Diggin' Dogs

You've spent many hours and a fair amount of money getting your yard just right, and within days the grass or garden beds have holes, and dirt is spread out in places it is not supposed to be. Your dog has been busy digging up your hard work. So, how do you deal with a dog that digs?

Digging is a natural dog behavior. However, some dogs love to dig more than others, and it also is a more pronounced behavior in some breeds than others. If you have a dog digging up your yard, you will need to understand the motives behind the behavior first and then come up with a plan.

Why Do Dogs Dig?

It's in the breed… Some breeds are more avid diggers than others, though digging is natural dog behavior, and any dog can love digging. Suppose it is an innate behavior because it is a breed tendency. If you have a dog that loves digging, you will want to develop a solution that gives your dog a proper outlet for his digging needs.

My dog is bored… When dogs need something to do because they have energy and there is no human to guide them through constructive activities, dogs will rely on natural dog behaviors to make them happy, such as digging. Proper amounts of exercise, including training and enrichment activities and toys, might be just what your dog needs to curb the behavior.

Is my dog hunting… If the holes in your lawn or garden form a line-like pattern, you may have more than a dog digging problem. Some dogs will dig because there is a ground squirrel or gopher living underground. It would be worth it to check out the area and see if you have any raised patches of earth that give you clues that there is a rodent living in your lawn or garden. Many times, once the critter is gone, the digging stops.

Is it too hot… The earth, a few inches under the surface, is much cooler, and if it is a hot day and your dog does not have adequate shade and ways to keep cool, he will dig. If your dog is going to spend time outside on warm days, make sure that you have adequate cover - a dog house, shade trees, covered porch or patio, kiddie pool, and/or misters to keep him cool so he won't feel the need to dig. If you can keep your dog inside on hot days, you won't have this problem.

My dog buries things… Inspect the holes and disturbed dirt in your yard. Is there a bone or chew toy or dog toy buried there? Does your dog take a toy and walk around with it, going to hidden corners of the yard, looking left and right to see if anyone is watching? Some dogs will take special treats or toys and bury them for safekeeping. If your dog likes to bury precious items, you will need to come up with a solution to support that need, but in a productive way. The other alternative is to give these items to your dog when in a crate or ex-pen and possibly have blankets and such for your dog to use to bury the item, or not give your dog any items he feels the need to bury.

Did I teach it… Some dogs learn through observation. If you love to garden and are digging in the dirt in front of your dog, he might just pick up the behavior and decide to pitch in and help, though oftentimes they don't pick the spot where you want a nice big hole. So, keep your dog in a different area or inside when you need to dig in your garden, and spend time with your dog doing other activities like fetch, tug, walks, etc. If you have the time and patience, you can teach your dog to help you dig on cue and in a particular place where you designate, but that will take practice and stimulus control (your dog doing it only when you cue it) which can be difficult to attain.

My dog is an escape artist… Some dogs will dig under fences or gates to get out. This is more common in intact males and females, but again any dog can be a wanderer. Dogs that like to wander are typically bored or bored with their yard and have the need to explore other horizons or find a friend for fun and entertainment. Or they see something that they want to chase. Or they go looking for you because you have left. This is very dangerous behavior and can get a dog killed, like getting hit by a car. You don't want your dog to go missing! You will need to make sure that all fencing is secure, or you can’t leave your dog outside. You may need to have up to 18" or more underground be concrete or other strong solid material to prevent your dog from being successful in digging under the fence. Building a dog run or outside kennel with a concrete surface may be necessary. But this is just the management part of the problem. Climbers pose another problem and may require special fencing (slippery surface at a certain point so they have no grip to get to the top or have an enclosure). Your dog needs more exercise and mental stimulation so that his own home is fun and rewarding, which falls on you. If you work, perhaps having a dog walker or sending your dog to doggie daycare may be just the thing.

**A word of caution: Some dogs are digging and escaping because they have separation issues. This can be a serious situation and needs to be addressed. If your dog is doing physical harm to himself, trying to escape, pacing, whining, drooling, or panting, these are all signs of anxiety. You need to talk with a qualified trainer who knows behavior to help you with a specific training program and talk with your vet to see if medication is necessary to help.

What You Can Do

There are a number of things that you can do to save your yard and support your dog's need to dig.

Supervision - This is a big one, and it starts the day you bring your dog home. Whether it is a puppy or an older dog, don't just let the dog outside to run off energy, or you are running the risk of having your dog do all those natural dog behaviors that you don't want (barking, chasing, digging, etc.). They are, after all, dogs! If you are supervising your dog outside, you can interrupt and redirect any digging and teach your dog not to do that, or at least not in your garden or grass. Play with your dog and teach and encourage appropriate play activities in the yard.

Management - Sometimes, the simple solution is to fence off the area you don't want your dog to dig. You can get inexpensive (and even temporary) fencing or netting material and section off areas of the yard. For example, block flower beds so your dog no longer has access to the area and therefore can't dig there.

Exercise (physical and mental) - Dogs need constructive exercise and mental stimulation. It is important to provide enough play and structured activities, both physically and mentally, or your dog will find self-rewarding activities to stint boredom or work off excess energy. Simply thinking that letting your dog outside to "run it out" is asking for trouble! Walking your dog twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon/evening, structured play (fetch, chase pole, tug), and mental stimulation (training games, obedience, trick training), and enrichment will provide for your dog's needs. Consider also enrolling in a fun agility class, or freestyle, or other dog sport if you have a dog that needs more constructive outlets for all that energy.

