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Preventing and Addressing Digging Behavior in Dogs

Preventing and Addressing Digging Behavior in Dogs

Dogs dig for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are:

  • Boredom – Dogs left alone in the yard for long periods with nothing to do will often dig just to pass the time. Lack of physical and mental stimulation leads to boredom and digging.

  • Seeking comfort or protection – Dogs will dig to create cool spots to lie down on hot days or burrow into bedding material to feel safe and secure. Dogs may dig under fences or porch steps to gain access to comfortable sleeping areas.

  • Hunting instinct – Terrier breeds and other dogs bred for hunting may dig while searching for prey or scents underground. Their instincts tell them that digging may lead to something interesting.

  • Separation anxiety – Dogs with separation anxiety may frantically dig and scratch at doors or escape routes when left alone, trying to reunite with their owners.

  • Fear – When afraid, a dog may dig to create an escape route or hiding place. Thunderstorm phobia or loud noises can trigger this fearful digging.

  • Attention seeking – Any behavior can become attention-getting behavior if dogs learn it elicits attention from their owners. Digging may get a reaction from you, so they do it more.

  • Medical issues – In some cases, obsessive digging may indicate a medical issue like parasites, allergies, thyroid problems or anxiety disorders. Consulting a vet can rule out medical causes.

  • Breed tendency – Some breeds like terriers are born diggers and will instinctively dig more than other breeds. Breed tendencies exist but are not absolutes, as individual variation occurs.

Preventing Digging Before it Starts

Since most dogs dig for the reasons listed above, prevention starts with addressing these motivations. Some tips:

  • Exercise – A tired dog is less likely to dig from boredom or pent up energy. Ensure your dog gets sufficient physical and mental exercise every day. Play fetch, take long walks, do obedience training or give interactive puzzle toys.

  • Crate training – When you can't supervise the dog, use a crate or confined dog-proof area to prevent digging access. Only use crates temporarily and positively. Never use them to punish.

  • Eliminate boredom – Dogs left alone outside get bored. Bring your dog inside or provide stimulating toys to pass time. Rotate toys to keep things interesting. Offer chew toys like Kongs stuffed with treats.

  • Reduce separation anxiety – If your dog digs when alone, work on gradually getting them used to being alone. Start with brief absences and reward calm behavior upon return. Ease into longer solo periods.

  • Block access – Fence off areas you don't want dug up. Use garden fencing sunk deep into the ground to block access. Filling in holes with rocks also deters future digging.

  • Discourage interest – Make areas less enticing to dig by using decorative rocks or chicken wire to create uncomfortable surfaces. Use containment fencing to keep your dog in mulched or paved areas and out of flower beds or lawns.

  • Dog-proof environment – Pick up any objects or items your dog may want to dig up if given access like children's toys left lying around the yard. Remove inducements to dig.

  • Hide triggers – If your dog is scared of thunderstorms and digs to escape the noise, provide a secure space in a windowless room or basement during storms. Muffle noise with TV or music.

Correcting Digging

If your dog is actively digging inappropriately, correction is needed. Some approaches:

  • Supervise – Simply being present outside with your dog often deters digging. Dogs won't dig if they know you're watching. Off-limits areas need human monitoring.

  • Interrupt and distract – When you catch your dog digging, interrupt the behavior with a loud noise like a whistle or shaking a can filled with coins or stones. Then immediately redirect your dog's energy by playing fetch or doing training exercises. Praise for stopping digging and attending to you instead.

  • Verbal correction – A firm "No" or "Eh-eh!" lets your dog know digging is unacceptable. But scolding should not happen more than 1-2 seconds after the behavior, or your dog won't connect the reprimand with the digging. Timeliness is key.

  • Deny tool access – If your dog persistently digs in certain areas, restrict access to those zones and closely monitor your dog when loose in the yard to prevent rehearsal of digging habits. Prevention is most effective.

  • Re-sod damaged areas – Damaged grass may tempt your dog to dig again. Re-sodding or filling in holes removes the visual cues and triggers to dig there. Clean areas indicate digging is not allowed.

  • Booby trap holes – Bury citronella-soaked rags, mouse traps without the dangerous bar or upside-down floor mats in holes your dog keeps digging. These harmless but unpleasant surprises teach holes are unpleasant places.

