Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
While much effort goes into behavioral training, the inner impulse of a dog to excavate goes largely unaddressed. Some dogs dig under the fence while others create holes in the garden. This is unsightly and can potentially lead to new difficulties. Fortunately, the situation can be remedied. If your dog has become archaeologically inclined, here are six ways you can save your backyard from becoming the next Grand Canyon.
1. Avoid false premises
2. Redirect rather than prohibit
3. Create healthy diversions
4. Demarcate an alternative area
5. Use effective deterrents
6. Prioritize exercise and training
The fact that your dog has 300 million olfactory nerves, which make its sense of smell 10,000 – 100,000 times more acute than yours, works to your advantage. Scent can act as an invisible barrier.
1. Avoid False Premises
One reason why we find raising pets difficult sometimes is because human mentality gets in the way. We tend to associate the behavior of an animal with an emotion that we humans experience. This can be a source of exasperation.
Someone who sees their dog digging up their backyard or flowerbed could become irked to the point of physically punishing the animal. But what exactly is the root cause of the frustration? They are worked up because they have taken a reasoning process that is characteristic of humans and applied it to a non-human.
As soon as they see the mess, what springs to mind is all the time and effort spent taking care of the lawn or garden. Their pet is disrupting what has been so carefully and meticulously set in order. So the logical conclusion is that it must be doing so on purpose, to irritate, or to simply be a nuisance.
This logic and the reaction that follows are both based on a false premise: relating to an animal what is true of humans. The dog does not have the same sense of order that we have. It is not even remotely aware of the gardening work or effort that was put in. And it is not a mission of revenge. It is not trying to get back at us for something we’ve done.
The reason why we feel a strong impulse to lash out when a pet does something wrong is that we falsely expect it to have the same moral judgment that we have. We apply to them a human mindset, yet their thought process is very different from ours.
Digging comes naturally to a dog, much the same way as barking or chewing. It is sort of hard-wired into them. So when the deed takes place, frustration or lashing out is not the answer. The resulting fear, anxiety, and loss of trust could actually make things worse. Similarly, banishing a pet from the yard, lawn or garden altogether is not the solution. A measure of space and freedom is required for the dog to mature in a healthy and balanced way.
2. Redirect Rather Than Prohibit
As stated, digging is a habit that comes naturally to a dog, so it would be contrary to nature to try and prevent them from ever digging. The objective here should not be to ditch the habit (excuse the pun) or eliminate the behavior completely, but to redirect it.
If your dog habitually digs in the wrong places despite your efforts to correct its behavior, then understanding what triggers the habit will help you remedy the situation and apply the correct antidote.
There could be numerous reasons for the behavior. Your dog may be digging as a way of distracting itself from loneliness, nervousness, fear, or anxiety. The motion of the soil, the roots, and the other buried matter against its paws is a form of pastime or entertainment.
Your dog may be digging in order to conceal food or toys from other dogs. It may simply have come across an unfamiliar scent in the ground and feels urged on by curiosity to investigate. The habit may also be breed-related, for example, digging tends to be more prevalent in hunting dogs, or certain breeds like the Australian Cattle Dog.
This may also be the dog’s way of trying to get your attention. There is a bit of irony here. The dog digs because it knows it will get reprimanded for it and thereby achieve its goal, which is to get your attention. If you are in the house, your dog may start digging about in order to draw you out. It is seeking attention and it does not matter in which form that attention comes, whether negative or positive.
This is one reason why prohibiting your dog from digging could actually result in encouraging the behavior. To curb the habit, you need to do more than just reprimand your pet for doing the wrong thing. You need to fix the problem by redirecting the energy elsewhere.
3. Create Healthy Diversions
Each time you observe the dog start to dig in the wrong place, create a quick distraction. You could either clap your hands, use an air horn, or some other means of diverting the dog’s attention. Sternly issue the stop or no command and then take control of the situation by introducing an alternative task.
The new activity could be simple, like playing fetch or chase, or it could be an additional session in behavioral training. Whatever diversion you use, reward the dog with a treat or compliment when it cooperates and switches to the alternative activity. With time, your dog will come to recognize that the other activity is more rewarding than digging. The aim here is to cure the problem quickly before it becomes more difficult to deal with later on.
There are two precautions to be aware of here. A dog has an innate nature to hunt for things and so if it detects the presence of other creatures in the ground, the instinct can instantly kick in and the paws start working. If your dog is digging to hunt for rats and other creatures, the best way is to simply get rid of them.
Also, if your pet has a habit of digging, you need to keep it from observing you working in your garden. If you have been planting there, it is likely that your dog will return to the spot after you have left and do some ‘gardening’ of its own as well. The dog does so out of a tendency to imitate, or just out of curiosity, to find out what all the fuss with flowers and vegetables is about.
If you find your dog is still digging in the wrong place after you have made attempts to stop it, don’t be discouraged. Patience is required for the new behavior pattern to crystallize. You may need to repeat a few times in order to reinforce what is correct and acceptable. However, once the right association has been formed, your dog will desist from creating a mess.
4. Demarcate an Alternative Area
Mark out a specific area of your yard in advance as the spot designated for your dog to dig. You could use a low fence or other methods of demarcating its perimeter. Local stores will usually have the equipment needed for this task.