Provide a Proper Outlet - Some dogs just need to dig.  It is in their DNA, or they just love to do it. For these dogs, an appropriate place to dig needs to be provided. You can purchase a kid sandbox or other container or clearly mark off a specific area in the yard where your dog can dig. Bait the area with toys and things for your dog to dig up, go there with your dog, and dig with him to encourage the behavior. Block off other "no-dig" areas and supervise your dog so you can catch him if he starts to dig in the wrong place and take him over to the correct spot. Encourage and reward and praise your dog for digging in the correct area.

Suppose you are the creative type and are good at putting behaviors to cues. In that case, you can teach your dog to dig on cue, giving your dog an outlet for the fun behavior while keeping it under control. Putting behaviors on cues can create stimulus control so that your dog will only do the behavior when you cue it. Digging is a self-rewarding behavior, so this is a good one to put on cue, and the reward is that your dog gets to do what he loves.

Here is an example of teaching your dog to dig on cue. Once our wine barrel started breaking and we couldn't keep the cats out, we had to find another container/place for Doc to dig. A laundry basket with towels became the option that kept our silly diggin' dog happy. Once he was good about only digging in the laundry basket on cue, we started moving the behavior to others spots. Now Doc will dig wherever we tell him to and won't dig unless cued to do so or unless he knows it is a place where he is allowed to dig.

The Off-Switch (Default Calmness) - you hear me metion it a lot; calmness. Teaching your dog to default into a clam state when there is no specific activity to do is invaluable. That is a true off-switch! Additionally, you also might need to teach your dog to also be calm in the backyard. So often we go outside to do fun and high-arousal activities in the yard, but we never show our dogs that they can just relax there, too. You might need to help your dog and put structure to this lesson and utilize strategies like boundary training and calmness games to help you dog settle down in the yard.

Additional Strategies

Some dogs will out-grow digging; others will not. But with some creativity on your part, supervision, and proper guidance, you will get your dog's love for digging to an appropriate and manageable level.

I believe management, supervision, and training are best, but...

Environmental Punishers

Now we get to talk a bit of punishment. This is not the first tactic that I choose when working with dogs because I feel it is not fair to punish a dog for doing something when he has no clue that it is not the right thing. You must first understand why your dog is digging before considering any punishment. For example, if your dog is digging due to anxiety, punishment will actually increase the anxiety and do more harm than good. Always take the time to teach and reward the behavior you do want first, and use supervision and management to prevent the unwanted behavior. But sometimes, there are circumstances where punishment can be appropriate, and this is where you can use an environmental punisher to discourage inappropriate digging.

An environmental punisher is where the punishment, something your dog does not like, comes from the environment, not you. So this will not involve you telling your dog "NO" or yelling at him, or even saying a cue. You will be setting up the area so that you do not have to be present for the punishment to be applied, a booby trap, so to speak. Why should you not be the one to administer the punishment? If your dog realizes that you are administering the punishment, the problem may cease when you are watching, but your dog will learn that the behavior is safe when you are not around. Having the environment deliver the punishment leaves you the role of being the good parent who "saves your dog from the mean garden," and your dog does not associate you with the "punishment." Therefore, whenever possible, you should administer punishment while remaining out of sight. I recommend that you are home to observe if your method of punishment works for your dog. If a booby trap needs to be reset, you must remove your dog from the area first.

The main idea of punishment is that it is delivered at the appropriate intensity to stop the behavior. Proper punishment does not need to be repeated over and over again; it should be effective after only a few applications. It must also be applied at the appropriate time, at the start of the misbehavior, and must be unpleasant enough to disrupt and deter the behavior from continuing or happening in the future.

Below are some ideas on environmental punishers to discourage diggers:

  1. Place chicken wire or pliable metal fencing in the holes your dog has already dug and cover them back up. Many dogs like to return to spots they have already dug up, so when their paw hits the metal, it does not feel good, and they will stop. This works for dogs that like to dig in a particular area.
  2. Place poop in the holes. Dogs (typically) will not dig in their own feces. This is not recommended for dogs that have coprophagia (eat poop).
  3. Bury soda cans filled with pennies (and sealed) in the holes. Some dogs hate the sound of the crunch and rattle of the coin cans, and it will be enough to stop them from digging in the area.
  4. ScareCrow or Garden Ghost and others like these are outdoor devices that use water or compressed air to deter your dog from digging in a particular area. They are motion-activated and work when you are not around. These types of deterrents can be a bit pricey and appear to be variably effective at best - they are not always activated, and range is limited.
  • ScareCrow, motion activated sprinkler, Contech Electronics - 
  • Garden Ghost - scentless motion detector spray (outdoor use) -
  • Scraminal /Critter Gitter, Scratcher Blaster, (motion activated alarms) - Amtek Pet Behavior Products -

So, if you have a little digger on your hands, find ways to give him an outlet for the instinctual and fun behavior without being destructive and out of control. Supervise your dog outside until good habits are formed, provide enough exercise and enrichment to satiate your dog's needs, and teach a good off-switch. In the end, both you and your dog will be happy.