected dog trainer in our region to solve some behavioral issues, and this totally worked with a dog we had who snitched off the table. You basically set the dog up to snitch, and as soon as the dog's nose is on the food you bellow "NO!" as loudly and deeply as you can (better for the man of the household to do it). As the dog cowers you lavish the dog with praise. Repeat as necessary. This also works with food given to them by hand, teaching them to wait for given food rather than come up to it.
posted by crapmatic at 9:51 AM on December 24, 2008

Oh my goodness . . . those polar bear pictures are amazing!! :-O

I agree w/ above that punishing doesn't work unless you catch 'em in the act. The loud noise is a good idea but it might be hard to create a booby trap. If this is at all possible with your kitchen setup (or, really, you could do it in another room) you could hide or stand somewhere out of her line of sight while your wife does stuff in the kitchen and purposely turns her back. The moment she goes for the food, you burst in with a "NO" or shaking pennies in a can or whatever. I did this with my dog by leaving food on the coffee table in my living room, then going into the bathroom but leaving the door cracked just enough to see. Every time she would start to go for the food, i'd throw open the door and say NO! it was almost kind of funny, I swear I could see the wheels turning: "This crazy bitch can see through walls!"

Doing this to her when your wife has her back turned will teach your dog that even if your wife isn't watching, you could be. And your wife could even try putting a little mirror on the counter so she can watch the dog with her back to her, then turn around and say NO at the exact right moment- leading your dog to believe she has eyes in the back of her head!

Good luck!
posted by lblair at 10:08 AM on December 24, 2008

Best answer: Agree with crapmatic. Set the dog up, catch her in the act (prior to committing it), berate her, then praise her. I don't know that the dog is really thinking that the turkey sandwich is worth the punishment; you need to make the praise worth more than the sandwich.

Does the dog also just snatch snacks out of your hand when you give them to her? You can train her not to take the snacks until you give him permission, no matter how tempting. This might help with the table-snatching.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:10 AM on December 24, 2008

We had this problem with our dog. We tried tying tin cans to things she would steal, but she thought the noise from the cans falling was so! fun!, so that was never really a deterrent. One day, she stole a fancy layer cake off the counter that I had spent all day baking from scratch. She had never, and still has never, been yelled at so sincerely. And that was it. She never touched food from the counter again. (Although now that we've moved to a new house, I suspect she's counter surfing while we're away, so maybe I shouldn't be giving you advice...) Anyway, I think crapmatic is spot on. You could also try a squirt gun - it works well for our dog.

Since I can't seem to change the habits of the creature I can use language and reason with
Maybe this was tongue-in-cheek, but just to be clear - your wife shouldn't need to be "trained." You are both responsible for making your dog a respectful member of your household, and that absolutely includes not stealing food, however close to the edge of the counter.
posted by robinpME at 10:12 AM on December 24, 2008

I initially thought our dog was not really terribly interested in food (not at all food-motivated, for example) when we first got her. But really, she just wasn't that interested in kibble. As soon as I started making homefood for her, she began cleaning her plate (licketysplit!) every time, and gets really, really enthusiastic about mealtimes.

So, it's possible that the same is basically true of Penny. She was neglecting her kibble because it just didn't turn her on much, but once other food was introduced to any degree, she became very interested, indeed, in that other stuff, even going so far as to steal it.

I'm not knowledgeable enough to advise you, but I think that she needs to be fed twice a day, for one thing, and you might try different/better kibble that she likes more, or make it a practice to mix up some other food with the kibble. Once you're sure she's getting enough food that she enjoys (you know she's not actually hungry, and her nutritional requirements have been met), you just need to reinforce the no-stealing thing. For my dog, that would be a loud and absolute "NO! BAD!"and repeat when caught in the act, and being separated from us (put in the bathroom, or out on the porch) for 10 minutes.

For me, really, just the tongue-lashing solved the thing after the couple times it happened (and being separated from us is like going nuclear on her), but I'm also like you. I minimize temptation and try to keep irresistible fudz away from low, all-too-convenient edges. But I don't have to worry about her going out of her way to climb up on things or trying to reach up to the kitchen counter (another big absolute no-no in our house) or the kitchen table... but if it's at grazing level (coffee table in the living room), she might not always be able to resist the snatch, so I do usually make a conscious effort to keep unattended things away from doggy-eye/mouth level.
posted by taz at 10:21 AM on December 24, 2008

Our dog is a shameless and unrepentant counter-surfer. He's big enough that he can just stroll up to the table and snatch that tasty salmon filet off your plate without making a sound- no paws up on the table required.

Over time we trained him that he's not to approach the table while we are eating. He has a nice comfy dog bed across the room, and we've trained him to hang out over there. A nice Kong filled with kibble & peanut butter was the carrot we used initially but now the pattern is set we just have to say " on your bed." It's much easier to re-direct the behavior to something positive than to train them not to do something undesired. If he's on his bed, it's impossible for him to take food off the table. Easy peasy.
posted by ambrosia at 10:22 AM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Time out does not work with dogs! People need to understand that time out is not something that works for a dog. Kicking your dog outside isn't going to affect her as much as displaying your strong disappointment in her.

