Destructive Behaviour - Digging in Dogs

puppies in a yardWhy do dogs dig?

Digging behaviour in dogs can have many motivations. Some breeds, such as the Northern breeds (Huskies, Malamutes) dig cooling holes and lie in them and indeed on a very hot summer day any dog may dig a hole to cool off. Breeds such as the terriers have been bred to flush out prey or dig for rodents. With their ability to hear high frequency sounds, and their highly acute sense of smell, they dig as a direct result of smells or sounds that attract them from beneath the ground. Pregnant dogs dig when nesting and dogs dig to bury or retrieve bones. Dogs also dig to escape from confinement and digging can be seen as an activity similar to destructive chewing that occurs when pets are left alone with insufficient mental as well as physical stimulation or attention. In these cases you should seek professional guidance to safeguard your dog’s welfare.

How can I determine why my dog is digging?

The first step in treating inappropriate digging behaviour is to determine the reason for the digging. Inhibiting or preventing all digging, without understanding and dealing with the dog’s motivation, could result in new behaviour problems such as chewing, excessive vocalisation, or escape behaviours. If your dog is digging in ways that you find unacceptable then it is useful to follow these guidelines:

  • Provide for all of your dog’s basic behavioural needs in order to prevent the situation where the digging is merely redirected to a new location when you interrupt it. 
  • Check to see if there are any garden pests your dog may be trying to pursue. Dogs that dig because they are after prey will continue unless you can get rid of the prey. 
  • If the behaviour only occurs in hot weather it may be associated with a wallow, and so a cool resting area with plenty of shade and water should be provided, and on very hot days, it may be best to bring your dog inside. 
  • Assess the balance between energy that is provided in the diet and is expended during exercise. If digging is an indication of not enough exercise and activity, additional play and exercise times may be needed. This is especially true if your dog is young and very active. 
  • Assess the level of mental stimulation provided for your dog. If your dog is outside all day, or left alone in the house for prolonged periods and digging is taking place, you do need to ask yourself if you are providing for all of his behavioural needs. This is especially important for the dog that digs to escape from the yard or confinement area. If you are keeping your dog outside for long periods because of house-soiling problems or unacceptable destruction in the house, then you need to address these problems. It is particularly important to assess whether your dog is anxious when left alone as this will require specialist intervention, to control his emotional problem.

How can I stop inappropriate digging?

a)  Provide a digging area

For some dogs, and especially for those for whom digging is a very highly motivated behaviour, it may be useful for you to create an area where the dog is allowed to dig. This could be a specific location in the garden where you have placed soft top soil or sand to encourage digging. It helps to clearly define the area with borders so the dog can distinguish it from the rest of the garden and then you will need to make this a place where your dog would like to dig. Bury things there that your pet would like to dig up, for example raw hide treats or chew toys. To begin with the treats should be lightly covered to encourage your pet to find them and gradually you should move to placing them deeper into the ground. If you do that (naturally when your dog is not watching!) at irregular intervals, your dog should be more likely to dig there, than other locations in your garden. Another option is to allow the dog to dig in a spot which he has already chosen, and to prevent digging in other locations by supervision and/or confinement/restriction.

"For some dogs, and especially for those for whom digging is a very highly motivated behaviour, it may be useful for you to create an area where the dog is allowed to dig."

b)  Supervision and punishment

Supervision and direct intervention (e.g. sound aversion) can be used to interrupt inappropriate digging in the owner’s presence, but it is essential to redirect your dog into digging in an acceptable location or engaging in an alternative behaviour that can be rewarded. Lack of reward for an alternative is likely to result in temporary suppression of the behaviour but inappropriate digging may well continue to occur in the owner’s absence. Remote punishment (e.g. turning on a sprinkler), booby traps (placing rocks or water in the area where the pet digs), or covering the surface with one that is impervious (asphalt/patio stones) might teach the pet to avoid the digging site but without an associated programme of reward for behaviours that are desirable these techniques will not prevent the pet from digging in other locations or returning to the same location at another time.

What else can be done if inappropriate digging continues when I am not around to supervise?

When you are unavailable to supervise your dog, housing the dog indoors is the most practical solution until he  has learned to stay outdoors without digging. If you would like to continue to leave your dog outdoors, it is best to confine him to an area such as a pen or run, so that he has no access to inappropriate digging areas. The run should be inescapable, and could be covered with gravel, patio tiles or have an asphalt or concrete floor so that the dog cannot dig. Of course it will be necessary to provide sufficient exercise and stimulation before confining the dog and to also supply an adequate number of treats and play toys in the run to keep the dog occupied. Another alternative is to provide an area within the pen or run where digging is allowed, such as child’s sand pit filled with soil. Runs must also of course be supplied with sufficient shade, shelter, water and bedding.

You might also consider employing a dog walker so that your dog has plenty of exercise while you are out. Doggy daycare is also a great option for your dog if you want your dog to be occupied and your house and garden to be safe.

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