You need to find out why a dog digs to stop him from digging

Someone recently asked me why her German Shepherd was digging holes in her garden. Surprisingly, I don’t hear a lot of complaints about digging, either because it’s the least of the worries of the clients I see or because people assume “it’s what dogs do.” But, here’s essentially what I told her:Until you figure out why your dog is digging, it is not easy to stop him. It’s surprising to me the number of punishment-based strategies out there to stop digging without removing the dog’s desire to dig. You might be advised to bury things like balloons, rocks, or mousetraps in the holes as booby traps. You might be told to fill the hole with water and hold your dog’s head in it until he fears for his life (no kidding) or even bury the dog himself in it. You might be told you need to build a fence or other barrier to keep the dog out of the garden. You may even be advised to use a shock collar any time you see him digging. Not surprisingly, these things are unlikely to resolve the problem permanently, as the dog will fulfill his desire to dig in some other way.There are many reasons, including:

To cool off or warm up. The ground maintains temperature better than air; so even a few inches below the surface, the earth is cooler in hot summer months and warmer in cold winter months. Dogs that are left out in these conditions may seek out something more comfortable than the air temperature.

To get some exercise. Dogs that do not get enough exercise through walks or play may burn off this energy and use their muscles by digging. This is especially true of very active breeds whose owners underestimate their dogs’ needs.

To get away. Dogs with separation anxiety or noise phobias can panic and try very hard to get out of the yard (toward people/comfort). The holes are usually near a fence or gate and often toward a neighbor’s house, where the dog feels he might be safe. Other signs may be damage to the fence/gate itself.

To get to something he wants. This could be a tree full of squirrels, gophers in your lawn/garden, the neighbor cat/dog, or any number of other things the dog finds attractive or wishes to neutralize. Again, the holes are usually directed toward a fence or gate in the region of the thing attracting the dog. You may even find holes close to the house if your dog is frequently relegated to the outdoors while you are in the house.

To bury his treasures. Some dogs seem to feel they can’t leave their toys, sticks, or bones above ground in case someone finds them. Suspect this if every hole has signs of something special in it.

This is not an exhaustive list and some dogs probably fall into multiple categories.

How to Fix It

You’ve probably guessed that this depends on the cause. If your dog has separation anxiety or noise phobias, get to your vet ASAP and get it treated. If the outdoor temperature is a problem, consider keeping the dog in the house more during extremes of hot and cold. If the dog is very energetic, commit to exhausting him at doggy day care, on longer walks, or through frequent play dates with other dogs. If he buries every treasure, give him only things that are not easily buried (little treats, food toys secured to something, etc.). If he is intrigued by things in the neighborhood, you may wish to confine him to the house, as the squirrels, neighbor dog, and school kids are beyond your ability to control. If he’s just trying to get in the house to be with you, find a way to let that happen. Finally, if your dog is truly a recreational digger (with no basic psychological need left unmet), you may set aside a spot in the garden that is your dog’s “digging box.” The area should have the loosest soil in the yard and plenty of shade to attract him there. Then he can dig to his heart’s content.

All that said, there will be some extreme dogs that cannot be deterred from digging for even a few minutes. If yours is one, see your vet to determine whether there is an obsessive quality to the digging and whether medications and a behavior plan might be the best solution.

If you have a digger, try not to be terribly frustrated. Sit down with the family to discuss what you know about when and where he digs.  Then solve the problem permanently by helping your dog meet his needs in other ways.

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