I recommend catching her in the act and being very stern with her instead. You don't have to beat her, but a soft jab to the neck like a dog bite (ala Dog Whisperer style) actually will do a lot more in correcting her behavior than "time out."

If you have earned the dog's respect, simply being dissapointed by her behavior will go a long way. Trust me. If your dog doesn't respect you, then you need to be working on that.
posted by nickerbocker at 10:35 AM on December 24, 2008

Best answer: I minimize temptation and try to keep irresistible fudz away from low, all-too-convenient edges.

Maximize temptation, and correct the behavior. Have a good dog. Avoidance of a problem does not solve it.
posted by nickerbocker at 10:37 AM on December 24, 2008

Response by poster: thanks for all the good advice, and RobinpME: Yes, that was tongue-in-cheek :)
posted by jrishel at 10:47 AM on December 24, 2008

nickerbocker, since you quoted (part of) my comment, I'll ask for clarification: She doesn't steal food. Twice she did, and I gave her the very loud BAD! business. It hasn't happened again, yet I do usually try to keep food away from her immediate head level (low coffee table) if we aren't sitting there.

Are you saying it would be better to try to get her to do it again, so we can correct her more?
posted by taz at 12:06 PM on December 24, 2008

Since you can't always be there to say NO, try dipping a few pieces of whatever tempts your dog in hot pepper sauce and setting them on the edge of the counter.
posted by dws at 3:31 PM on December 24, 2008

How about the electric collar?
posted by A189Nut at 5:45 PM on December 24, 2008

We do tend to feed her some table scraps mixed with her dry food after our evening meal. Personality-wise, Penny is a moderately well behaved dog for me, but seems to often be in competition with my wife, and my wife has to struggle to make sure Penny knows who the alpha female is.

I'm thinking the bolded bit may be the root of some of these behaviors. If the dog doesn't respect your wife, no wonder she's mostly stealing from her!

I'm going to second ambrosia in suggesting that redirecting to a positive behavior is easier, and before you use any punitive methods like some of those endorsed by Dog Whisperer, make sure you understand that his methods are controversial.

An example of a way to get your dog to sit on her bed during meals - she comes over during dinner, you palm a treat and tempt her over to her bed, heck let her lick it as she's walking over there, but only give it to her once she's on her bed. Praise and treat. Enough repetition and slowly increasing that interval (so eventually she gets a treat post-meal), and she'll learn that staying on her bed during meals means tasty things for later with no BAD DOG!
posted by canine epigram at 9:39 AM on December 25, 2008

My rescued JRT, Lyle, ate 1/2 lb of blue cheese off the table last night after behaving pretty well around the party food most of the evening. He mostly self-inhibits, since he knows he's not supposed to be anywhere near the table or eat human food. But the temptation won out when I left the room for ten seconds and returned to find he'd inhaled the cheese whole. I suspect he didn't even get to taste it, it vanished so quickly. We've been through the trap/punish routine, but I suspect "delicious cheese" will always trump "not annoying my favorite person in the universe" for him, as it might for Penny, and I know it is ultimately up to me to remove temptation rather than Lyle to avoid it.
posted by judith at 4:31 PM on December 25, 2008

Get a higher table.

When my family had a dog (beagle), for a while we had a somewhat low dinner table (not unusually low, but low enough that he could get his head over the top). One night we served a Boston cream pie, and made the mistake of setting it too close to the edge of the table. The dog stuck his head over the edge of the table and slurp. No more Boston cream pie.

A slightly higher dinner table (a few inches) solved the problem, though he would still eat whatever was still left within reach.
posted by bad grammar at 5:54 PM on December 27, 2008

Response by poster: I thought we were making progress, but she managed to eat 1/3 of a pizza a few days ago... gah.
posted by jrishel at 1:01 PM on December 31, 2008

Best answer: You said that Penny showed up as a stray when she was about six months old, and she's now around six years old- so this is a pattern that has been in existence for a long time, and you should understand that if you manage to change this pattern of behavior, it will take a very long time. She's no longer a malleable puppy. Eating is one of the fundamental drives of all living creatures. You also said that "She knows she shouldn't because she runs and hides in her bed as soon as we spot her stealing food" but I am going to suggest that perhaps she is running and hiding because she sees that you are angry/upset with her, not because she knows she shouldn't steal food.

I didn't mention it above, but I highly recommend the books of Patricia McConnell, an animal behaviorist who love dogs. In particular, The Other End of the Leash explains how good dogs are at reading their humans, and how much humans can accomplish in dog training by understanding what they communicate non-verbally to their dogs.
posted by ambrosia at 11:15 PM on December 31, 2008

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