One of the most natural and instinctive behaviors our dogs can do is to dig. But why do they do it? And how can we manage the issue if it starts to become a problem? While we can never completely take away the natural instincts of our animals, nor should we want to, sometimes this behavior can become excessive or somehow disruptive to our human lives.
To know how to manage a potential issue, we must first know the root of the reason why your dog is digging. Here are some of the most common reasons why our dogs dig.
This dog is following his predatory instinct by hunting this squirrel
Whether you have a bug or a bunny hunter, dogs will naturally follow their sense of smell or hearing and go searching for prey in the ground below. The natural instinct to chase can also trigger your dog to burrow to China or right out from underneath your fence if some little critter has the misfortune of finding itself inside your yard. While some groups of breeds have been bred to have higher predatory drives than others, really any dog can develop their drive to hunt. Some of the dog groups that tend to have higher predatory drives are terriers, hounds, northern breeds and herding breeds.
What to Do:
- Manage the environment. Your dog should never be attended for long periods of time in your yard. A privacy fence will help limit visual distractions, but make sure holes or cracks in your fence are mended or blocked. Keep your dog on a long line in the yard if they are becoming overly obsessive about the hunt.
A privacy fence will help limit visual distractions, but you can’t only rely solely on this. It is very important to work on your dog’s obedience skills so they can listen to you during difficult distractions.
- Reinforce Solid Obedience Skills. The drive to follow animals can be overwhelming to your dog so very well proofed and consistently practiced cues such as Come and Leave-It can be very helpful.
This video will teach you some of the first steps in teaching your dog a Leave-It cue. Once your dog is reliable with their Leave-It and recall cues, you will want to up the difficulty by combining these two skills.
- Turn the prey drive towards you and reward heavily. Play exciting games of come and find me with your dog. By teaching your dog that it is fun and rewarding to chase you, you just might be able to get them out of a sticky situation in the future. Rewards for chasing you could be a high value treat/food item or even a game of tug or fetch to give a little more fuel to your game.
SuperNova enjoys a good game of tug with her frisbee after a fun game of Hide-N-Go Seek.
- Give your dog outlets for their drives. Encourage daily outlets for your dog to have safe options to follow those instincts. For instance, games of fetch would be appropriate for your chaser. A kiddie pool filled with soft dirt or a “digging hole” with toys or treats buried in it would be a great option for your mole hunter to be redirected to, And any dog can benefit daily from, ‘find the treat’ games inside the house and puzzle toys.
Protection & Comfort
With dogs being denning animals, it is very common for them to dig holes in order to protect themselves from the elements or to keep cooler or warmer depending on the situation. Our dogs are smart and if they are left out in rain, snow, excessive heat, etc. it would be completely normal behavior for them to try and dig under a house, shed, fence or anything else to try and stay comfortable. In warm weather it is common for some dogs to dig shallow holes to get to cooler dirt so they can lie in it. Siberian Huskies and other northern breeds are particularly known for practicing this behavior. Because of these natural denning instincts, you might even see your dog doing it in blankets, cushions or even the carpet in your home.
Siberian Huskies will often dig shallow, what I call potholes, to lay in on hot days.
Fun Fact: Have you ever wondered why your dog might circle a bunch of times before getting comfortable enough to lie down somewhere? Centuries ago, when our dogs were not domesticated, they would do this to help flatten twigs, sticks and any uneven ground for where they were going to sleep. This act is part of their denning instinct even today.
What to Do:
- Do not leave your dog unattended outside in bad weather.
- Provide a nice, homey sheltered area for them when they are outside so there is no need to dig for shelter. Be sure to provide fresh, clean water too, as some dogs will dig if they hear water running underground…this includes sprinkler systems!
Anxiety/Stress and to Escape
Your dog might dig frantically if it is suffering from some form of stress. The digging might be to get away from something, avoid confinement or to try and find a safe haven. Some common stress-related digging problems stem from dogs who suffer from separation anxiety. Being left alone and confined in a yard can cause many dogs to get anxious and try to escape by digging their way out. Another common situation is when a dog is scared by something unexpected. Fireworks or lightning are good examples of this type of escapism. Some dogs will go as far as injuring themselves, just to try and get away from the scary things.
What to Do:
- NEVER leave a dog that is suffering from any type of fear or anxiety unattended in the yard.
If your dog suffers from stress or anxiety, do not leave them alone in a backyard to their own devices.
- Leash walk your dog, even in a fenced enclosure, if there are moments of high stress (ex. July 4th fireworks) and always make sure identification tags are on. A fearful dog can go under, over or even through a fence in a flash if startled.
- Provide a safe-zone inside your house that your dog can always have access to. Providing and reinforcing a good safe zone can counter your dogs instinct to flee elsewhere.
- If your dog is having issues with these types of fear or anxiety related issues, please enlist the help of a positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist in your area that specializes in working with these issues.
This little Pug is hunting for the perfect location to hide his special prize bone!
This is the dog that likes to bury his/her bones or toys. In the wild, dogs don’t always have the option to eat on a regular basis as they do as our pets, so the behavior of burying part of their food to save and come back for later was developed. Some dogs have carried over this behavior and will be especially prone to burying items they find of high value.
What to Do:
- Give special new treats or toys to your dog inside the house with a comforter or blanket they are allowed to root around in. Also consider feeding your dog in a snuffle mat. This is a great canine enrichment activity for the preservationist!
- Provide a digging hole option in the yard just as mentioned in the section for the predatory instinct digger. Bury your dogs favorite treats or toys here and entice them to dig in their special spot. If your dog chooses to dig somewhere else in the yard that is not permitted, redirect him to his ‘digging hole’.
Boredom and Fun!
You can tell that this bulldog really just loves, rolling around and playing in his hole, like a pig in mud!
This is one of the biggest reasons why a lot of dogs dig and quite honestly, one of the easiest ways to manage. If your dog is not getting enough physical or mental stimulation, boredom will inevitably set in and any number of bad habits could manifest, including digging! On top of that, some dogs just LOVE to dig, it’s in their nature, they like getting dirty and it’s just good times.
What to Do:
- The dog that suffers from boredom needs a mega-boost in the canine enrichment department. As they say, a tired dog is a happy dog, so in addition to doing a wide variety of activities that physically wears out your dog (ex. Swimming, fetch, dog sports, etc.) it is equally important to give your dog massive amounts of mental stimulation. The best way to do this is to teach your dog new games and tricks to provide acceptable outlets for the digging.
A couple favorites I love to teach mine are tricks like “Wipe Your Paws” or “File Your Nails”. Both are great outlets and useful.
My Chinese Crested, Loki, was one of the biggest diggers in our home, even over the huskies! By teaching him to “Wipe His Paws” we almost completely curbed the digging habit overnight!
- Upping the game in the physical and mental stimulation department, in addition to all the solutions given throughout this article, can be used with the bored or “just for fun” digger so you have many options to help squelch this behavior before it becomes an annoyance to you.
Acknowledging your dog’s natural instincts, managing their environment and providing them with adequate stimulation throughout their day can go a long way in your journey to help your dog with any bad habit.
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.