  • Apply unpleasant tastes – When you catch your dog digging, spray a taste deterrent like bitter apple on the shovel or in the hole. Dogs learn digging in that spot tastes bad. Reapply regularly.

  • Positive reinforcement – Whenever you catch your dog abstaining from digging in the yard, praise them and give treats. Reinforce the positive non-digging behavior you want to see. Dogs learn good things happen when they don't dig.

  • Consult trainers – If your dog's digging habit is too persistent for you to control, seek help from certified dog trainers. They can assess your dog's motivations and offer customized modification programs.

Special Considerations for Certain Dogs

Some dogs require additional digging prevention measures:

  • Puppies – Since puppies explore and learn behaviors through play, provide ample chew toys to divert them from soil. Set up a designated digging pit filled with sand or mulch to teach appropriate digging outlets.

  • Terriers – Terriers live to dig and will be harder to train not to. You must supervise them vigilantly outdoors and contain their digging urge with sandbox-type areas where digging is allowed.

  • Working dogs – Huskies, shepherds and other active breeds need intense daily exercise and mental stimulation. Make sure their needs for activity are fully met to prevent boredom digging.

  • Anxious dogs – If you suspect anxiety motivates the digging, consult a veterinary behaviorist. Medication combined with counterconditioning may be needed for severe separation anxiety cases.

  • Escape artist dogs – Some dogs persistently dig to escape. For them, a securely buried concrete wall or chain link fencing well below ground may be your only containment option. Their confinement requires extra vigilance.

Fair Expectations

Digging prevention takes time and diligent effort. You must repeatedly interrupt, block access and re-sod areas before new habits take hold. Some dogs have such strong drives they may never stop digging completely. In those cases, management and containment are the realistic options. Striking a balance between allowing natural behaviors and appropriate outlets while setting fair limits is key for coexistence.

When to Get Professional Help

If your dog's digging habit cannot be resolved using these prevention tips, seek help from accredited canine behavior professionals like board-certified veterinary behaviorists or certified applied animal behaviorists. Working with professionals is advised for:

  • Dogs causing significant destruction from obsessive digging

  • Dogs digging persistently out of separation anxiety, fear or other psychological issues

  • Dogs digging dangerously near underground wiring, foundations, retaining walls or heavy structures

  • Puppies starting destructive digging habits needing early intervention

  • Dogs unresponsive to your efforts to change the digging habit

  • Cases where safety of people, pets or property are at high risk from the digging

Teaching Your Dog to Dig in Designated Areas

Since dogs innately enjoy digging, a constructive approach is designating an acceptable digging area for your dog. Provide them an outlet for their natural digging instincts. Here's how:

  • Select a low-value spot in your yard away from gardens, structures or fences. Define the perimeter.

  • Remove sod and loosen the top 1⁄2 foot of soil in this area.

  • Fill the space with loose soil or sand mix. Mulch and plant trimmings also work well.

  • Bring your dog to the designated digging pit on leash, letting them sniff and acclimate to the space.

  • Kneel in the pit area and use your hands to demonstration digging excitedly. Encourage and praise your dog for investigating.

  • The first time your dog paws at the dirt, reward instantly with excited praise and a high-value treat. Repeat rewarding every successive paw swipe.

  • Once your dog is reliably digging on cue in the pit, you can introduce the verbal cue “dig!” as they dig, then reward.

  • Over many repetitions, phase out food rewards and simply praise as your dog digs in their approved spot.

This directed technique satisfies your dog's digging urges in an acceptable location so they don't dig randomly around your yard. Supervise your dog at first to ensure they stick to their designated dig zone. Adding new sand, soil and scents periodically keeps them interested long-term. Having an appropriate digging outlet makes coexistence easier.

Digging is Normal Dog Behavior

Always remember that digging is a completely normal behavior for dogs. They are born with instincts to burrow and enjoy unearthing treasures. Our job as owners is not to suppress natural behaviors but to direct them into acceptable channels. With patience, consistency and providing appropriate outlets, you can curb undesirable digging while understanding and allowing your dog's inborn needs.

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