When we adopted our new puppy Quincy we discovered she just LOVES to dig! Once she gets involved in an interesting hole, she could be at it for a long time – and she’s fast and very efficient when she gets going. She’s also very difficult to stop once she gets into a digging frenzy!
One thing you realize very quickly when you have a new puppy is that life is a whole lot easier if you teach puppy how to entertain herself both indoors and outdoors in appropriate ways.
Some dogs and some breeds of dog are more genetically pre-disposed to dig than others and may enjoy digging their entire lifetime. Other dogs may dig as youngsters but eventually grow out of the habit.
Our older, husky, Salem, was a digger her entire life and in her later years continued to dig shallow pits in the summer to lie in. She had a thick coat and the soil was cooler than the grass so digging a pit allowed her to stay outside in the sun and still be cool.
A good way to combat a determined digger like Quincy is to create her very own Digging Pit. It’s very difficult to completely suppress such a natural behavior. It’s much easier to give the behavior a more appropriate outlet. In our case, I didn’t have to build a new pit because we have 3 pre-existing digging areas from past dogs. I did allow her to pick one new area, though and she does tend to go between all 4 with a fair amount of regularity. She seems fairly content having 4 areas and doesn’t often try to build “new digs” – but every now and then, a small hole magically appears in the lawn for us to fill in.
If you can create a digging pit in an area already chosen by your dog, you’ll have more success getting them to use it instead of creating a new pit when you’re not paying attention.
Quincy’s digging tends to take place during her moments of “puppy frenzy” which happens a couple of times a day. She rips around the yard and occasionally stops to have a furious digging session before continuing to rip around – frequently bouncing off us with her now muddy paws! Digging is also a popular boredom “sport” for dogs who spend too much time alone in the yard without enough mental stimulation to keep them content.
*Note that, contrary to popular opinion, too much physical exercise for young dogs can also build adrenaline and create the “zoomies” too and make behaviour worse, not better. A nice balance of some physical exercise, some mental exercise and lots of other enrichment (chosen by them) is ideal.
The trick is to build or create an area to dig AND combine that with clear and consistent training. Without the training, simply having a digging pit isn’t likely to help a digging problem long term.
As Quincy matures, she may lose her interest in digging but if it continues, the “art” of the digging pit will become important. I need to ensure it’s interesting and occasionally surprising in order to keep her interest in that particular area high.
There is no official formula for creating a digging pit. Really it’s just figuring out what may attract your particular dog and building your pit around those ideas. The art to creating a successful pit is to make it more attractive to your dog than any other part of the yard or garden.
If you have a more “natural” yard like mine and you don’t mind a pit or two in your landscaping, choose a spot that’s a bit out of the way but still well within the boundaries of your yard. You don’t want a spot too close to your fence in case the pit leads to a tunnel under the fence! If you don’t want to dig into your existing landscaping, building or buying a wooden sandbox, a child's hard-sided pool or large planter box is a good solution. Make sure that anything you buy to use is either low enough to easily accommodate your dog or sunk into the ground far enough to make it an accessible height. You want to choose something that is a reasonable depth – at least a foot or more for larger dogs. If your dog is continually hitting the bottom, he’s more likely to look for another spot that more closely satisfies his need to dig deeper.
If you have anything other than a toy breed, choose a box size or dig a pit that is about ½ the body length of your dog in width. Toy breeds can probably handle a pit that’s as long as their body!
Dogs are attracted to the smells present in freshly turned earth, so that’s a natural choice for your pit “fill”. However, if you live in a wetter climate, dirt quickly turns to mud so mixing it with sand or using all sand is a good choice too. If you use sand, you may have to find ways to make it extra smelly to compensate for the fresh earth odor. I like to include fresh bark mulch in my fill, as that is the one thing that will cause my dogs to want to roll on someone’s lawn when we’re on our walks.
If you have a dog who has a short coat or the “easy to clean” northern breed types of coats, consider adding some “clean” manure from a garden centre – just a small amount will make the pit extra smelly and attractive without making your dog extra smelly, too.
To keep the pit interesting, find and bury toys and items that your dog loves that can also survive being left for days buried in the dirt. Dry dog cookies, rubber kongs with cookies in them, beef chews, and hard rubber balls all work well. Bury them at various depths for your dog to find. I will often bury raw bones that my dogs have already been working on. The several days-old bone found in the dirt can be endlessly appealing to dogs. (Never feed cooked bones or the processed and smoked bones found in some pet stores – these can easily splinter and cause a lot of internal damage.) A couple of kongs full of dinner kibble would be a great thing to bury – feeding dinner and providing mental activity and entertainment at the same time!
Make sure you keep putting the fill they toss out of the pit back in - otherwise your efforts will backfire!
Management is a critical component in the success of a digging pit. In the early stages of training, you need to be in the yard whenever your dog is in the yard to ensure they have no access to dig elsewhere.
As soon as you go outside with your dog, immediately show her the pit, begin digging a little in the pit yourself and praise heavily when they show any interest in it or begins to dig with you. Keep the pit well stocked with things to find at first – there should be a double reinforcement of digging AND getting treats or toys for using her pit.
If your dog goes to another area and is preparing to dig, immediately redirect them to her own pit. Keep your re-direction upbeat or neutral – not punitive. Simply call them over or go put them on leash and bring them back to their own pit. Re-engage them in their pit and praise extravagantly for renewed interest in the appropriate location.
If your dog keeps going back to an “illegal” digging spot despite numerous neutral redirections to their own pit, you can provide a short consequence – I generally use “3 chances then you’re out” rule. An appropriate consequence would be to put your dog on leash and take them into the house for a brief “time away from yard freedom". Again, keep it neutral and quiet - no correction or anger is necessary. After maybe a 5-minute time inside the house, they can go back into the yard with supervision. Make sure that you very quickly dig over any areas that get started “illegally”. Temporarily cover them with something heavy and hard to move like bricks or a heavy lawn chair to help prevent access to that spot when your back is turned.
In the early stages of training, don’t leave your dog alone when they are digging in their pit. Dogs most often want to share yard time with us rather than being alone out there. We don’t want to send the message that digging in the “right” spot means we leave the yard but digging in the “wrong” spot brings us right back out. Hang out in the yard with your dog while they're digging – companionably gardening or reading. Occasionally tell them how wonderful they are and frequently wander by to drop a treat surreptitiously into the hole for them to find.
Always keep things positive and neutral without the use of corrections. Many dogs tend to lose an interest in digging as they mature, but it can be a nice enrichment activity for dogs who love to dig so why fight it - just tailor it to your own preferences!
(Digging with friends!)