Written by Tamsin De La Harpe
There are loads of situations that can make a dog start digging, whether it’s excavating your back garden, having a made five minutes out on a walk or even trying to dig through their bed but usually, it’s extremely natural, even if it is unwanted. Whether it's to make a bed for themselves, to hide an object, or out of sheer boredom, digging is common behavior. So why is your dog digging, and what can you do to stop them?
One behavior that nearly every dog engages in is digging holes to make a bed. This is an ancestral behavior that probably dates back further than the dog and goes back to when they were wolves.
In fact, owners of wolf dogs (wolf and domestic dog hybrids) will often find the females, in particular, will dig an entire den in the garden. This is one relatively minor reason responsible dog lovers should never get a dog with wolf ancestry. But while most dogs will not actually dig out an entire den, they will still dig holes to sleep in.
One reason they do this is just to make a comfortable space to lay in that fits their body. To achieve this, dogs may dig on any surface, including their bed, your bed, couch, or spot in the garden. Another reason is to help themselves regulate their body temperature.
Aside from panting, conduction is one of the key ways a dog loses body heat. This is where their body is physically close to the cool surface. By digging a little in a shady area, a dog can cool down against the earth. They can also insulate themselves from the cold.
So if your dog is making a big show of digging in their sleeping area, it may be because they are too hot or cold.
Another widespread reason dogs dig is to hide something they want to keep for later. Usually, this is a meaty bone or a chew toy. However, often it’s any high-value item they wish to keep to themselves.
It could be a smelly sock or a deceased squirrel, either way, it's going into the ground for safe keeping. You can usually see the tell-tale signs of this when they have dirt on their nose, as they often use their nose to scoop dirt over their "treasure."
It is often the case with younger dogs that they’re extremely fascinated by anything you’re doing and anything that smells of you. This means if they see you digging in the dirt and doing some gardening, it will trigger their innate curiosity. After all, you may be hiding something extraordinary in your new flower bed just for them to find.
The result is often a horticultural tragedy. You may spend all day planting a bed of fragile new seedlings, only to have your dog dig up the whole flower bed.
Contrary to popular thinking, this is not "naughty" behavior. It’s simply the ground you worked in now smells of freshly turned earth, strange bugs, and you. This is enough to trigger many dogs to dig up the area to see what you were doing.
Perhaps the most common cause of persistent destructive digging is boredom and frustration. Dogs confined with too much energy, and too few outlets will inevitably turn to unwanted behaviors, such as barking, chewing, or digging.
If your dog is barking from boredom when left alone, check our article here.
Ultimately, most problem digging results from a dog that’s left on its own for too long, without enough to do to keep them occupied.
Digging as a result of anxiety is not uncommon. An anxious dog may dig compulsively if it releases stress. However, it’s more commonly an attempt to escape when a dog feels tremendous psychological stress. Dogs with separation anxiety may dig at exit areas to find their owners. This can also happen to dogs with noise phobia during thunderstorms or firecrackers.
Some dogs can do tremendous damage to themselves and to property if they take to digging frantically because of an issue such as separation anxiety.
Digging to escape isn't always a result of anxiety. Occasionally, a lucky owner may be entertained with a canine Houdini, who digs or finds other means of getting out of the yard simply because they want to explore. This is more common with certain escape artist breeds, like Siberian Huskies. It may also be seen more in adult males who aren't castrated.
Just as there are breeds that love to go wandering and will dig to get out of the yard, there are breeds that are genetically designed to dig. "Earth" dogs, or dogs bred to hunt vermin and animals underground, are natural diggers. These include dogs like the Dachshund or the Jack Russell Terrier. Since these breeds were originally bred to dig for smaller animals, they still love to do it.
The final common reason dogs dig holes is they know something is moving underground. If you have moles or any other little critters in your garden, your dog may take to digging to get them. This is particularly true if your dog has a strong prey drive or hunting instinct.
Destructive digging is a behavior that‘s most commonly linked to bored and frustrated dogs. Aside from boredom and frustration, the most common cause is anxiety, such as separation anxiety. Whenever one is dealing with a boredom or anxiety issue, the first step is to increase the amount of exercise and playtime your dog is getting.
Exercise should be a mix of structured and unstructured activities and appropriate for your dog's age, breed, size, and health. Playing fetch or having a playdate with another dog is an example of unstructured activity. Going for a walk or running on the leash is structured as you set the pace and the rules.
If you have a high-energy working breed, it can be helpful to take up activities that channel their natural instincts. This means agility or herding trials for collies, bikejoring or sledding for Alaskan Malamutes and Huskies, or dock jumping for dogs that love water.
The added benefit of taking part in a sport for your dog is increasing bonding time and incorporating more obedience into their lives. This helps channel their energy away from destructive behaviors.
The second step in preventing destructive digging goes hand-in-hand with step 6; crate training your dog. Never leave a serial digger alone in your yard with nothing to do except dig. Always exercise your dog before leaving the house to leave them tired, spent, and happy.
However, make sure they have something to keep them occupied too. This could include puzzle toys, a favorite chew, or a filled frozen Kong. Dogs who have problems being left alone and become bored need a positive way to fill their time.
The next step is to manage your dog's environment. This can mean putting baby gates or other barriers in place to stop them from reaching areas or furniture they might be damaging. It can also mean blocking them from certain areas in the garden, such as your favorite flower beds.
You may also need to get an exterminator to remove moles or other little creatures that might be encouraging your dog to dig.
If an area is managed, you can give your dog a fun place to channel their digging instincts. This could be a sandbox with treats and toys hidden in the sand they can dig out to their heart's content. However, only use this step if other areas are sealed off.
Although this is a fun step for your dog, it also encourages digging in general. Your dog can't be expected to know the difference between a dig-friendly area and a no-dig zone. So if you give them an area to dig, make sure they can't reach other areas they may want to dig in.
If your dog is ripping up your furniture or its sleeping area, look for chew-proof and highly durable dog beds. After that, prevent them from getting on your bed or furniture. This way, they focus their digging on their own bed only.
Nearly as vital as exercise, a digging dog needs crate training. The best thing to do when your dog is worn out from a good exercise session and you need to leave for a few hours is to ensure that you leave your dog in a safe and durable crate.
Keep in mind that time in the crate should not be abused. Dogs who are left for long periods in the crate without adequate exercise and activities will only find more ways to manifest destructive behaviors however they can.
Nevertheless, when it comes to salvaging your yard from a destructive digger, your two best friends are exercise and crate training.
If you want to know how to crate train your dog successfully, read our article here.
Finally, if your dog is digging aggressively in their sleep area, they may be too hot or cold. If it’s hot or humid, make sure your dog has a cool place to sleep. Similarly, if it is cold, provide them with a warm environment.
Problem digging can wreck your yard and sometimes even damage your property inside your house. Most digging is merely a nuisance, but dogs have been known to destroy gardens and dig holes in furniture.
It is important to take steps to understand your dog's digging before you address the problem. Remember, since problem digging is often either the result of anxiety or boredom, punishment will not help. It will only teach your dog not to dig in front of you.
Instead, take steps to manage your dog's energy levels through training, play, and exercise. After that, invest in quality crate training and manage your dog's environment to prevent access to areas that they may dig in.