Cover up the area with the type of substrate the dog enjoys digging. You could also set up a sandbox in the same manner you would for a playful child. Now every time you spot the dog digging in the yard, lawn, or garden, you have an alternative place to bring it to. This is an area where you can reward-train your dog to refocus its energies.
Remember that for dogs, digging is a form of playful exploration. One way to focus your dog’s attention on the area you have set aside is by burying its favorite toys, treats or bones within the substrate and then encouraging your dog to find them. Ensure your dog observes you bury the items and then reward it each time it excavates and finds them. The objective is to instill awareness that digging here is much more enjoyable than anywhere else.
If you choose not to purchase your own substrate, but instead bury edibles or toys in the ground, take the necessary precautions against pests, garden chemicals, or other contaminants that may be ingested by the dog. The area you choose should be completely free of all such hazards.
Routinely reward the dog whenever it uses this spot for its intended purpose. In case you find that the dog is not adjusting quickly enough, what you need to do is to increase the incentive, which in this case is the reward on offer. In the initial stages of this training, you will need to be physically present to keep an eye on your dog each time it is outdoors in order to enforce the cause-effect association. Once your pet catches on however, corrections will no longer be necessary.
Also, it is essential to make all members of your household aware of this training so that there can be consistency in how the dog is treated by each one of them. If a deviation occurs, it could set back the conditioning process and you may have to go back to square one. To avoid this, take the necessary measures to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
5. Use Effective Deterrents
To prevent your dog from tearing up your lawn, you could lay a reinforcement mesh. These meshes are designed to allow your grass to grow naturally such that your lawn will still look beautiful and attractive. The reinforcement protects the ground and its network prevents the dog’s claws from creating a mess and damaging the lawn. If you are not at the seeding stage, i.e. your lawn is already grassed, consider laying the type of protective mesh that can be held down with U pins.
Another method is to bury the dog’s own stool in the holes it has dug. By nature, dogs are put off immediately by the smell of their own stool and will refrain from digging in a spot as soon as they detect the smell. The fact that your dog has 300 million olfactory nerves (which make its sense of smell 10,000 – 100,000 times more acute than yours) works to your advantage. It will start picking up the smell before it re-digs the spot. For this method to work, you need to ensure that you use the dog’s own stool and not the stool of a different dog. This especially applies if you own multiple pets.
You could also booby trap the places where the dog likes to dig in order to discourage the practice. However, ensure you do so in a way that deters the dog without injuring it. One such way is to bury a blown-up balloon in the spot where the dog frequently digs. Freshly dug holes could also be covered with stones, gravel, citrus peels, or pinecones. These are uncomfortable to the paws of the dog and will discourage it from excavating.
The more your pet keeps coming across such deterrents, the less inclined it will be to continue the practice. If your dog is prone to unearthing new escape routes, placing rocks under the fence will have a similar effect. This is your way of taking charge of its game and playing it to your advantage.
6. Prioritize Exercise and Training
Just as with humans, dogs get bored. They want a form of entertainment. A bored dog will look for something to amuse itself with. Recognizing this in advance will help you as a pet owner to do what is necessary to ensure your dog is preoccupied with what is constructive.
A dog left for extended periods of time in a yard by itself may begin to develop a pattern of negative behaviors. So if your dog has a habit of digging in the wrong places, reduce the amount of time it spends by itself. Whenever it is alone, ensure that it has enough toys, puzzles, or other items to keep it engaged.
Digging can be an outlet for the dog to expel extra energy. It may also be a way of coping with stress and anxiety if something negative has occurred, like the loss of a fellow pet. The dog may feel the need to displace some tension that has been brought about by a change in its routine, or its environment.
Engaging in positive activities is a healthy way for your pet to vent while developing in a balanced way. By creating enough mental and physical stimulation coupled with social interaction, your dog will eventually outgrow wrong patterns of behavior. You will be enabling it expend its energy on what is constructive instead of what is undesirable.
The more your dog is preoccupied mentally, physically, and socially throughout the day with stimulating activities (like playing, going for walks, running), the less the likelihood of engaging in problem behaviors. These activities prevent negativity like loneliness and despondency from taking root by providing a healthy outlet.
There are also communal sports, competitions, and other organized events that a pet owner can sign up for. Research and check for these in your area. For example, Earth Dog is an initiative by the American Kennel Club that tests a dog’s hunting abilities and turns its natural inclination to dig into a rewarding activity for both pet and owner.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Michael Duncan (author) from Germany on March 13, 2021:
Thanks for your feedback, Devika. Glad that you were able to glean something useful.
Michael Duncan (author) from Germany on March 13, 2021:
Much appreciated, Liz. It is an age-old issue and fortunately, one that can be turned around with the correct behavioral approach.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 08, 2021:
Informative and so worth reading about dogs digging up a ground. I had a dog that dug up my garden and never understood the reasons for that. You explained well and I learned new ways to stop dog from digging up in the garden.
Liz Westwood from UK on March 08, 2021:
This is a very helpful and well-structured article. I especially appreciate your positive approach to this problem.