The HOLE Problem: Stop Digging at the Root




This oh-so-popular and famously frustrating dog behavior might be the bane of your gardening existence, but rest assured, like most troublesome dog behaviors, unwelcome digging can be resolved. In this article we’ll cover what to do, not to do, and why. So that you can treat the problem from the root.

Ahh… so many dirt puns, so little time.

Why is your dog digging?

The answer is essential to solving your problem.  Dogs have reasons:

  • Boredom
  • Discovery (oooh! Bugs!)
  • Hiding things
  • Cooling off
  • Escaping a space

To figure out your dog’s reasons, look at the evidence.  If they’re digging at the edge of a fence, it’s time to act fast! Fido might be trying to make a break for it or visit a neighbor’s dog.  Digging under a bush and then laying in it? Maybe it’s coolest under there, especially a few layers deep. Or is there stuff in those holes? Fido might be a bit of a hoarder, or maybe he is having resource disputes with the other dog(s) in the house.

Consider your dog’s breed and personality as well.  Many hounds become fascinated with things hiding in the dirt and will root around to discover. They were bred to find things, so it only makes sense for a hound to have a curious demeanor. A lot of terriers enjoy hoarding objects and might hide things. These behaviors aren’t singular to those breeds, nor are they guaranteed. But the job your dog was once bred for can clue you in as to why they feel so compelled to dig around. Take Dachshunds, for example. Once bred to hunt badgers, these long strong dogs can dig with the best of them. Many are famous for being escape artists.

Understanding your dog’s motivations answers a key question in solving the digging problem: What activity would be more suitable for my dog instead of digging?


What can your dog do instead?

Instead of correcting your dog out of their digging habits (something that can do more damage than good), consider replacing this behavior with something acceptable that your dog loves.  Telling Fido, “no no, stop that!” isn’t going to work unless you have something better to offer.

Here’s a list of great redirects to maintain your dog’s sanity while resolving the problem behavior. Match the redirect behavior to your dog’s personality and reasons for digging.

  • Boredom .………..Make sure you are doing your part to train and walk the dog daily. Some dogs need more than others. A common mistake is to rely solely on the back yard to entertain the dog, but this isn’t enough. Mental stimulation, as well as physical activity, are essential for calming. So walk twice a day and practice sit, down and other obedience cues on your walks.  You’ll have a much calmer and well behaved dog that responds better to your cues. Then, if your dog still wants to dig, set up a sand-filled kiddie pool or other well marked digging spot where it’s OK to dig. Catch your dog in the act and redirect them to the right spot.   With some repetition your dog will learn or lose interest in digging entirely.
  • Discovery  …………. Offer busy toys like a food ball or bones (size appropriate for dogs with adult teeth).  Curious dogs need lots of mental stimulation, and a good puzzle toy can help. A designated digging spot, as mentioned above, can also help with this. You can even hide goodies like toys in there to draw your dog to the spot more often.You may also want to consider nose work. It’s scent detection for the urban dog, and it’s so fun!
  • Hiding things …………… Teach your dog a solid “Leave it” cue so that they learn that some things are off limits. Practice with common objects that they target in the house. Then give them plenty of their own toys to play with. If your dog seems obsessed with stealing the other dog’s things, you may not want to leave toys down. Practice getting toys out for specific games instead, then put them up when the game is over.
  • Cooling off ………….. Cover the exposed dirt with ground cover, not just dirt, to prevent your dog from returning to the spot again. Provide a cooler bed in the shade where your dog can lounge.  Kuranda cot beds come in chew-proof varieties and allow for air flow beneath the dog, helping them stay cool. If your dog isn’t a big chewer, Coolaroo brand makes a more affordable cot too.
  • Escape …………… Escapism is the classic mark of an unattended, bored dog with little training.  Do not leave your untrained dog unattended in your yard. A few things need to happen before you can trust most dogs with any amount of freedom.  Teach your dog a solid recall command, like “Come” and work on your loose leash training. Also, make sure you dog is spayed or neutered. In tact dogs are ten times more likely to break free.  A hormonally stable, leash trained dog will rarely try to escape a yard because they are more bonded to their humans and learn that staying close is more rewarding than wandering away. Teach your dog to earn your trust, and in return you will earn their respect.

