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Why dogs dig and tips to prevent your dog from digging

(Photo by Tup Wanders/Wikimedia)
(Photo by Tup Wanders/Wikimedia)

DETROITThis blog is powered by the Michigan Humane Society. 

My neighbor, friend and awesome MHS volunteer sent me a text yesterday.  It went something like this:

“Wanna come over and help me fill in the Grand Canyon in our backyard?”

It took me a minute to figure out what the heck she was talking about and then I realized – it’s spring, the ground has thawed and her dogs have started digging again. Fortunately for me, I had to get this article finished, and as such I was unable to help her fill the holes in her yard (honest).  She did, however, unknowingly provide me with the ideal topic for this article. So let’s discuss digging in honor of my friend, her dogs and the Grand Canyon in her backyard.

Just as we discussed in the previous “how to discourage barking” article, the first step toward having a hole-free yard is to determine the reason behind your dog’s digging.  In my experience, there are five MAIN reasons that dogs dig.  Let’s see if any of these reasons sound familiar to you:

1) You have small critters living in your lawn.  Moles, voles and other little tunneling animals can burrow underground leaving little ridges in your lawn.  Many dogs, especially terrier types, REALLY enjoy the “game” of trying to find and catch underground animals. 

2) Your dog likes to escape.  Dogs who dig under fences can have a couple of reasons for wanting to get out.  Maybe they have someplace more exciting to go, or maybe your dog has a bit of separation anxiety (SA) and cannot tolerate being left alone.  Dogs with SA may actually panic and dig to get out in a quest to find someone/anyone who will keep them company.

3) Your dog is bored.  Some things are just “doggy things” to do.  Barking, chewing, digging… When dogs get bored, you can expect some of those good old doggy behaviors to appear.

4) You have a “hot dog.” Some dogs, especially northern breeds get warm easily.  If your dog is digging or scuffing up the lawn in shady areas and laying in the “hole” your dog may simply be creating a cool and comfortable spot to relax.

5) Your dog likes to dig!

Do you have a pretty good idea of why your dog is digging in your yard?  Remember, the trick to successfully changing your dog’s behavior is to know your dog and develop a plan that best addresses the cause of the behavior.

1) Your dog is trying to catch small critters burrowing in your yard.  The very best way to stop this type of digging is to rid your yard of the small animals so there’s nothing left for your dog to hunt.  There are many ways to get rid of small, burrowing animals. The Michigan Humane Society recommends using animal-friendly methods to keep them out of your yard. You may consider consulting a pest control organization that has experience in using humane deterrents.  One crazy trick some folks have used is…Remember the whirligigs that people used to stick in their lawns?  One popular one was a man chopping wood; another was a bird who leaned forward to get a drink?  There were 100s of different versions.  When the wind blew, the blades turned and the little statues would be put into motion.  Placing some of those throughout your yard may create a sound/vibration underground that the burrowing animals find unpleasant.  As such, they may just pack up and relocate.

2) Your dog digs to escape.  If your dog is trying to get out of your yard because it’s more fun elsewhere, you probably need to take a two-pronged approach.  First, you can make the areas where your dog likes to dig unpleasant.   Some folks have been known to bury the dog’s feces, pinecones, gravel, even blown up balloons (that will pop when the dog digs down and hits the balloon) in the holes.  Please be sure that if you elect to booby trap the holes, you ensure that your dog will only be discouraged from digging, not injured.  You can also reinforce the areas your dog has chosen as prime escape routes by burying bricks, etc. to make a little “underground wall.”  Remember though, that dogs who are committed to getting out can dig very deep in an effort to escape.  This is why your plan has to have two parts. You can safely booby trap the holes by making them unpleasant (but safe!) for the dog to dig.  Then, you need to make your yard a party.  Go outside and play with your dog!  Play fetch, play hide and seek (also a GREAT way to perfect your dog’s recall), play soccer, throw a Frisbee, just BE WITH YOUR DOG. Even if you’re out there doing yard work and talking about your day, your dog will be happier spending time with you and will be much less likely to look for fun someplace else.

If your dog panics or has separation anxiety (SA) and is escaping to find you, there’s a good chance you should not leave your dog alone outside.  Dogs with true SA are suffering and can hurt themselves trying to escape.  A consultation with a qualified veterinary behaviorist is a good next step.

3) Your dog is bored.  Some dogs can make their own fun.  They toss their toys up and play fetch with themselves, they lay in the yard and watch birds and squirrels or spend hours on the porch just enjoying the sun. Some dogs would much rather be with you than enjoying the great outdoors.  Similar to the situation above, the very best way to help a bored dog stop digging (or barking!) is to prevent him from being bored in the first place.  Go outside and play with your dog! If you can’t be out there, give your dog some interactive toys to keep him busy or bring him in the house so he can hang out with you.

Some ideas for boredom-busting toys include:

  • Making a “pupsicle” by filling a small bucket or bowl with water, dropping dog biscuits into the water and freezing it.  Pop the frozen ice “block” out of the bowl and place it in the yard for the dog to chew on.
  • Toss three or four appropriate sized Kongs smeared with a little peanut butter or squeeze cheese inside or put some other feeding type toys (Kong Wobbler, PetSafe Tug a Jug, etc.) in the yard for your dog to find and snack on. 
  • Dogs who love to tug can find it fun to grab and pull on Kong-type toys hung for them at appropriate levels on sturdy trees, poles, etc.

Remember, the toys and games you select for your dog should be appropriate for your dog, and your dog should be supervised while playing with them.  

4) Your dog is hot.  These holes are usually not very deep, but can be fairly large spots in your lawn.  I’ve seen dogs seek cooler places to relax outside because they’re warm, of course, but I also had a client with an elderly boxer who started digging holes and lying in them.  Turns out the dog was arthritic and found comfort lying in the cool dirt.  (Anytime your dog’s behavior changes dramatically a visit to the vet is in order.)  For the dogs who like to lie in cooler areas, consider putting a plastic baby pool in a shady area and adding a touch of water or moist sand to help make it a cool place to rest.  There are also special beds that have cooling properties that may work outside for your dog as well.  Always leave fresh, cool drinking water available for your dog, and please don’t leave your dog outside for extended periods of time.

5) So what do you do, then if your dog just likes to dig?  I’m a big fan of “if you can’t beat ‘em…join ‘em.”  Instead of continuing to punish and getting frustrated with your dog, why not just give them someplace to dig that you find acceptable?  Some people designate a specific spot in the yard, typically hidden away, where the dog can dig to his heart’s content.  Simply rough up the lawn a bit, section the area off with boards or rail road ties, etc. and bury (not too deep) a few dog toys, treats, dog bones, etc. in the new digging pit.  Then, go dig with your dog.  Show him all the great stuff he can find, and when he finds a toy, play with him a bit.  Your job here is to teach him that digging in his new area is so much more fun than digging in the middle of your yard. If you find that your dog has trouble redirecting his digging efforts to the digging area, make sure he gets a ton of attention from you when he gets it right.  If you need to discourage digging elsewhere, you can try using a small, handheld air horn.  Hide.  When your dog starts digging, blow the horn.  As soon as your dog startles, you can magically appear and encourage him to dig in his spot, playing with him as he digs in the right place.  He’ll soon learn it’s much more fun to dig where you want him to (and hopefully your neighbors will understand about the air horn).

I hope these tips are helpful.   I think I’ll head on over to my neighbor’s now to see if she still needs help with her Grand Canyon. Maybe I’ll mention this article as well, especially since her dogs were the inspiration.