Countersurfing!

There are many normal, natural, necessary dog behaviours that don’t sit well with humans and we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to blame dogs, label dogs and chastise dogs for being dogs.

If you follow us on Facebook or Instagram, you will have seen an awesome check-in photo from Team Kairo:

Not only is this an awesome array of stuffables to keep Kairo happy, also note how he is an onlooker rather than interfering and trying to get to all these yummies.

When he arrived home, just two months ago, this guy was a well practiced countersurfer. But, countersurfing is normal, natural, necessary dog behaviour so there’s absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ with Kairo and this isn’t behaviour we want to stop.

Huh?

Countersurfing can be dangerous; dogs can grab foods or medications that might be poisonous to them or they might have an accident with a sharp knife, for example.

But it’s part and parcel of having a dog around; their closest “wild” relatives continue to be expert scavengers to this day.

Behaviour, once learned, is never really unlearned…it doesn’t leave your brain. Those pathways are strengthened with every rehearsal. Instead, we insert new behaviours and must practice to fortify those new pathways.

Countersurfing, like most behaviours we teach, isn’t really new behaviour to your dog. They already come with scavenging powers and know exactly how to do it! What we do though is teach them that under certain conditions, countersurfing works and is worth their efforts.

Yes, we teach them. Maybe unintentionally, but we teach them that countersurfing behaviours work to get them the good stuff!

Behaviour Works

Dogs do behaviours that work. This means learning helps animals gain access to things they like and avoid things they don’t like.

Countersurfing is a good illustration. Dogs are pretty opportunistic when it comes to food so if they come across food, they usually eat it.

Countersurfing behaviours function to get food that’s been left on counters and tables. Simples!

Behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation

When we analyse behaviour, we are not just looking at what the dog is doing. We also need to know when behaviour happens and why behaviour happens.

Understanding the conditions under which behaviour happens allows us to design behaviour change interventions to help because we can predict when behaviour will happen.

Kairo’s humans have kindly allowed me to share our program and the first part is to understand the conditions under which he countersurfed.

Kairo & Countersurfing

Whens:

Countersurfing happens when food was on the counter, when food was on the table, when humans were in the kitchen, when humans were at the counter and when humans were at the table.
And also, if humans are not present.

Whats:

Jumping up at counters and tables, with front legs off the ground; under and at the feet of humans

Whys:

Eating food on the counter or table, eating food that falls on the floor, eating food that’s given, attention & interaction, sniffing and searching for food.

It’s not the food that’s reinforcing countersurfing behaviour, it may be the behaviours of eating, seeking & finding!

Behaviour functions:

New behaviour that we teach should, where possible, function as unwanted behaviour did, and be cued as unwanted behaviour was.

The whens and whys stay the same but we will insert behaviour incompatible with unwanted behaviour.

Instead of those whens cueing jumping up and countersurfing, they’re going to cue lying down. Kairo can’t countersurf or get in the way if he’s lying down!

Kairo’s new behaviour will continue to function as countersurfing did. He had his say, telling us what he wanted, so we listened!

We have the data, now what?

Now we know the structure of our plan, we gotta do the things!

Management means to prevent rehearsal of the whens-whats-whys combo because each practice run further strengthens it.

  • When we are not teaching, Kairo doesn’t have free access to the kitchen, table or food related spots.
  • We close doors, put up baby gates, have the dog on lead.
  • Definitely no food is left out and available. This is human training!

The dog’s behaviour is information – Kairo’s behaviour tells us of his need for searching and scavenging. So we are not just going to prevent him countersurfing when it might be dangerous, inconvenient or unhygienic – we can’t stop countersurfing.

Kairo is going to have lots of scavenging outlets and learn lots and lots of behaviours to access food, interaction, sniffing and searching.

Do you do #100DaysOfEnrichment? Those challenges can be a great help!

Some good scavenger-jollies outlets include:

Foraging Boxes

Busy Boxes

Searches

Sniffing Courses

With reduced motivation to countersurf and decreased access to countersurfing contexts, we can install more effective and efficient behaviours in those contexts for food.

What to do instead?

There really is no point applying punishers on a reactive basis for countersurfing. Once the dog has got the food, the function of countersurfing, the when-what-why combo has been strengthened and you’re too late with aversives.

Instead, we get in there before the whens start, and add in another behaviour to get those whys. Teach behaviours that you would like to see and make sure they function as unwanted behaviour did.

Kairo’s humans had already been working on a default-down so he was throwing himself into a lying down position as this had been so well reinforced in all sorts of contexts functioning for the dog to get food, attention and access to all the fun stuff.

Nobody was asking him to lie down, when he wanted things, he tried lying down and that worked!

We started with lying down making hotdog happen in countersurfing places. Each time he offered his default, humans produce hotdog!

With lying down predictable, we could add in new cues for that behaviour: food on the counter or table, food prep happening, people at the counter of table.

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We have lying down quietly functioning as did countersurfing behaviours, which have now become irrelevant, ineffective and inefficient.

It’s far easier to lie down and have food come to you, rather than jumping up to try to reach it!

Team Kairo have had great success building duration between rewards so that they can apply these behaviours to real life.

Here he is, lying quietly on his mat while not just his humans but also guests have a meal together. Given that he’s a new dog to the home and how arousing guests can be, that’s a pretty awesome achievement:

This did not happen over night. We started working on this when he was a week or so home and his humans have been DILIGENTLY practicing, managing and providing Kairo with a fully enriched life and world.

When you can’t, or don’t want to teach, just manage by having the dog elsewhere, or playing The Floor Is Magic:

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The dog’s behaviour is information. If they jump up, your rate of reinforcement is too low. Increase that to establish behaviour and when that’s consistent, rate can drop again, carefully.

Get practicing! Make sure your dog’s behaviour functions for them to access the things they like, in a manner that you like too. Balancing needs and providing two-way reinforcement will be the keys to relationship building – the start can feel like a lot, but it’s not forever and you will get there. Just ask Team Kairo!

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