It is one of the most common “problem” doggy behaviours, but you don’t have to put up with digging, writes Laura Greaves.
Alison and Dallas Parker didn’t realise they had a digger on their hands until nearly a month after welcoming their Border Collie puppy, Logan.
Aside from expected puppy mischief, the spirited little working dog was on his best behaviour from the moment he arrived at the couple’s Adelaide home at the age of eight weeks. It was only when Dallas returned to university at the end of his holidays — and Logan was left alone for the first time — that the destruction began.
“He would dig up plants and the irrigation dripper system, and what little lawn we had at the time, but only when both Dallas and I were out,” says Alison, a nurse who works irregular shifts.
“Everything we read said that digging was a common form of ‘acting out’ in bored working dog pups, so we tried a few boredom-busting toys, but Logan is the kind of dog that won’t play by himself — he needs a human to be present. We even tried burying poo in the holes. Nothing seemed to work.”
It’s a common refrain among dog owners whose canine companions seem to be addicted to digging. So why are some dogs so determined to dig and what can their owners do about it?
Why do dogs dig?
All dogs have the ability to dig, but not all choose to do so. Those that do may be motivated by a range of reasons, says animal behaviourist Dr Joanne Righetti (petproblemsolved.com.au).
“Digging has several purposes, including burying food to eat at a later date; to find a cool spot in warm weather or a warm spot in cool weather; or to find small grubs, roots or seeds to eat,” she explains.
Other dogs dig in order to search for small animal prey and humans have bred dogs for precisely this purpose. Jack Russells, Fox Terriers and West Highland White Terriers are among the breeds that were once prized for their ability to dig out ground-dwelling creatures such as rats and foxes.
A dog may dig if he is seeking protection or trying to escape, which is why sturdy, secure fencing is important for all dogs. Anxiety-induced digging is also common. The act of digging acts as a distraction from whatever is worrying the dog and helps him to calm down.
And still other dogs dig simply because they enjoy it; they use it as a form of entertainment or play. “Those that do dig appear to enjoy it immensely [and] once some start, they get into the habit,” says Dr Joanne. “It’s fun!”
The moral of the story is that it will be difficult to dampen your dog’s enthusiasm for digging without first understanding why he does it. Identify what’s driving him to gouge grooves in the garden and then implement strategies to direct his energy elsewhere.
Firstly, it’s important to ensure your dog is getting enough exercise, as insufficient activity is a leading cause of problem behaviour. Depending on the breed, an energetic walk at least once a day should do the trick.
If your dog is home alone all day and you suspect he’s digging out of boredom, try making his environment more interesting. Invest in some quality enrichment toys such as sturdy chews or a treat-dispensing ball. Rotate these toys on a regular basis to maintain his interest. Offering a raw, meaty bone once or twice a week will keep him occupied, too.
Human interaction, a change of scenery and an opportunity to stretch his legs during the day can also work wonders. Consider employing a professional dog walker to take Rover for a lunchtime romp in the dog park, or arrange doggy play dates with a friend or neighbour’s pooch.
But what if boredom is not the reason your dog is digging? In some cases — if you can live with the destruction — it may not be necessary to do anything.
“If the digging is a natural breed behavior, there is nothing problematic about it for the dog — only for the owners,” says Dr Joanne. “Does the dog need shelter? Is the dog suffering from separation anxiety? If the digging is due to these reasons, then it is a problem and we have to address the cause.”
If he’s seeking shelter from heat or cold, try giving him access to a protected area such as a garage, shed or laundry, or provide a comfortable kennel that will allow him to retreat from wind, rain and sun.
Digging as a symptom of separation anxiety or a generalised anxiety disorder can be more challenging. Other signs of separation anxiety include barking, howling, urinating or defecating, pacing and escaping (or trying to) when left alone. If the dog is displaying any of these behaviours in addition to digging, seek the advice of a veterinarian or qualified animal behaviour specialist.
As he grew older, Alison Parker’s Border Collie, Logan eventually gave up digging. “At around 18 months or two years of age he stopped digging in the garden beds, but kept a spot in the grass that he would dig out to sleep in,” she says.
“To curb this we committed to getting the grass to grow in properly. We put in new soil, seeded the lawn, then pegged chicken wire flat across the ground so he couldn’t dig down through it. He’s six now and hasn’t dug since, except to find the odd lamb shank he has buried in the mulch and leaf litter!”
While Logan proves there are exceptions, Dr Joanne says that in most cases it’s unlikely a dog will stop digging of his own accord.
“I would not count on any dog growing out of digging behaviour. If a pup starts, then I would advise owners to go with it and allow their dog to dig in appropriate locations,” she explains.
Yes, you read that right. Sometimes the easiest option is to give your dog opportunities to dig to his heart’s content, whether at home or elsewhere. Fence off parts of the yard that are dig-free zones and let him go to town on the sanctioned area.
“The best thing is to satisfy a digger. Take him to the beach, or create a beach within your backyard. Buy a kids’ sandpit, fill it with sand and bury some toys or treats in it to encourage the dog to dig,” Dr Joanne says. “If the dog is digging for fun, then we need to provide appropriate fun.”Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory