Owning a dog that digs can be an extremely frustrating and costly situation for many owners. Some might dig single holes in the same area, whereas others can perform extensive excavations across the entire backyard. Let’s look at why dogs dig and some suggestions on how to deal with it.
Firstly, we need to remember that digging is a natural behaviour for dogs, so the key to addressing the problem is to understand why your dog is digging in the first place and then introduce the appropriate measures to help stop it.
Unfortunately there are still far too many owners that think that their dog ‘knows’ that they shouldn’t dig and therefore punish them by telling them off when they get home from work to find a hole in their garden. This is NOT the way to address common dog behaviour problems.
Latent punishment (punishing your dog after the act) is both confusing and cruel for your dog, as they are unable to make a direct association with the action and consequence unless they are actually caught in the act. Latent punishment is not only ineffective in solving the problem, but it has the potential to cause further problems – this is the same for all ‘problem’ dog behaviours.
Some common reasons for why dogs dig
Like many other dog behaviours such as chewing and barking, digging can be related directly to survival techniques that are instinctive to dogs. They might do it to keep cool or warm, to escape from their yard, or simply for pure enjoyment!
Sweating helps us humans regulate our body temperature so that in the heat we are able to cool ourselves down a lot quicker that what our dogs can, since they sweat very little.
As such, dogs will often dig a hole to lie in so that they can keep themselves cool in the hot weather in the cooler moist ground. Alternatively, they may dig themselves a hole to lie in when it is cold if they don’t have a warm kennel or protected area to sleep in.
Even when a dog does have a bed or blanket to lie in and is toasty warm inside, many owners have had a good laugh at their dog as they intently circle around their beds, throwing their blanket around to get it ‘just right’ before throwing themselves down and curling into a ball. This is an example of a dog’s instinct to protect their vital organs from the elements and make themselves as comfortable as possible.
It makes sense then, if they have little protection from the elements, to dig a hole to lie in instead.
Some dogs dig because they are pursuing an odour of buried food or a prey animal. This can become more of a problem in those breeds that are known for burrowing into the underground dens of small prey animals, such as terriers and dachshunds.
As I have written about a lot, dogs are not designed to be left alone in the backyard for long stretches of time without the appropriate mental and physical stimulation required to meet their needs.
Most dogs I have seen where digging has become a problem behaviour (and often accompanied by excessive barking, chewing and other ‘destructive behaviours’) can be put down to boredom.
The dog is simply not getting enough exercise and stimulation for their age, breed and temperament and is left alone in the backyard without any interactive toys or ways to keep them occupied both mentally and physically. It’s no wonder then that they find other ways to do this…and digging provides the perfect outlet!
Separation anxiety and boredom are often confused so the best tell tale sign to determine which it might be is to set up a video to determine if it is occurring later in the day (generally indicates boredom) or as soon or not long after you have left the house and generally only when you are absent (separation anxiety).
If it is anxiety related then this would often be accompanied by other Separation Related Behaviours such as barking, howling, crying, excessive greetings, pacing, inappropriate elimination, loss of appetite etc.
A dog might also dig to escape from their yard, which again might be a case of boredom or anxiety, or simply the desire to seek out other human or canine companionship.
It could be maternal for a female dog when they are in season, pregnant or possibly even experiencing a false pregnancy.
They might be burying food or bones if they are being over fed or the bone is too big for them to consume, or they may even be mimicking us if we have recently done some gardening/digging of holes.
I would suggest that if there is a serious digging issue (or other problem behaviour) going on with your dog that you have an experienced and qualified dog trainer come to your home to do an assessment of the situation.
Particularly if you suspect that it might be related to boredom or anxiety, or if they are managing to escape from your yard regularly, as these can become major problems for you and your dog if left unaddressed.
Environmental enrichment: First and foremost, ensure that your dog has the environmental enrichment it needs to keep physically and mentally stimulated when left alone. Click here to find out how to do this with appropriate interactive toys, providing alternative places for them to dig such as a sandpit and other solutions. Often by addressing boredom or separation anxiety through environmental enrichment and other techniques (see here for Separation Anxiety article and video) you will see a very quick reduction in the problem and then you can apply these other steps.
Restrict access: If they tend to dig in one spot or have a favourite hole they tend to with great enthusiasm, then restrict access to the area by fencing it off or keeping the dog in an alternative area when they can’t be supervised.
Interrupt: If you catch your dog in the act of digging then immediately interrupt the behaviour. This isn’t great for addressing long-standing problems, but is great for puppies. Too often we let our puppies get away with doing things that we don’t want them to do as adults as we think it is cute, then we wonder why they continue on as adults, so stopping it early at the first sign is important.
Provide alternatives: Provide alternative places for them to dig ie: a sandpit and hide treats/bury toys in it and encourage them when they are doing it there to keep it contained to that area. See ‘environmental enrichment’.
Deter: Fill the hole with water &/or faeces (must be fresh) to deter the dog from digging there. Leave it until the dog stops digging and bury over it.
Provide shelter: Ensure the dog has adequate shade/shelter and a warm sleeping area to keep it protected from the elements.
There are other treatments that can assist, but give these a try first, particularly the environmental enrichment suggestions, and seek out a qualified dog trainer or behaviourist to help.
About the Author: Lara Shannon is co-Host of Pooches at Play and has completed a Certificate III in Dog Behaviour & Training with the National Dog Trainers Federation. Lara also runs her own dog walking, dog minding and dog training business in Melbourne’s Bayside area.