Ask Faith: Advice to help stop cats from counter surfing, dogs from digging

Orange tabby cat standing on a county
Best Friends co-founder answers questions about how to keep a curious, food-obsessed cat off the counter and a dog from digging where she shouldn’t.
By Faith Maloney

Editor’s note: Faith Maloney, one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society, consults on various aspects of animal care at the Sanctuary. In the early days of Best Friends, she started Dogtown and spent much of the day involved in the direct care and feeding of the animals. She’s also a frequent contributor to Best Friends magazine. The following advice was originally published in her Best Friends magazine column, “Ask Faith.”

What to do about a cat who counter surfs

Dear Faith:

Six months ago, we went to a shelter and adopted a four-year-old cat who had spent a lot of time on the streets. Star is a charming and curious animal and we are enjoying her, but we can’t keep her off the kitchen counter, especially at her feeding times and our mealtimes. She is very food-obsessed, probably because of her years on the streets. My husband does not want to try sticky strips or a spray bottle as a deterrent. I would appreciate any suggestions.

– Miffed about counter surfing


Dear Miffed:

Cats respond to positive reinforcement more than correction. In fact, correcting a cat only serves to weaken the bond between you and your cat, and it can cause future behavior issues. So, you’ll want to ignore inappropriate behavior and reward and reinforce appropriate behavior.

Wanting to be up high, wanting to be part of the action and wanting food are all behaviors driven by feline instincts. You’ll want to offer Star the ability to indulge those instincts, but in an appropriate way. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Designate a tall chair, shelf or separate area of the counter as Star’s special spot while you’re prepping food on the counter. Another option is to put a cat tree near the counter.
  • Put a towel on the special spot so it’s comfy for her. Now she has somewhere to sit that’s up high and close to the action and the food.
  • Entice her to this new spot with treats, and then reward her while she’s in this spot with whatever high value treat she likes most. If she jumps off and heads to the food prep area of the counter, lure her back to the desired spot with a treat.
  • Keep rewarding Star for sitting in this spot. And wait until she’s sitting in the spot to put her food down. She will quickly learn that this new spot is the best place to be.
  • One final tip: The best time to train cats is right before they’re fed, because that’s when they’re most treat-motivated.

[Cats : All Cat Training Resources]

How do you keep a dog from digging?

Dear Faith:

I have an eight-year-old Lab mix named Willow who loves to dig in the dirt. I fill the hole and she digs again in the same place. What can I do to stop this?

– Not digging the digging


Dear Not Digging:

A natural and instinctive part of canine behavior, digging offers dogs a lot of benefits. If they get too warm, they often dig so they can lie down in cooler ground. Some dig to get to the really good smells or to investigate the habitats of animals who live under the surface. Some like to bury things for later or to keep other dogs (or people) from taking away their prize possessions. The act of digging can provide an outlet for pent-up energy, too.

Because the behavior is so intrinsically motivating and self-rewarding, trying to stop it can be less successful than directing where and when our dogs dig. Dogs can be taught to dig in a specific area — perhaps a corner of the yard allocated for that purpose or a raised bed or, depending on the size of the dog, a child’s splash pool. Fill that designated area with a soil and sand mixture and then add “treasures” (toys, safe chew bones, etc.) for Willow to find when she digs.

If she starts to dig in a different area, guide her back to the digging spot and reward her with treats and praise her for digging there. If she keeps returning to an inappropriate area for digging, you can try laying down some wire mesh screen on the ground to discourage digging.

At the Sanctuary, we have seen some cases of obsessive digging over the years in which even calming medications did not work. For one such dog, Wilson, we created a divided exercise run with a fence and a gate between the two sides. Half of the run’s surface was concrete and half was sand. He was allowed to be on the sand side, supervised at first, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Wilson loved rocks, so we would hide rocks in the sand and he would spend his digging time finding them. After finding all his rocks and placing them in a line, he would retire to the concrete side with a nice soft bed to rest up from the intense work. In most cases of digging, going to that length is not needed, but I wanted to include Wilson’s solution as something else to try.

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This article originally appeared in Best Friends magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine by becoming a Best Friends member.