Why Do Dogs Steal Food Off the Counter?

Dogs steal food off the counter for a simple reason: nobody seems to care about it when it's left on a counter and it's readily available, so why let it go wasted? After all, who can blame them: dogs are blessed with a philosophy of life that aims on focusing on the present, appreciating the value of every moment in life without worrying about tomorrow. No, it's not like Rover is part of the Dead Poets' Society, it's just that dogs tend to be this way, courtesy of their evolutionary past.

You leave your carefully prepared sandwich unattended on the counter for just a brief second, and next thing you know, it's missing in action. It doesn't take long to understand what has just happened: Rover has managed to steal... again. Yup, tall dogs are notorious for engaging in this type of food crime!

Why does he do that though? How can he care less about you getting upset about it? Why does he keep doing that, even if he knows he's not supposed to? You nod your head in displeasure as you wonder what you can do next time to stop your dog from stealing food off the counter again.

A Look Back in History

Watch a dog eat and most likely you will notice how he wolfs down his meal without even having the decency of chewing. Next, compare a dog's eating style with the way horses, sheep or cows eat, leisurely chewing rough grasses and hay courtesy of the grinding surfaces of their molars and premolars. 

What's up with dogs though? Why do dogs eat so fast? What causes them to be in such a hurry, gorging themselves like there's no tomorrow? The answer relies on a dog's evolutionary past. Dogs, as descendants of the wolf, are hunters and meat-eaters, while horses, cows and sheep are prey animals and herbivores.

 As meat eaters, dogs were specifically designed to swallow pieces of meat with little chewing unlike herbivores who mince their foods and start digesting them in their mouth.

Now, consider that in a dog's past evolutionary history, meals were never predictable. One day there could have been an entire deer to munch on, while the next three days could have yielded none. 

This variability of meals meant living in a "feast or famine" fashion. In other words, dogs were either gorging themselves or starving. This meant that, when food was readily available, it was best to wolf it down as quickly as possible, not just because of hunger, but also because in the wild there are always a plethora of other opportunistic animals waiting for any tasty remnants.

Ancient dogs therefore filled up to their full capacity, and despite domestication, these ancestral eating habits still seem to linger in modern dogs no matter what. 

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Carpe Diem: "Seize the Day"

With a history of leading a feast or famine lifestyle, it's no wonder why dogs eat so fast, but what makes them prone to stealing?

Well, first off, a clarification: "stealing" is rather a strong word, and using it, in this case, may be adding an anthropomorphic touch, attributing to dogs traits that are more on the humanoid side. 

You see, from Rover's perspective, when he's stealing a sandwich from the table or piece of meat from the counter top, he's not really doing anything that is wrong. All he knows is that there was food left behind from somebody who likely didn't want it or cared for it. 

The fact is, among dogs, food is a highly cherished resource. Food is either eaten right away or buried somewhere else so that dogs can enjoy it later. Yup, that's why dogs bury bones under couches or piles of dirt! 

So it's not like Rover is really "stealing"  in the real sense of the word: he just simply thinks that, since you get up and leave a tasty morsel unattended, it is fair game just waiting for somebody to appreciate. 

As opportunistic beings, therefore dogs will eat whatever comes their way, and that includes scavenging the trash bin in your kitchen or surfing the counter top. So don't get  upset about this -after all, it is thanks to this adaptive trait that dogs have survived throughout history and have made it as our companions today!

A Matter of Reinforcement

Many dog owners wonder whether their canine companions are acting guilty when they are caught in the act of stealing something from the counter. They may also ask: why are dogs still stealing if they are often caught "red-handed?"

First off, it's important to recognize that dogs don't steal out of spite and they don't feel guilty or ashamed. Assuming this is ignoring a dog's evolutionary history. 

Yes, your dog's body language may mimic what you would expect dogs to do if they ever felt guilty (ears lowered,  crouched body, lack of eye contact, tail between the legs), but in reality, your dog is simply reacting to your emotions. 

"If you're angry, your dog can tell- they're particularly adept at sensing our emotions," explain James C. Ha a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, and Tracy L. Campion in the book "Dog Behavior, Modern Science and Our Canine Companions."

So if dogs know that we're angry or upset, why do they keep engaging in certain behaviors? What keeps them going? Most likely, it's a matter of reinforcement.

 "For most dogs, the potential reward often outweighs the potential risk...and even if the dog succeeds only a fraction of the time, that behavior is reinforced just enough to try it again," further add James C. Ha and Tracy L. Campion. 

And to make matters worse, if dogs find food on the counter sometimes yes, and sometimes no, this random reinforcement pattern tends to make the behavior even stronger and somewhat addicting-just as gambling in Vegas. 

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Now That Know...

As seen, dogs have their own good little reasons for "stealing" food off the counter. If you want to stop this behavior once and for all, your best option is strict management and training. Following are several tips on how to implement this. 

  • Avoid getting upset. It is easy to get angry and you may be tempted to pry your dog's mouth open to release the stolen food. Refrain from doing that. This only teaches your dog to fear you and associate you with the loss of a high-value resource. It also encourages sneaky behaviors such as eating things he shouldn't have out of your sight. With time, your dog may no longer trust you around food (or any other high-value items) so he may start running away, gulping things down very fast (possibly without even chewing which may predispose to blockages) hiding, or at some point even engaging in defensive, resource-guarding behaviors culminating in aggression. 
  • Skip booby traps. The old advice of putting a string of cans on the edge of the counter in hopes of the dog making them fall and startling, is the best recipe for creating noise-phobias in dogs.  
  • Keep the counter clear of food. This means no more food left near the edge (that's just like dangling candy in front of a child), just push it out of the way, or even better, keep no food at all there so that your dog's almighty nose won't feel tempted.
  • Erect a baby gate. It is not easy to keep counters always free of food. Many people start off with a strong intent, and then, as time goes by, they start slacking off and that is when opportunities arise. By erecting a baby gate, Rover doesn't get to visit the kitchen with all its wafting smells and temptations: out of sight, out of mind!
  • Train your dog the leave it and drop it command.This can prove to be even life-saving if your dog is about to grab or has already grabbed a potentially toxic food or something he may chew on and risk an intestinal blockage.  Make sure to practice this even when you are at a distance from tempting items and always reinforce by giving your dog something much higher in value (from your dog's perspective, not yours!) than the item left/dropped.
  • Train an alternate behavior. We often tell dogs what not to do and invest very little time in telling them what to do. Since, most likely, your dog counter surfs when you are busy preparing your meals, why not teach your dog to lie on a mat and turn that into his favorite surface to receive goodies? This way, your dog will eagerly go there when you're cooking and you have established a desirable routine. Praise and reward your dog with treats (or safe people foods) given at various intervals so that your dog holds his stay there. 
  • With no more food left around the counter when you are not around, a fluent response to the "leave it" and "drop it cues," and food being fed contingent upon your dog lying on the mat, with time, you should see a reduction in your dog's counter surfing behaviors. 
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