Training Tidbit for April:
You can try this at home!
Wait, Where did my Cupcake go?!
This month’s training tidbit is brought to you by this video:
Sierra the Cupcake Stealing Dog
The funniest moment in the video is when Sierra looks around, obviously checking to see if the coast is clear before committing the crime. But, it also gives us an insight into what’s been happening in Sierra’s behavioral past; she’s been punished (probably verbally scolded) for counter-surfing in the past… obviously, ineffectually. 🙂
What Sierra is doing is neither unusual, nor inherently “bad;” dogs are scavengers by evolutionary design. It is a genetic, hard-wired behavior, and it’s how they’ve survived in human company for the last 20,000 years. If there is food present, their instincts tell them to take it! It takes training and maturity to override those instincts, and some dogs’ instincts are so strong, they might be very difficult to ever overcome (shout out to my Labrador friends out there!)
The thing is, when a person scolds their dog for counter surfing, it feels like you’re imparting some sort of moral lesson onto your dog, because they look so contrite; it’s as though they’re saying, “I’m sorry, I’ll try not to do it again.” But, that’s not how dogs work, and that “contrite” look is simply an appeasement gesture. What they’re really saying is “I don’t like when you’re angry; please love me. Let’s be friends again.”
There is no moral lesson for your dog when you scold them for counter surfing. Dogs are simpler and more emotional than we are, because they lack our pre-frontal cortex for higher reasoning. When a dog does something new, he understands exactly this about it: whether it works or doesn’t work, and whether it’s safe or dangerous.
So what happened with Sierra, the cupcake-loving Pointer? Well, when she was scolded for stealing food off of the counter, what she learned was: taking cupcakes with humans in room? unsafe, and doesn’t work. Taking cupcakes when human is absent? Safe, works, and delicious! So, she has simply learned to wait until the coast is clear to steal food.
So what is a person to do with a dog like the lovely Sierra? Teach (with positive reinforcement) a reliable “leave it.” Then, when you’re present to see her go for the food, use it. Then redirect her to another activity, such as a stuffed KONG, bully stick, playing outside, a toy, a quick training session, play time, anything to keep her from going straight back to the counter. Make sure you keep your counters CLEAN and free of loose food, so that she can’t reinforce herself for that fun new trick of counter surfing. And when you can’t supervise, block her out of the kitchen with a baby gate, ex-pen, closed door, or crate. This way, you can both teach her not to touch things, and avoid teaching her to be “sneaky” – checking to see if you’re looking – before counter surfing.
And in that way, you can have your cupcake, and eat it too.
Sorry, couldn’t resist!
Have an idea for a Training Tidbit? I’d love to hear from you!