There are a lot of problematic behaviors that a dog can display and many of those often catch dog owners by surprise. One of the more obscure ones is a dog's digging habit. Or, at the very least, it’s perceived as obscure by fairly new dog owners. But in fact digging is a very natural behavior for most canines and can be motivated by a plethora of factors.
Here are some of the reasons why dogs dig as attempted to explained by canine behaviorists and scientists.
Dogs have the instinct to dig because of their ancestry.
Ancestors of dogs and wildlife relatives are known to dig dens in the wild, and dogs share genes with these animals. Foxes, wolves, hyenas, and other modern-day members of the dog family are all known to dig dens. The same goes for most of the known ancestors of these animals and there are multiple reasons for that:
- Protection from extreme temperatures, both high and low.
- Protection from other predators.
- Protection of the offspring.
As we’ll see below, most of those reasons apply for our domesticated pets’ instincts as well, even if they don’t have the practical need for them.
You’ll often see your dog try to dig his/her blanket or dog bed before going to sleep. Even if that doesn’t accomplish anything in practice, your dog has the instinct to make his or her sleeping place deeper and more den-like, even if they aren't den animals by nature.
Dogs often need to regulate their temperature.
Digging a hole to sleep in is the best answer a dog has to both hot and cold temperatures. This is why experts often recommend providing dogs either with dog crates or dog beds that would allow them to accomplish this goal much easier than digging hardwood floor.
We all look for more comfort when we go to sleep.
Just as most people feel uncomfortable sleeping with an open door or window, so are dogs – digging a deeper, den-like sleeping place helps them feel more comfortable, which is related to temperature regulation as well as feeling of securing.
When dogs get bored, they'll try to find to amuse themselves. In a lot of cases a bored dog can dig just for fun. After all, if people enjoy digging holes at the beach, why wouldn’t a dog enjoy digging too, even if it is in your flower pot?
Dogs can be hoarders.
Similarly to how leopards lift their prey on trees to keep it away from other predators, a lot of wolves, foxes and dogs have the instinct to bury their excess food for later. In domesticated dogs, this instinct often transfers to burying their dog toys, bones, and other “precious” stuff.
Your dog may want to get out.
Dogs are usually smart enough to realize that an obstacle can be overcome by going underneath it. If a dog wants to escape from home for whatever reason, trying to dig its way out is a common behavior, particularly with fenced areas.
Hunting breeds are often bred and trained to hunt ground-dwelling animals. Even if your dog hasn’t hunted even once in his/her life, if he or she is from a scent-hound breed, chances are that they have the instinct to dig for prey.
Digging out of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a common problem for dogs that are often left alone throughout the day. In these cases it’s likely that your dog doesn’t want to escape from home, but just wants to go out and find you, or is attempting to instinctively stimulate his brain.
Your dog might be trying to eat dirt or roots.
Dogs are closer to being omnivores and they can eat things other than meat. And a lot of these food items are buried underground – roots, tuber, mushrooms, and more. Thus it’s not unlikely that you pooch smells something that he's trying to eat.
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How to Stop a Dog from Digging
And how to stop a dog from digging if it's clearly a favorite habit of his? Again, most ways to deal with your dog’s digging problem involves satisfying the reason for the digging itself. So, if we go through them one by one:
If your dog needs to warm up or cool off, you need to regulate the room temperature better.
In this case, digging is easy to “cure” by simply eliminating the need for it. Alternatively, you can provide tools for him to cool off or warm up. For example, a cooling mat or a fan is great for summer, and in winter your pooch can wrap himself into a doggy blanket.
If your dog is a hoarder, you can either help or restrict the need to hoard.
You can eliminate your dog’s hoarding habit by not giving him/her excess dog treats and dog toys to bury. Alternatively, you can build your dog a digging pit which the dog can devote specifically for this habit.
If your dog is hunting for critters, remove the critters from the dog’s environment.
Hunting is a natural instinct for many dogs that is very hard to remove or counter-train, especially in hounds. If your dog is digging or trying to dig because he/she smells or hears small animals below the ground or the floor, you can set up traps to remove these animals. Trying to train your dog against hunting is usually going to be futile.
Getting a better chew-proof dog bed, dog crate or dog den can be a good solution for this problem. Alternatively, you can move your dog’s sleeping spot to a more isolated and cozy place in your home, or wherever you see him spending the most time.
If your dog is trying to escape from home, address it.
If there are things in your home that your dog wants to run away from, you may need to remove them. If there are things outside that your dog is trying to get to (like to find you while you’re at work), try to give your dog a more frequent access to these things. Separation anxiety, in particular, is a problem for most dogs and causes digging often.
If your dog is digging excessively for any other reason that you can’t address directly – contact a professional dog trainer.
It’s not impossible that your dog has developed the digging habit as response to something in its puppy days, similarly to how we develop a lot of our subconscious behaviors. Not every dog owner can be a professional dog trainer, so in such cases you’d do well to seek help for an easy resolution.
What NOT to do if your dog is digging
As with any other unwanted behavior in dogs, there are good ways to treat it and there are bad ways. Here are a couple of things that you might instinctively want to do but shouldn’t when dealing with dog digging habit.
Don’t bring your dog to a previous “digging site” and scold him.
Dogs are smart but they are not smart enough to connect their digging from hours or even minutes ago, with your current scolding. Unless you catch your dog in the act, delayed punishments won’t work.
Don’t hurt or punish your dog physically.
A famous, old-fashioned way to (try and) stop digging is to fill the hole with water and hold the dog’s head in it. This is a cruel, inhumane and completely ineffective, as the dog won’t understand that the digging is the problem, and will just feel mistreated, abused and hurt – and justifiably so.