Help! Can My Dog Be Trained Not to Dig?
Stop your dog from digging up your favorite plants with expert advice from animal behaviorist Karen London, PhD.
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I recently adopted my first Terrier-mix, a charming two-year-old dog named Ezra. He steals socks and buries them in my garden (at least now I know what happened to them). He’s also digging up some of my favorite plants. Do you have any advice on how to stop him from digging?
Many dogs dig and Terriers are notorious for it—no surprise, given that many of them were bred to dig for vermin. They dig to bury things (like Ezra’s doing), for entertainment, to ease boredom, to cool off, and sometimes to escape. Here are a few strategies you can use to stop your dog from digging up the yard.
First, show them where it is okay to dig.
Since digging is such a natural behavior for dogs, it’s often easier to channel that urge to an appropriate place rather than to eliminate it completely. Make it easier and more tempting for Ezra to dig in a place you set up for that purpose. Create a digging area with sand, dirt, and treasures to make that location a better, more fun choice. Start by half-burying a bone, stuffed Kong, or another prized item in the designated area to teach your dog that it’s worth his time to dig there. As time goes on, you can make treasures harder to find, but it’s important that he have success right away, so he has good motivation to return to dig where he’s allowed (and encouraged) to do so.
Provide plenty of enrichment.
Many dogs dig when they’re bored. If they have other options, some will forego the digging. That means an essential part of dealing with a digging dog is to add activities to their day. There are two general approaches: work the body and work the mind. More physical exercise can make a huge difference, especially if it’s the kind of effort that really tires him out. Extra time on leashed walks is good, but running off-leash until he’s truly tired—chasing balls or playing with a dog buddy—is often more effective at changing behavior.
Mental exercise is also an important part of keeping a dog from finding their own amusements, whether that’s burying socks or digging up plants. Chew toys, food puzzles, stuffed toys like Kongs, searching for hidden treats in the house, and training sessions are all ways to keep your dog’s mind busy.
Preventing trouble is half the battle.
Managing the situation, so your dog doesn’t have the opportunity to do what you don’t want him to do is a big piece of the puzzle. (This is true for any behavioral issue, by the way.) Management may include setting up barriers such as fencing or chicken wire around areas you do not want them to dig. It could also involve spraying a scent your dog doesn’t like around the area you seek to protect. (Tip: Many dogs don’t care for citrus scents.) If you have mice, shrews or any other little critters that make your yard smell delicious to your dogs, do what you can to remove them with humane and non-toxic methods. Finally, do all you can to keep socks—and any other treasures your dog likes to bury—out of reach.
Don’t give him the freedom to make mistakes.
For now, while you’re teaching him this new habit, don’t allow him to be outside if you can’t supervise him or offer him something else to do. When you’re out in the yard together, give him a frozen stuffed Kong and observe how much time he spends on it. Once you know how long it will keep him occupied, you’ll know how long he can be outside without you. If you see him digging where he’s not allowed to, it’s essential that you react to it—redirect him to his own spot or involve him in some other activity instead.
Model appropriate behaviors.
Many dogs watch us dig in an area and then do the same thing. Until he learns that he may not dig in your garden or yard and is content to dig only in his special digging area, don’t let your dog observe you digging. What you see as an undesirable behavior may just be his way of joining in the fun.
Though digging is a natural dog behavior, it can be very inconvenient and irritating. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to make the situation a happier one for both of you. A love of digging is part of who Ezra is, but you can train him to dig less and on your terms.
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Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.