Does your dog have a habit of digging holes in your immaculate lawn? Keep reading to find out why dogs dig and how to manage the problem with force-free techniques.
- Why Do Dogs Dig Holes?
- How to Prevent Digging
- Other Tips for Reducing Digging
Digging isn’t just a nuisance though – it can also be dangerous for your dog. Many plant bulbs, such as the common daffodil, are toxic to our canine companions. Some dogs may also dig under a fence and escape.
It’s important to realise that your dog isn’t digging to be naughty or mischievous though. The urge to dig is a natural instinct for canines, especially in certain breeds. Prolific digging can also be a sign of boredom, stress, a desire to roam, or other factors.
The bad news is that it’s often hard to completely stop digging. Addressing the underlying causes and putting in place management strategies can help though.
Why Do Dogs Dig Holes?
Digging, just like tail wagging, sniffing and barking, is a natural behaviour for dogs. Trying to extinguish this drive, aside from being a near-impossible challenge, could be damaging to your dog’s mental wellbeing.
Rather than expecting your dog to stop digging altogether, managing it is a more sensible strategy. But before you can reduce your dog’s digging, you need to understand why they’re doing it in the first place.
Boredom, Stress or Frustration
If your dog is bored, understimulated or stressed, he may resort to digging as a way to stay entertained or to relieve emotional tension.
Common causes of boredom include being left alone for too long, not enough physical and mental exercise, and a lack of toys to play with.
Digging caused by boredom can develop into an obsessive behavior if it isn’t addressed.
Creating a Den
You might have noticed your dog frantically scratching at their bed before lying down. This is thought to be an instinctive behavior, often referred to as ‘denning’.
Wolves dig dens to create a safe, secure, comfortable and scent marked space, mainly when they’re rearing pups. Your dog could be mimicking this behavior by creating a little sleeping pit in the garden.
If you have a pregnant bitch, they may also have a desire to create a den in the garden.
Hunting Small Animals
If you have a dog with a strong prey drive, they could be digging holes to hunt for small animals. A dog’s brilliant sense of smell makes it possible for them to notice a scent beneath the lawn surface.
Certain breeds are more likely to dig for prey. These include terriers, which were bred for this purpose.
If your dog is an escape artist, has a desire to roam, or there’s something tempting behind the fence, they may dig in an attempt to get to the other side. Left unattended, the best diggers can escape much quicker than many dog owners realise.
Burrowing to escape can also be a symptom of separation anxiety or stress.
Hiding Food or “Valuable” Items
You’ll no doubt have seen cartoon dogs digging holes to store bones – but “real” dogs hide high-value items too. This instinctual behavior arises when a dog wants to keep a prized possession, like a toy or a tasty chew, safe to come back to later.
Unfortunately, it’s common for dogs to forget the exact location of the item. This can lead to them digging more holes in an attempt to find it again!
If your dog is outside in extreme temperatures, they may dig a hole to keep cool or warm.
Again, this is an instinctual behavior due to the insulating properties of the ground. While digging may help regulate their temperature, dogs should never be left outside in conditions that might trigger this behaviour.
Some dogs dig simply because they enjoy it. It’s a self-rewarding behavior for many canines, which is why it’s difficult to completely stop.
Are Some Breeds More Likely to Dig?
Dogs with a strong hunting drive are more likely to dig. Terrier breeds, for example, were bred to follow their quarry into underground dens and dig them out. Breeds like the Jack Russell, or those in the Hound group, like Beagles or Dachshunds, can all be prolific diggers.
The arctic breeds, like Huskies, also tend to dig more – but for a different reason. As they were bred to live in cold climates, they have a natural instinct for creating a temperature-regulating den.
How to Prevent Digging
It’s difficult to prevent a dog from performing natural behaviors, so management is the key when handling dog digging. Here’s a four step process for reducing this behaviour.
Step 1: Never Punish or Scold Your Dog for Digging
Never scold or punish your dog for digging, even if you feel frustrated by the new hole in your garden. Digging isn’t a “naughty” behaviour – it’s something dogs do naturally.
It’s also unlikely that a dog will associate punishment with the act of digging. The dog will be scared by the owner’s anger, but won’t link this emotion to an action in the past. Even if they do understand why their owner is angry, punishment can cause lasting damage to their bond.
In some cases, scolding could even cause your dog to dig more. Punishment increases anxiety, leading to further digging, destructive behavior, or even aggression as a coping strategy.
Step 2: Ensure His Basic Needs Are Being Met
Dogs will often dig if they’re bored, stressed or uncomfortable. By addressing issues in their lifestyle, you may be able to reduce or even eliminate your dog’s compulsion to dig.
Some examples to consider include:
- Are they getting enough physical exercise?
- Do they need more mental stimulation or playtime? Are you offering them toys, puzzle feeders, games, training and other enrichment around the home?
- Are they being left outside unsupervised for long periods?
- Are they showing signs of separation anxiety, stress or fearful behavior?
- Is your dog being left outside when the weather is too hot or cold?
- Do you have an unneutered male that wants to roam?
Step 3: Avoid Leaving Your Dog in Garden Unsupervised
It may seem obvious, but the best way to prevent digging is to supervise your dog in the garden.
Supervision allows you to interrupt digging and start teaching alternative behaviours, which is a key step.
If you see your dog lining up to dig, distract them by calling their name and rewarding them with a tasty treat and fun toy. Over time, this will teach your dog that alternative behaviors are more pleasurable than the act of digging.
Of course, you’ll need a strong recall command before trying this. If your dog doesn’t reliably come when called, practice this first until he always responds.
It’s also a good idea to make his favourite digging spots less accessible. Placing temporary fencing around digging hotspots is a passive way to break the habit, while you teach your dog where it’s acceptable to dig (see next step.)
Step 4: Create an Acceptable Digging Area
For dogs with strong digging instincts, stopping the behaviour is virtually impossible. Instead, you should give them a designated place to channel this desire that won’t cause your garden to be ruined.
A sandbox is probably the best option, but you can also cordon off an area of loose topsoil in the garden. Bury fun items in the digging area, such as toys, so that digging in the “right” place is more fun than anywhere else.
Whenever your dog digs in this area, give plenty of praise to reinforce the behaviour. If they focus on another space, call them back over to the designated spot and offer a reward when they dig there.
This method takes consistency. But over time, your dog will learn that digging in the designated area is more rewarding than the rest of the garden.
Tip: Make sure the designated digging area doesn’t contain any poisonous bulbs, plants or other potential hazards.
Other Tips for Reducing Digging
There several other management strategies that could help you deal with your dog’s digging habit. These include:
- Humanely remove pests and vermin from the garden if your dog is obsessed with hunting for them. Make sure you avoid chemical solutions which could be dangerous for your dog.
- Offer your dog plenty of shade in warm weather and keep your dog indoors when the weather turns cold.
- If you have a terrier breed with a strong instinctual drive to dig, you could offer another outlet for this drive through the competitive sport referred to as Earthdog. This encourages the dog to follow a scent trail through a man-made tunnel to find their quarry (no animals are harmed).
- If your dog is digging as a result of stress or separation anxiety, it could be helpful to consult a qualified dog behaviorist. They’ll provide clear guidance and a behavior modification plan.
Digging is a behavior that comes naturally to dogs, and the desire to dig can be stronger in some breeds than others.
Set your dog up for success by never leaving them unsupervised in the garden, working on rewarding alternative behaviors, and assessing whether they’re getting enough exercise and enrichment.
If the desire is strong, training your dog to dig in a designated spot can also be helpful.