Dog can't resist a treat
Dear Dr. Spiegel,
I have a mixed breed dog about 2 and 1/2 feet tall that was a stray - living entirely on her own.
She is well behaved except for the fact that she will get any food left on the table or counter and eat it. Of course, this happens when no one is around. I have tried many ways to stop her but nothing is effective. Can you help?! Please!
If it is true that she was for some time living entirely on her own, then she knows the smell and, more importantly, the taste of "people" food and she's smart enough to know how to get it. She is obviously smart enough, as well, to know when she can get away with it. This is why it never happens in your presence.
It can be stopped! But let's first try to view things from her perspective. Put yourself in her place.... Regardless of whether you're a dog or a person. You know what "people food" tastes like, and you like it... For many of you, dogs/people, you love it. Furthermore, in contrast to your "dog food" which you eat every day (essentially protein packed cereal), this other kind of food (which you see others enjoying regularly) is really special. You want it, and you want it a lot. [I was going to say, "... and you want it bad," but the dog doesn't perceive its desire as being "bad." ["Good" and "Bad" are labels/judgements that we (people) put on activities and on people/places/things.] When you want something that much, you are going to attempt to get it whenever the opportunity presents itself.
If you remove this temptation, and it's usually easy enough to make things inaccessible (put food away or out of reach), then your dog will not be as driven to pursue it. When you can appreciate how tough a situation this is for an individual to face, then by removing the temptation you are treating your companion with thoughtful consideration. This should be the primary goal.
The only way to "extinguish" (the accurate psychological term for eliminating the manifestation of a given learned behavior) the behavior of taking things which have not specifically been given to your dog (what is referred to as "stealing"), is to be able to know when the action is occurring and to correct it at the instant it starts [without the dog knowing that the correction came from anything other than its own action (attempting to take the forbidden fruit)].
There are two potential ways to know the act is occurring without your dog knowing that you know. One is to set up video surveillance, so you can monitor the situation remotely. The other is to set up a photoelectric beam in a strategic location, such that when the beam is broken, a signal is produced which you can detect remotely (this can be an auditory or visual signal, e.g., sound produced or light switched on where you are). If at this instant, which corresponds specifically with your dog attempting to take the object/food, you press a button which at only that momentary instant delivers a shock to her, then she will learn to avoid engaging in that particular behavior. Clearly there are lots of specifics which must be addressed to prevent the dog from associating the shock with the collar, and to assure that a sufficient, but not excessive, amount of aversive stimulation is being delivered. Just like w/ invisible or radio fencing, dogs learn very quickly to alter their behaviors to avoid the unpleasant experience, and then there is no longer a need to discipline the behavior which no longer occurs.
The other potential alternative is to set up a situation in which you do not even need to know when the stealing is occurring. If the same photoelectric beam is hooked up to a loud, sharp, startling sound which will sufficiently scare the dog at the moment the beam is broken (i.e., when the infraction is occurring), then you will create a place/location where you can [if there is an absolute need to] leave food out, where your dog will not want to attempt to take it.
Getting the structure/set up of all of this just right will directly influence whether or not your dog learns the lesson that you intended to send.
If you don't want to have to face this dilemma, don't ever expose your dog to the taste of "the tempting fruit," and it will never know what it is missing. In this knowledge, it's easy to see why ignorance is bliss.