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Why Dogs Dig and What You Can Do About It

Before you start scolding, find out what your dog is up to and how you can redirect that energy.

 |  May 29th 2013  |   7 Contributions


There are many reasons dogs create unattractive holes in your backyard -- unattractive to you, anyway -- though one of them is not to irritate you, as many people seem to mistakenly believe. Here are just a few reasons your dog is trying to make it to China before you get home from work (followed by how a little training can change that):

  • It’s FUN.
  • They are pretty sure they smelled a mole or some other varmint down deep, and they feel it is best to dig to be sure.
  • They are bored and unsupervised.

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Trinket loves to dig.

  • They are hiding a yummo treat to save for later munching.
  • Dirt tastes good to some dogs. Don’t be surprised. Some dogs like the taste of dog poop.
  • They are harking back to their wolf ancestry and creating a denlike space for themselves.
  • They hate your garden design skills and want to surprise you with a makeover.

That last was to see who is paying attention! Now that I have you, I want to share a sad story that illustrates why humans with our bigger brains need to teach our dogs not to dig -- or, if we can’t do that, at least we can show them where they are allowed to dig. 

My husband and I bought our first rural property with high hopes of enjoying the quiet country life. Within two months, our new, five-acre rural life was shattered by the sound of gunshots, followed by the yelping of one of my beloved German Shepherds.

I had talked the local shelter onto letting me pull a handsome, young German Shepherd named Zeke on the day he was scheduled to be euthanized. They believed he would bite. I wasn’t a professional trainer yet, but I had been around Shepherds all my life, and I knew I could trust this gentle soul. I was right; he was a gentle giant. 

A few weeks after getting him home, Zeke’s right eye started to cloud up. The vet took X-rays and told me that he had buckshot in his eye. I called the shelter and asked if they had any additional information about him, since was an owner surrender. It turns out that Zeke had a liking for raw chicken, and his “loving” owner tried to teach him to stop that behavior by unloading buckshot into Zeke’s head. When that failed, the brilliant man dumped him at a high-kill shelter. 

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My dear departed Zeke, who incurred a neighbor's wrath by digging out onto his property.

Zeke loved other dogs and fit right in with my other two German Shepherds. He took a special liking to my current foster dog, a little Jack Russell mix I named Pogo for her jumping abilities. It turns out that Pogo had another skill I was unaware of: digging.

My first night alone in our new home (my husband was out of town at his grandmother’s funeral), I came home after dark from a long, stressful day at the office. I drove up to the house expecting to be greeted by my dogs. They had a doggie door and could roam the five tightly-fenced acres during the day.

No dogs were in sight. I grabbed a flashlight and started looking for them, calling frantically and running around our property still in my work heels. My pantyhose got ripped on trees, but I didn’t care; I was in a panic to find my dogs.

I saw the neighbor’s car lights. I heard him shoot his gun twice and then heard what I knew was Zeke yelping twice. And then, silence. Suddenly my other dogs, including Pogo, were at my side. Zeke wasn’t with them. I knew he was dead.

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A sand box -- not the beach -- will let your dog dig as deep as he wants. Dog writes his name on beach by Shutterstock

I knew my neighbor had a goat pen, so I called the sheriff. He came last to my house to let me know that my neighbor wouldn’t press charges against me, which he could have because the pet goats had more rights as livestock animals than did Zeke.

The neighbor dumped my bloodied dog over the fence. I found him there the next morning as I was trying to figure out how the dogs got out of our secure yard. Near his body, I saw the hole. Pogo had dug out, and the other dogs had followed her. She dug another hole for them all to come back (all except Zeke). 

I spent the next year paying the neighbor back in small, vengeful ways. I threw dog feces over the fence nearly every day, right where he dumped Zeke. I added cactus and even shovelfuls of fire ants. I cursed him and I hated him. But what I should have been doing is ensuring that Pogo nor any other foster dog could ever dig out of my property again. 

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Trinket digs to China, looking for critters.

Here’s what I now know about digging. I share these tips with you in hopes of saving others the same heartbreak I experienced:

  • A bored or unsupervised dog is more likely to dig than a well-exercised dog. My dogs do not stay outside -- even with a highly secured fence -- unless I am home.
  • Know your breeds. Pogo was a Jack Russell mix, a sturdy, tenacious breed of dog put on the planet to hunt fox ... and to burrow into the earth.
  • If you have a committed digger, build her a sandbox and teach her that is the spot to dig if she wants to. Bury frozen treats only in that area to encourage her digging in the sandbox. 
  • Don’t give your digger dog treats he can’t eat in one session, to stop him from burying them to eat later. 
  • If your dog digs because he is anxious that you are not with him, hire a qualified canine behaviorist. 
  • Never punish digging, especially if you find the hole hours after the dog did his artwork. When you do catch your pup in the act, redirect him back to the appointed sandbox.

I miss Zeke a lot. I failed him and Pogo by allowing an escape to occur. Since that night, I’ve never had another dog get out of my property, and I’ve fostered more than 400 dogs. It was a painful lesson, but I learned from it.  

If you have a digger, it’s up to you to redirect your dog’s behavior to an activity that you do approve of. Don’t delay -- and don’t believe your dog will outgrow his favorite activity. I urge you to be proactive. I don't want to hear another story as sad as what happened to Zeke and me. 

P.S. My neighbor finally moved away. He never could figure out how so many fire ants ended up on his property or why he had so much dog poop by his fences. 

Read more on training by Annie Phenix:

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