Dogs Getting into the Garbage or Counter Surfing

("stealing food")

This article is about dogs who "steal food" , "raid the garbage", or "counter surf" , ie help themselves to food that from their point of view is ownerless and therefore "up for grabs." This is absolutely normal behavior that we humans may find objectionable. It's a very common problem but relatively easy to deal with.

A few years ago in the SCBDFC Bulletin, among the many wonderful Rescue stories written by adopters about how wonderful their adopted Bouv are and the funny things they do, there was mention of one who has learned to raid the trash can : "we left the trash can lid off one day and she thought she'd died and gone to heaven" and from that point on the bitch in question has made several raids on the trash , though at the moment she seems to be kept out effectively by bungee cords.

So I'd like to say a few words about the related topics of "counter surfing" , "trash can raiding" , etc. (And please everyone understand that I am in no way meaning to criticize the wonderful people whose adopted dog's raiding provokes the discussion.) I run into a lot of adopters who find themselves with the same problems because they don't expect and take appropriate precautions against normal dog behavior. And a lot of people who have raised their dogs from puppyhood have also encountered this problem. It's a very common problem and yet it is not that hard to deal with.

First of all, we all need to understand that gobbling up any unsupervised unguarded food left within the dog's reach is totally NORMAL and EXPECTED behavior for all canines. EATING available food is the DEFAULT setting for normal dogs. Abstaining from doing so is unnatural and unusual for any dog who has not been trained to exercise this highly unnatural self-restraint. Dogs, like wolves, are biologically evolved , genetically hard-wired , to be SCAVENGERS as well as to be PREDATORS. In fact there is a strong biological advantage for any predator to be an eager scavenger of any available left-overs from some other predator's kill. Put simply, it takes far less effort and is far less risky to take advantage of another predator's kill than to hunt and kill one's own meal. Just think of every dog as wearing a tee shirt saying "the best thing to make for dinner is reservations" ! Wouldnt we all rather be taken out to dinner than have to shop and cook for ourselves? And leftovers from a meal someone else bought are even better. Our dogs feel just the same way. and that is for a normal dog who has never in his life gone hungry or had to forage to survive. Now for our Rescued dogs, in many cases we may not know for sure what they have been through, but it is a fair guess that some of them have had to survive on the street by raiding garbage cans and so on. For such dogs , the urge to seize any available food will be greatly exacerbated and may never be truly repressible.

So once you have recognized that any people food left temptingly within reach will quite likely provoke a natural reaction of the dog gulping it down the instant you have left the room (or maybe sooner), you are now prepared to realize that you have only two choices : (1) NEVER leave any food unattended and within easy (or not so easy) reach , or (2) do a lot of SET UP type training and a lot of BOOBY TRAP type training until your dog appears to be truly reliable, and even then still never leave anything excessively valuable and tempting within reach. Well actually there is a third way : (3) exclude the dog from the room where the food is available during all times when you are not there to intervene, eg using stretch gates or other means. (Logically method (3) is a sub-section of method (1) since if the dog is not in the same room , then the food is not within the dog's actual reach.)

I've taught a lot of adopters that they must put the kitchen garbage can genuinely out of reach of the dog. This could be putting it behind closed doors within the kitchen -- but if so the doors must have a relatively dog-proof latch. It's preferable to move the kitchen garbage a few steps further away and move it outside the kitchen and into the garage (assuming there is a door from garage to kitchen, as is the case in most homes). If you must leave the can within the kitchen, I'd advise a metal can and a chain across the lid -- ie from one can side handle through the handle on the top of the lid to the other ca side handle. (Even in the garage , this is a good idea, because in many areas raccoons may be present and will be quick to exploit this new source of easy nourishing food.) Of course you also have the alternative of never putting any food scraps into the kitchen can in the first place, ie trot them out to the outdoor can promptly.

Likewise I advise being very self-disciplined about not leaving food out on any table or counter that a reared up on hind legs dog could reach -- and be aware that some dogs can perform amazing feats to reach tempting food ! It's OK to have such exposure when you are present, as then if the dog gives a longing look or sniff or starts to reach out towards the forbidden food, you can give a cold hard stare into the dog's eyes and give a growled or snarled warning "leave it" or "get outta that" or whatever. For some dogs this may be enough to start an inhibition -- at least when a human is not too far away and paying some attention. The more the dog regards you as having higher social status than he has, the less nearby you need be to have him regard the food as still "belonging" to you. But do remember that a juicy steak is probably more temptation than a carrot stick. (And some dogs do adore and steal carrot sticks, broccali, strawberries, or other items you might not anticipate.) But if you must leave the room , then either put the food completely out of reach or take the dog out of the room until you return.

SET UPs are when you do a "sting" or an "entrapment" of giving the dog a tempting opportunity while appearing to pay no attention to what is going on, but actually you are secretly vigilant and the moment the dog starts to make a wrong move, you pounce back in with glaring eyes and growling voice. The low tech method is to sneak a peak around the corner or put up mirrors or use a periscope. The high tech method would be a security camera , with you watching the monitor from an adjacent room.

BOOBY TRAPS are when you leave a temptation available but gimicked in a way that when the dog tries to touch it, something sufficiently startling or aversive occurs. The most usual booby traps would be mouse-traps (including for easily discouraged dogs, the variant called "Snappy Trainer" which has a plastic flap attached that causes increased startle effect but prevents any stinging pinch if a paw or nose gets snapped). Some people report success from arranging a pile of tin cans or pie plates that will fall with a crash when jostled; frankly I doubt that most Bouvs would be very impressed. Finally for those dogs who have already had success with counter surfing or can raiding, there are electric booby traps. "Scat Mat" and similar devices give a very mild zing of shock. I must say that some dogs will not be discouraged by any of the foregoing booby traps. For the hard core offender -- and especially for that running free in the neighborhood dog who raids your outdoor cans twice a week -- there is "hot wiring" with a fence charger. For metal cans , some insulation material must be placed between the can and the ground, eg an old tire or a couple of plastic mild/water gallon jugs will do this very well, and then the hot line from the charger goes directly to the can. For outdoor plastic cans, it's not necessary to insulate them from the ground, but instead cover the upper 3/4 of the can's body and the lid with chicken wire and attach the hot line to the chicken wire. For indoor cans , the problem is to have the floor be conducting, eg chicken wire or tin foil or sheet metal , attached to the ground line from the fence charger. I've never had to do an indoor can booby trap.

If I seem to be putting a bit too harsh an emphasis on keeping your dog out of the trash cans, it is because I consider trash can raiding to be a potentially life threatening behavior. Sooner or later there will be something in that can that is genuinely dangerous to the dog's health. For indoor or outdoor cans , it could be chicken bones (risk of perforated intestines) or some other bone chunk that could cause an obstruction. I've read of a dog who died because it had swallowed the seed from a mango , causing an obstruction that was not recognized in time for surgery to save the dog's life. Tin foil with meat drippings baked onto it and crumpled up would be another possible lethal obstruction. In outdoor cans there is the added possibility of a jug of discarded antifreeze or other toxic substance.

As for excluding the dog from the kitchen while you are preparing food , in addition to preventing the dog from helping himself to food (and some dogs can be very covert about this), it also avoids presenting you with the temptation to give him scraps and so encourage him to beg or steal (and also inadvertently causing the dog to become overweight of eat things that would disagree with him) , and it puts the dog outside the risk zone for hazzards such as accidental spilling of boiling water or deep-frying oil . Additionally you may want to exclude the dog from the room where you are eating during a meal, especially if you have guests who might be pushovers for doggie begging. If you often eat off of a TV table or a coffee table while watching TV and don't want to wonder if your dog is helping himself to your dinner if you have to leave the room for a momment, then exclusion can be a good strategy. The obvious methods of exclusion are to crate the dog (possibly with his own dinner served inside the crate) or to have a stretch gate barrier to keep all dogs out of the room temporarily.

The MORAL is : PREVENT your dog from having opportunity to learn to regard the kitchen counter, kitchen trash can, and outdoor trash cans, as being sources of food to be raided. If prevention fails, be prepared to TRAIN the dog through whatever means necessary to regard this temptation as one worth resisting. And in any case teach your dog that food on a table is just as much YOUR as if it were in your hand, even if you leave the room for a few minutes. And finally TRAIN YOURSELF not to leave excessively tempting goodies (or dangerous ones like chocolate) within the dog's potential reach. Of all of these, the most realistic one often is to train yourself, ie to change your own behavior and that of other human family members.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 4/12/03 revised 7/29/03
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