You may have noticed that a lot of these answers involve giving your dog a spot to dig. Many dogs grow out of digging behavior as they mature, but it is an absolute necessity and joy for many of them while they’re young. If you have an older rescue dog that hasn’t had any previous training, they are mentally still a puppy and may be predisposed to this puppy behavior as well.

When you redirect your dog to their own digging spot, you spare your gardens and grass while keeping your dog sane. A sane dog is happy and less destructive.  A stifled, pent up and frustrated dog will act out in other ways. Maybe by acting more like a spaz, or maybe by chewing on the wood of your house. In any case, you’re much better off giving them a healthy outlet.

Deterrent, Markers, & Other Tips

For some dogs, a simple redirect is all it will take. Others are INVESTED in digging in the wrong spot because they find it so rewarding. In these cases you may incorporate a deterrent.

A deterrent in this case is not meant to be a punishment. It is simply something that makes the activity less rewarding.  It preempts a redirect, so that the redirect becomes more appealing (making the dog favor the redirect behavior more than the old behavior). Common digging deterrent methods include:

  1. Catch them in the act over and over and over again.  Seriously. Be annoying. You don’t want Fido to dig? Become the helicopter parent where, every time they get near that digging spot, you are there, ready to interrupt the behavior and guide the dog over to the right spot.  You can’t sneak by me, Fido!   If you have experience with human toddlers, you’ll notice a lot of similarities here.
  2. Use marker words to communicate clearly.   When you catch them say “Uh Oh.”  This is meant to be a verbal marker of the moment they do something incorrectly.  It is not intended to be a punishment, just a communication device. After you say it, immediately guide your dog over to the better spot without dragging them and give a different marker like “Yes!” or “Good Dog!” If you’re also obedience training your dog, they’ll know the meanings of these words very quickly.   If verbal guidance is not enough to interrupt digging, gently place your hand on their collar and guide them away with as little pressure as possible.
  3. Do not drag, hit, or spank your dog when you catch them. Hitting is for babies. Plus, the real magic is in the redirect, remember? Your dog needs to know what you want and like. They need to know that it is more rewarding to do things your way. Save your energy for that. Hitting and spanking only breaks the trust bond you have with your dog and makes them nervous around you. Even if it solves your digging problem, chances are good that you’ll get five new problems as a result.
  4. Do not correct your dog after the fact. If you don’t catch them in the act, it’s too late. You may think your dog understands, but there is an equally good chance that your dog will think that you’re punishing them for doing something else in the back yard. There’s no easier way to confuse Fido than making him think he’s in trouble for peeing in the yard.  Remember, a training correction applies to whatever your dog did right before that – Not ten minutes ago.
  5. Fill in holes without an audience. Dog’s are famous for targeting freshly planted flower beds and any dirt that they see you touch. Why? Because everything you touch is better and your dog loves you. Or maybe they think you’re filling it for them (why wouldn’t you be?).  Either way, put the dog up first.
  6. Add dog poop to the hole.  Want to keep them away from that spot? A little doggy doo goes a long way! It sounds gross because it is. Thankfully, most dogs agree and would rather not put their nose or paws in poop, so naturally they will avoid the places where they smell it.  Yes, that even applies to the ones that like to eat poop, oddly enough. A simple spade scooper and poo pan will save you the trouble of having to bend over or put your hands in it.
  7. Cover exposed dirt with mulch or other ground cover.  Exposed dirt says “party time” to a dog that likes to dig.
  8. Secure your fence. Chicken wire can be bent at a 90 degree angle and used to line the base of your fence. This will help deter digging paws from getting too far.  For extra deterrent toss some poop along the fence boundary.
  9. Interrupt fence running.  Got a neighbor dog that runs and barks, getting your dog all amped up? Now he might want to dig under that fence even more!  Prevent this frustrating habit that contributes to so many behavior problems by simply interrupt all fence running and redirecting your dog inside.  The sooner you interrupt this, the better.

Remember, if your dog is digging, they have a reason. Try to add balance to your dog’s life by providing other better options for entertainment, and make sure their environment is safe in the back yard.  Sticking with the process of catching and then redirecting to a better activity will work, and you and your dog will get along better too.  And that, my friends, will solve the HOLE problem!

Related articles: Socializing Your Dog The Right Way , Dog Park Tips 

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