Digging comes naturally to dogs – you could say that digging is in the genes. When asked the question “Why do dogs dig?” the answer could well be “Because they are dogs!” However some dogs are more prone to digging more than others. Many have been specifically bred to dig, but others are just showing a need for training.

Terriers, the most likely group of diggers, take their name from the Latin word for earth “terra” or the French “terre”. Scottish Terriers and West Highland Terriers, in particular were bred to be efficient digging machines in order to get to vermin. Their turned out feet allow them to shovel earth to the side, in much the same way as a mole. However any terrier is likely to dig – that is what they have been bred for over many generations.

Some dogs like a cool, shallow hole to lie in when it is warm; others will dig a hole to get some protection from Arctic winds. The temperature of the ground can be several degrees cooler just a few inches below the surface, and your dog knows this. Another way of helping your dog cool off would be to add some ice cubes to his water bowl. Remember to place the bowl in the shade so that the ice melts more slowly. When your Alaskan Malamute or Siberian Husky digs a hole to lie in he may be telling you that he is too hot, so check the shading on your kennel area. These breeds know that digging can change the temperature of their bed.

Wild ancestors dug to hide their food so that it could be dug up again in time of need. From their wild ancestry, dogs are never sure that they will be fed tomorrow and, if given the opportunity, will eat enough for today and tomorrow just in case food is scarce tomorrow. If your dog digs to bury bones or food then stop letting the dog take the bones or food into the garden area.

Pregnant bitches could be digging to create a den to rear their pups. Even if they have not been mated, bitches may do this digging whilst experiencing “phantom pregnancy”. Do not scold this dog for digging, as she is only trying to do what nature intended her to do. Give her a bit more stimulation in her life, such as going for walks to new places, and if she is to have puppies, now is the time to get the whelping box out so that she can be used to it when the puppies arrive. Some bitches like a den to have a roof when they have their puppies – even a sheet hung over her bed may help to stop her digging another bed.

It is always best then to try and work out why a dog is digging. As some of these examples have shown, often the reason is simple. Dogs that want to escape will dig. Dogs that are hot will dig to try and get cool. Dogs will dig if they detect other burrowing animals like rats and mice. Pregnant bitches will dig to create a den to give birth. But there are other reasons for dogs digging that we may be responsible for, without realising.

Dogs always seem to want to dig where you have planted trees and dug earth. Sometimes it seems to the owner that the dog just wants to help you with the gardening – but the dog�s idea of where a plant should go will usually be different to the yours! As fast as you plant, the dog follows you doing some re-arranging. At least that is how it appears! In fact, the odor has changed and this is what is attracting your dog.

A few weeks ago I employed a plumber to replace one of my fitted in ground garden water sprinklers. Within one hour of him leaving, one of my dogs had dug up the sprinkler and a few metres of the lawn with it. Obviously I was annoyed but acted in a  happy mood to my dog, because I knew why this digging had happened. It took me an hour to refit the sprinkler and put the earth and lawn back. The plumber had left an odor – he had touched the new sprinkler and the new smell of the earth caused my dog to investigate. I placed a garden table and chairs on top of the area and that is the end of my problem. (Maybe the dog will decide to re-arrange the garden furniture now?)

So when you introduce new plants or do any gardening then expect your dog to dig because he is attracted to the smell of the fresh soil. Protect your work with a temporary wire fence. Shutting the dog in the house can also help – do not let the dog out for a few hours and by then some of the new scents will have dissipated. It is also an idea to lay some chicken wire on the ground where you have worked. This will keep your dog away, as dogs will not walk over the wire. Chicken wire laid over the surface of the ground can also protect newly seeded areas.

Many dogs are more likely to dig if they do not get enough exercise and if they sleep out at night. If bored, a dog left in a garden is likely to dig. Increasing the amount of exercise the dog gets may be all that is needed to cure this problem. There is much evidence around to confirm that dogs that have little or no obedience training are diggers, so think about doing some formal training.

Male dogs that are not neutered will try to dig out of the grounds to go on the prowl of the area. A male dog can smell a bitch in season for up to 3 miles, so at any one time there could be several bitches attracting his (unwanted) attention, especially if you live in a town area. These dogs should be neutered, as the “wanting to do what nature intended” will mean that your dog is constantly under stress when confined to your home.

Young dogs under the age of two years can be destructive and diggers. Most owners make the fatal mistake of dragging the dog back to the area he has destroyed to punish him. The dog will not have a clue why you are doing this. Punishment is unacceptable we never punish pets Yes, he will appear to act “guilty” but all the poor dog is doing is giving the body language that he reckons will help to calm you down. He dug up the garden hours ago, and has no way of associating what you are yelling about with his previous action. It is in my opinion cruel to punish a dog for anything he does wrong, if this punishment is more than one second after the event. A dog cannot reason, and is unable to understand human values. Unless you catch the dog in the act, forget punishment.

How to stop digging

If you do some work in the garden, roll out the hose and fit a sprinkler on the end. When the dog goes to investigate the area, turn on the sprinkler. In this way the sprinkler is telling the dog off, and not you. The added bonus of letting the sprinkler do the work for you is that many dogs will learn not to dig whilst you are present but can dig away happily when you are away from home. The sprinkler causes the dog to think that the actual garden is chastising him and does not realise that you were involved at the tap end!

What if you do not have a sprinkler, or the dog is digging at a point too far away for the hoses to reach? Treat yourself to a toy water pistol. For very little cost, you can buy a water pistol that has a good accuracy over several metres. Then you just hang around in the garden and wait for the dog to start digging. As soon as this happens, deliver a jet of water at the dog, aiming for its head. Say nothing; act as if you were not involved. This can have a similar effect to turning on the sprinkler.

If your dog seems hyperactive, chews destructively and digs holes then this could be boredom. Take the dog out away from the garden for exercise for at least one hour each day. Play games of fetch with a ball and do not restrict the dog to the garden – allow him into the house. The more the dog is alone the more likely it is to dig. Leaving toys stuffed with food and goodies when he is left alone will make the “home alone” times more stimulating.

Dogs that dig at fences may well be bored and trying to get out to something on the other side of the fence. The scent hounds will especially do this when they can smell something really interesting on the other side of the fence – so watch out if you have a Beagle. If there are any gaps in your fencing fill them in but also watch for gaps below the fence – fill this in with concrete or attach chicken wire to the bottom of the fence and curve onto the ground, burying it below the surface. For dogs that do keep going back to the same hole to dig, try lifting some of the dog�s own poo and placing that in the hole – few dogs will dig through their own faeces.

If you find that despite all your attempts to stop it your dog keeps on digging, then you might consider ceding a portion of the garden. If your toddler likes to dig, we buy them a sandpit. The same can apply to the dog. Provide a sandbox – or just a small corner of bare, dug over earth, and bury bones and favourite toys. At first, leave part of the toy sticking out of the ground, take the dog over to the area, and act excited as if you are about to discover lost treasure. Let the dog dig to get the toy and praise like mad.
Whenever you then see the dog digging in other parts of the garden, switch into your “excited – buried treasure” routine and encourage the dog over to the digging area. Better to have one small area dug up by the dog than to have your whole garden looking like a minefield.

If you feel your dog is digging because he is bored and you decide to obtain another dog to keep him company, then expect to have two digging machines! Far better to solve the first dog�s digging problem before multiplying this by two.

Article extracted from David the Dogman’s A-Z Guide to Dogs available all bookshops ( ISBN 84-89954-08-9 or can be ordered on

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