Some wild dog relatives, like foxes and wolves, dig dens to raise their young. Sleeping in a den protects the young pups from extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) and from predators. Our pet dogs share the desire to sleep in and under things that resemble a den. They often dig at the ground and circle before lying down, as though they're trying to make a softer resting place. (Many dogs do this on the carpet or furniture as well.) Dogs also dig when trying to get warm or stay cool, to entertain themselves, to bury valued items, and when hunting ground-dwelling animals.
Why Dogs Dig
Keeping Cool and Comfortable
Dogs often dig and circle to make a comfortable bed. If a dog is especially hot or cold, she may dig to find a warmer or cooler place to rest. Holes are often strategically located in cool or warm areas, such as in the shade, underneath bushes or outdoor furniture.
Many dogs love to dig. Some breeds, like terriers, are more likely to dig than others. But any dog can develop a digging habit. Dogs who dig for fun usually adopt a playful posture and alternate between digging and running around. Sandy surfaces often trigger bouts of digging. If your dog digs for entertainment, you'll probably see holes located randomly around the area.
Burying Valued Items
Dogs bury food, chew bones, toys and prey. This behavior was once key to the survival of dogs' wild ancestors because it allowed them to leave food safely concealed and then return to eat it later. It's not surprising that our domesticated dogs still feel the urge to dig. If a dog wants to bury something, she digs a hole, places the item in the hole, and then uses her nose to cover the item with dirt. Often the dog will repeatedly bury an item, dig it up and bury it again in a new spot. Some dogs “bury” things indoors, on carpeting or furniture, or underneath dog beds or piles of laundry.
Hunting Ground-Dwelling Animals
Most dogs have the desire and ability to hunt small prey such as moles, groundhogs, etc. If a dog finds a hole with an animal inside, she may dig relentlessly in an attempt to get to the animal.
Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety may dig to get to a family member or to escape from being left alone. To learn more about this behavior problem, please see our article, Separation Anxiety.
Some dogs dig to escape from confinement.
Eating Dirt or Other Inedible Objects
Some dogs dig holes to consume soil, roots and other inedible material. They're usually selective about the soil they consume, so this kind of digging is usually restricted to a small number of spots.
Digging is a normal behavior for dogs. Certain breeds are more likely to dig than others. For example, terriers were bred to hunt underground prey, such as rabbits and badgers, so they tend to dig a lot. However, any dog of any breed can develop a digging habit under the right (or wrong) conditions. To deal with a digging problem, you'll need to identify your dog's underlying motivation for the behavior. If you can figure out why your dog digs, you can figure out how to fix or reduce the problem. In some cases, you'll need to prevent digging in unwanted locations and offer appropriate places for digging instead.
What to Do If Your Dog Digs
After determining why your dog digs, you can try the recommendations below to manage or reduce her habit. If you need help with your dog's digging, don't hesitate to consult a qualified professional, such as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB). Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these experts in your area.
If Your Dog Digs to Keep Cool or Get Comfortable
Dogs living outside in very hot or cold weather often dig holes to sleep in, especially if they don't have access to proper shelter, like an insulated doghouse. Even with a suitable doghouse, some dogs prefer to retreat under a deck and dig a big hole. Older dogs may start digging later in life if they become unable to regulate their own body temperature as well as they used to.
- If your dog digs in an attempt to cool off, provide an insulated dog house, a shallow wading pool, shade, a fan (air blowing over ice feels just like air conditioning!) and/or a bed that allows air to circulate underneath. Hot dogs like to lie flat on hard, cool surfaces or upside down on soft surfaces, so give your dog access to those. If possible, keep your dog indoors, in an air-conditioned area-at least during the hottest time of day.
- If your dog digs in an attempt to keep warm, provide an insulated dog house, give her extra blankets or a differently shaped bed that she can burrow into, move her bed to a cozier, less drafty location, or give her access to an area where she can lie in the warm sun. If possible, keep your dog indoors when it's particularly cold outside.
- If your dog digs in an attempt to create a more comfortable resting place, provide a bed. It may help to offer a few different kinds of beds so your dog can let you know which one she prefers. Many dogs like circular beds with a raised edge that can be used as a pillow. Dogs also seem to like beds that are snug, so that they can burrow down into them and get cozy. (Some dogs like beds that seem almost too small for them!)
If Your Dog Digs to Entertain Herself
Many dogs dig for the fun of it. This type of digging is the hardest to treat because the action of digging is rewarding in and of itself. To achieve success, rather than attempting to eliminate the behavior, try to redirect your dog's digging to an acceptable place.
- Encourage your dog to dig in an area you have allocated specifically for this activity. Build a digging pit that is especially enticing. To learn how, please see our article, Creating a Digging Pit for Your Dog.
- Try to discourage digging in inappropriate locations by installing garden fencing around areas where you don't want your dog to dig. Just the effort of going over or through a fence will stop some dogs. Others may need more convincing. You can try stringing tight twine across planters to create a “roof” through which your plants can grow. Should your dog hop the fence and jump into your planters, the twine is bound to feel unpleasant on her feet. If this fails, you can install a motion-activated device that sounds a loud alarm or turns on a water hose. (Of course, this plan will NOT work if your dog enjoys playing with the water hose!) Alternatively, you can try using a product called a Snappy™ Trainer, which looks like a mousetrap. It's designed to make a loud snapping noise that merely startles the dog but won't harm her. You can place Snappy Trainers all around your plants so that when your dog touches them, a sudden unpleasant sound surprises her.
- Some experts recommend burying a dog's feces in the holes she has dug. If she returns to dig more in those holes, the presence of the feces can discourage her. However, she's likely to just start a new hole somewhere else. This suggestion is only appropriate if your dog is repeatedly digging in a single undesirable place and you don't mind if she digs elsewhere.
If Your Dog Digs to Bury Her Stuff
Wild relatives of dogs and feral dogs often bury or hide surplus food and bones so that they can retrieve and enjoy them later. Not only do they dig to bury their own things, they also dig to retrieve other dogs' hidden goodies when they discover them. The best way to eliminate this type of digging is to refrain from giving your dog treats, food or chew bones that she will not finish immediately. Alternatively, you can build your dog a digging pit and encourage her to bury items there, instead of in your favorite flower bed. This is particularly great solution if your dog seems to prefer digging in sandy dirt.
If your dog starts chewing something but doesn't consume it completely, remove it before she has the opportunity to bury it. If your dog reacts aggressively when you take something away from her, immediately seek help from a qualified professional. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about locating a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (Dip ACVB) in your area. If you can't find a behaviorist in your area, you can hire a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) instead-but be sure to determine whether she or he has professional training and extensive experience in successfully working with possessive aggression. This kind of expertise isn't required for CPDT certification.
If Your Dog Digs to Hunt Small Animals
Most dogs love to chase small, fast-moving furry creatures, even if they never actually try to catch them. If your dog digs to pursue small animals like moles, chipmunks and ground squirrels, you can set live traps and humanely remove those animals from your property. Be forewarned: punishing your dog for this type of digging isn't likely to work, because the act of hunting is naturally highly rewarding to most dogs, regardless of whether or not it results in unpleasant consequences.
What NOT to Do
- Do not take your dog to an area where she previously dug a hole and scold, spank or punish her after-the-fact. Your dog can't connect punishment with something she did hours or even minutes ago. Delayed punishment won't succeed in stopping your dog from digging later-but you could frighten and upset her unnecessarily.
- Do not fill one of your dog's holes with water and hold her head under the water for any length of time. This outdated and inhumane procedure won't solve your digging problems, and it could cause other, worse behavior problems.
The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk.
If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.
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