Features August 2008 Issue

How to Solve Canine Digging Problems

Management, not training, solves this behavior problem.

The perfect storm, canine edition: Combine one dog who is accustomed to and prefers spending time outdoors; a spate of hot, dry weather; a lush, productive garden full of herbs and tomato plants growing in raised boxes full of expensive, loamy soil and moistened three times daily by an automatic drip system. What do you get? Holes dug in the garden and an irate husband!

Canine Digging Behavior Problems

On his second day in his new home, Otto had already dug several holes to lie in, including this one under an azalea the author’s husband was fond of – oops! Giving him his very own cool place to dig and snooze solved all unwanted digging.

Our new dog, Otto, nearly made himself quite unwelcome on his second day in our home. Every time I turned around, I’d find him digging in any place we’d recently watered, including the lawn, a flowerbed in front of the house, underneath a gorgeous hydrangea bush that’s already hard-pressed to survive our hot summers, and, most seriously, the vegetable beds in back. “Can’t you train this dog not to dig?” my husband implored.

But this wasn’t a training issue; I’ve been trained enough by Pat Miller and our other contributing trainer/writers to recognize a management situation when I see it!

Dog Training vs. Dog Management

Training is the right thing to do when you want to get a dog to do something specific: fetch a ball, sit when greeting people, walk calmly on leash. But when you would like a dog to not do something – especially when you’d like him to not do it in your absence – you need to manage the situation.

For example, if a dog gets into and eats stuff out of the kitchen garbage pail, you could try to “catch him in the act” and punish him for it, or set up booby traps that would accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately, dogs generally have more idle time on their hands than we do; these approaches take more time and surveillance skills than most of us possess. Traps and stakeouts are unlikely to be successful, anyway; with a random reinforcement of some tasty old food, most dogs are motivated to persist through whatever traps or punishment they occasionally are subjected to. It makes far more sense to manage the situation by putting the pail in a location where he can’t possibly get into it (under the sink, say, with a baby-proof latch on the cupboard door).

Canine Digging Behavior Problems

Fortunately, we had a perfect spot available for a digging box: a deeply shady and unused back corner of the yard, far from the raised garden beds. I was slightly worried that it was far enough from the house and my office that Otto would find it too isolated and would be disinclined to hang out there.

Try to Compromise with Your Dog

Management solutions are most successful if they both A) absolutely prevent the dog from being rewarded for doing the thing you don’t want him to do, and B) reward him for doing something else. Unless we keep Otto inside (which he really doesn’t enjoy, and seems to encourage him to chew on household items), build a kennel on a concrete slab, or cover our entire lot in concrete, we can’t prevent Otto from digging. Fortunately, we have room in our yard to try Plan B: to give him a rewarding experience doing what he wants to do, but in a location of our choice.

Canine Digging Behavior Problems

It took my stepson Clark, a union apprentice carpenter, about five minutes to cut and assemble a 4’ x 6’ frame. I put scraps of weed-blocking fabric, left over from our garden beds, under the box, although this may have been unnecessary; the shade in this area keeps the grass from growing well.

It was clear to me that Otto wasn’t just digging for the fun of digging; he wasn’t burying toys or looking for gophers. Rather, he was trying to find a cool, damp place to beat the hot, dry weather we have all summer long in this part of California. Once he got a hole dug, he’d circle and hunker down in the hole for a nap. I proposed that we provide Otto with an especially cool, damp, shady spot where he could dig and snooze to his heart’s delight.

Methods and Materials

Otto is a good-sized dog, about 50 pounds and fairly long. We wanted the box to be big enough for his digging and relaxing pleasure. After measuring his stretched-out length, we decided the ideal size would be 4 feet by 6 feet, and so we bought two 10-foot boards from which to make the frame. We also decided that 10 inches would be deep enough (he really didn’t dig very deep, just wide, when he dug), so we used boards that were 2 inches by 10 inches, in a low-cost ($8.50 each) variety of fir. We could have spent more for prettier (and rot-resistant) redwood, or used long-lasting pressure-treated wood, but since we didn’t know for sure if this solution would work, I felt the low-cost way was the best way.

Canine Digging Behavior Problems

Halfway through assembling the box, we ran out of the right-sized screws, and Clark went to the hardware store for more. While he was gone, I started filling the box with sand. Otto got in the box after the second wheelbarrow-full, and wouldn’t get out, even when Clark returned and spooked him by using a noisy electric drill to insert the proper screws.

My stepson Clark cut the lumber into 4-foot and 6-foot pieces, and screwed the ends together (as shown below) and I took our truck to buy some sand. I had phoned ahead to make sure that the landscape supply center had clean “sandbox” quality sand; not construction-grade stuff for mixing into concrete. One-half of a cubic yard filled our box perfectly, cost $20, and was well within the safe carrying capabilities of our little Ford Ranger pickup.

The Doggie Sandbox

The box was a smash hit with Otto before it was even completed. I had barely begun filling the box with sand when Otto got in, and he didn’t get out until hours later. Best of all, a month later, it’s still his favorite place to spend a hot day – and he’s dug another hole in the garden only once. He stays relatively clean (compared to when he was sleeping in damp soil), and though he has thrown a lot of sand out of the box, its out-of-the-way location means it’s fine by us.

Canine Digging Behavior Problems

Here’s where and how Otto spends most of every hot day now: snoozing in the sand. He brings toys to chew and bury, but mostly he digs trenches and then burrows down into them. Every few days, I spray the sand with water to keep it damp and cool, and rake the sand smooth, which sets Otto off into a new fit of exuberant excavating.

If he hadn’t taken to his sandbox so quickly, I was prepared to spend time with Otto in the box, give him treats and praise for hanging out there, and perhaps show him how to bury and dig for some of his favorite toys. None of these were necessary – but building sand castles, just for the fun of watching Otto happily dig them apart, has proven to be a blast.

Comments (3)

I have the room. It's not too hot. She just LOVES to bury her toys and dig for critters.

Posted by: PremiumBlend | August 3, 2016 4:36 AM    Report this comment

Well, I have a Siberian husky and a decent size yard. Other than having been encouraged last season to start digging for moles and shrews, my husky simply likes to dig. She has redug the same holes I have filled in on almost EVERY occasion. I have a yard full of miscellaneous holes with no rhyme or reason. Once the underground critters reappear for the season, I feel any efforts to deter or redirect the digging will be in vain. Now my yard at this point looks horrible and its like mowing the grass through an obstacle course.
Again, she does not dig for comfort or coolness. I know she gets bored, despite the toys I have in the yard she loves to play with even on her own in my absence. And, I am gone a good part of the day. Fortunately her efforts to dig are not for the stereotypical husky escaping!

Posted by: celenasafare | April 18, 2015 7:51 AM    Report this comment

this "management" works if you have enough room, how about if you don't! We have a small patio with 2 narrow areas of dirt which our dog constantly digs in as well as a small area that's maybe 5'x5', all dirt, that I want to put plants in. He's obsessed with one corner of that area as well....help!! I could block it off with a very small fence if I had to but that doesn't address the issue of the digging in the other areas..........

Posted by: sheldon1451 | April 17, 2015 12:43 PM    Report this comment

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