I get asked a lot about digging. More specifically the question is “How do I get my dog to stop digging?”
There is no simple answer to this question and, sadly, no real solution to the problem of digging. The truth is that some dogs could care less about digging so they either never start or it’s easy to get them to stop; other dogs need to dig and are, in fact, enthusiastic, dedicated, life-long diggers. Wherever your dog is on the continuum, it’s helpful to understand why dogs dig.
The biggest cause of digging in today’s dogs usually is boredom. Digging is a natural behavior; it’s a survival behavior. So dogs are bound to do it if given the opportunity such as when they are left outside unattended with nothing constructive to do and no supervision.
When dogs often are left outside alone to “enjoy the fresh air”, they really are left outside alone to self entertain. So when they are done pouncing on a leaf, fence running with the dog next door, chewing a stick, barking at the mail carrier, soaking up the sun, and chasing a chipmunk up the drain spout, many dogs turn to digging for stimulation, fun and exercise.
Another reason dogs dig is to protect themselves from the elements or predators – to create a cool spot when it’s hot, shelter when it’s cold, or a safe place to hide. Digging is a functional, hard-wired, survival behavior. Dogs who do not dig would likely not live long if left to their own devices, so it’s understandable why the behavior is never far from the surface for dogs who have nothing better to do – which goes back to the biggest cause of digging: boredom.
Dogs also dig because they smell amazing, pungent odors in dirt – a smorgasbord of scents that take them to aroma heaven. The more they dig, the fresher and more rich the scents are to sniff. So satisfying!
Some dogs dig to hide things – precious belongings that they want to save for later. I had a Lab mix named Axl who would make a hole behind a storage shed where he would then bury his special bones for safe keeping.
And then, of course, some dogs are dirt eaters. You can feed them the most expensive, the highest grade, and the most nutritionally complete food (processed, fresh, homemade or raw) and they still love to eat dirt. And in order to eat dirt, you have to paw at it, loosen it, dig at it. Fun, productive and oh so tasty – apparently.
There are no proven ways to permanently prevent digging beyond not leaving your dog outside unattended for longer than it takes him to go to the bathroom and being present to interrupt and redirect the behavior when your dog is outside for longer periods of time.
Sure, you can try some of the “cures” people suggest, but they don’t really solve the problem. You can put cayenne pepper in the hole the dog is working on, but if you have a yard bigger than a postage stamp the dog will just move to another spot. You can put poop in the hole the dog is working on, but if you have a yard bigger than a postage stamp, the dog will just move to another spot. You can cover the hole the dog is working on and block access to it, but if yo have a yard bigger than a postage stamp, the dog will just move to another spot. You get the idea.
The ONLY way I have found to successfully deter or prevent a dog from digging is to be with the dog, watching constantly, ready to interrupt/discourage/redirect the behavior to exercise, play and training. I did this for an entire spring/summer/fall with my oldest Border Collie, who started to dig when she was a puppy, and to this day she is a NON-DIGGER! It’s a lot of work, but a well-exercised, well-trained dog is less likely to have digging issues; it only makes sense that when you spend time with your dog, giving her physical exercise and mental stimulation through play and training (obedience, tricks, agility, nose work, tracking), she’s not so quick to look for something to do on her own.
Still there are some dogs who just have to dig or explode.
I now have a couple of such dogs. And because sometimes I just can’t be on hole prevention duty 24/7, I have found that providing an official, approved digging area helps a lot. My dogs have a 30 x 50 foot contained limestone kennel area where digging is allowed, and two of my dogs take full advantage of it – not every day but from time to time. So when they just have to dig that instinct-satisfying hole, no harm is done. I just fill it in, tamp it down and it’s ready for the next excavator. It gives my avid diggers a place to express their behavior and I don’t get angry that someone tore up the lawn. They even seem to understand and accept that the trade off for getting to dig is they will get plopped into the tub for a foot bath. Hey, we all have to make sacrifices.