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Why do dogs dig?

Digging behavior in dogs can have many motivations. Some breeds, such as the Northern breeds (Huskies, Malamutes) dig cooling holes and lie in them and indeed on a very hot summer day any dog may dig a hole to cool off. Breeds such as the terriers have been bred to flush out prey or dig for rodents. With their ability to hear high frequency sounds, and their highly acute sense of smell, they dig as a direct result of smells or sounds such as voles and moles that attract them from beneath the ground. Pregnant bitches dig when nesting and dogs dig to bury or retrieve bones. Dogs also dig to escape from confinement and digging can be seen as an activity similar to destructive chewing that occurs when pets are left alone with insufficient stimulation or attention.

How can I determine why my dog is digging?

The first step in treating inappropriate digging behavior is to determine the reason for the digging. Reducing your dog's motivation to dig, and providing for all of its basic behavioral needs is obviously essential in order to prevent the situation where the digging is merely redirected to a new location. Inhibiting or preventing all digging, without understanding and dealing with the dog's motivation, could result in new behavior problems such as chewing, excessive vocalization, or escape behaviours.

Dogs that dig because they are pursuing prey will continue unless you can get rid of the prey. Dogs that dig in an attempt to get cool should be provided with a cool resting area with plenty of shade and water and on very hot days, it may be best to bring your dog inside. Where digging is an indication of not enough exercise and owner attention, additional play and exercise times may be needed. This is especially true if your dog is young and very active. Dogs that continue to dig may require additional stimulation to keep them occupied when the owners are not around. If your dog is outside all day and digging is taking place, you do need to ask yourself if you are providing for all of his behavioral needs. This is particularly true for the dog that digs to escape from the yard or confinement area. If you are keeping your dog outside for long periods because of house-soiling problems or unacceptable destruction in the house, then you need to address these problems.

How can I stop inappropriate digging?

a) Provide a digging area

For some dogs it may be useful for you to create an area where the dog is allowed to dig. This could be a specific location in the garden where you have placed soft top soil to encourage digging. It helps to clearly define the area with borders so the dog can distinguish it from the rest of the garden and then you will need to make this a place where your dog would like to dig. Bury things there that your pet would like to dig up, for example food treats. To begin with the treats should be lightly covered to encourage your pet to find them and gradually you should move to placing them deeper into the ground. If you do that (naturally when your dog is not watching!) at irregular intervals, your dog should be more likely to dig there, than other locations in your garden. Another option is to allow the dog to dig in a spot which it has already chosen, and to prevent digging in other locations by supervision and/or confinement.

b) Supervision and punishment

Supervision and direct intervention (e.g. sound aversion) can be used to prevent inappropriate digging in the owner's presence, but the behavior is likely to continue in the owner's absence. Remote punishment (e.g. turning on a sprinkler), booby traps (placing rocks or water in the area where the pet digs), or covering the surface with one that is impervious (asphalt/patio stones) might teach the pet to avoid the digging site even in the owner's absence, but none of these techniques will prevent the pet from digging in other locations.

What else can be done if inappropriate digging continues when I am not around to supervise?

When you are unavailable to supervise your dog, housing the dog indoors is the most practical solution until he or she has learned to stay outdoors without digging. If you would like to continue to leave your dog outdoors, it is best to confine it to an area such as a pen or run, so that it has no access to the digging areas. The run should be inescapable, and could be covered with gravel, patio tiles or have an asphalt or concrete floor so that the dog cannot dig. Of course it will be necessary to provide sufficient exercise and stimulation before confining the dog and to also supply an adequate number of treats and play toys in the run to keep the dog occupied. Another alternative is to provide an area within the pen or run where digging is allowed.

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