Why Do Dogs Dig?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz May 15, 2020
Are you concerned with your dog’s digging behavior? Has the digging become destructive to your garden or home? Does your dog regularly dig out of the yard? In this article, we will help improve your understanding of this oftentimes frustrating behavior. Moreover, some solutions will be discussed for you to try with your dog to make life together more peaceful.
Why Do Dogs Dig?
A survey of Americans found that 83% of dog owners reported that their dogs performed digging behavior (Campbell, 1986). While digging behavior in pet dogs is often viewed as a problem behavior, it is important to understand that digging is a completely natural and normal activity that dogs will perform. As pet parents, understanding the motivation behind why our dog is digging is the first step in redirecting or reducing this potentially destructive behavior.
Reasons Why Dogs Dig
- To hide food
Dogs may dig to bury or retrieve extra food. Historically, hiding their extra food may have helped prevent conflict with other scavengers and keep their living area clean (Odendaal, 1997).
- To catch prey
Some dogs will dig in search of small burrowing prey. Certain breeds have been selectively bred for this trait such as dachshunds and terriers. Therefore, they are more likely to perform digging behavior (Bonnie and Beaver, 1987).
- For creating shelter or comfort
Dogs enjoy having a place to shelter in for their safety and comfort. This serves as protection from other animals and comfort during rough weather conditions. In extreme heat, dogs may dig to expose the lower moist layer of the ground to cool themselves (Adams and Grandage, 1989).
- For exercise
If dogs are not provided with adequate exercise or space they may resort to digging as an informal way to burn off some energy (Bonnie and Beaver, 1987).
- To investigate
Digging is one of many ways that dogs will investigate and explore their environment. In addition to sniffing around, dogs may dig at areas to look for hidden objects that may be useful or potentially harmful (Odendaal, 1997). Dogs feel more comfortable in environments that they know and have thoroughly explored.
- Because other dogs are digging
Being around another digging dog can sometimes trigger a dog to dig. Many dog owners try getting a second dog to reduce boredom and fix the problem behavior. However, it is likely that instead of solving their issues, they instead end up with two dogs with a digging problem.
- To alleviate frustration
There are many circumstances that can lead to digging out of frustration. When our dog’s expectations are not met they experience frustration. Signs of frustration include barking, whining, jumping, scratching, or digging (Jakovcevic et al., 2013). If a dog is confined to too small of a space they may try to dig their way out. They may also try to dig out in aggressive pursuit of an intimidating dog or person. Additionally, since dogs are social animals they may try to escape in order to socialize or to try to reunite with their owners if left behind. Increased levels of digging may also be observed in dogs housed long term in inappropriate housing conditions (Dalla Villa et al., 2013).
- For reproduction
Pregnant female dogs will dig an area in preparation for giving birth and raising her puppies. This type of digging will typically occur between one day to a week before giving birth. Intact male dogs may try to escape a fenced area by digging if they smell the pheromones of a female dog in heat to pursue a mating prospect.
Situations When Your Dog Digs
Now that you know why your dog digs, let’s explore some situations where you may observe your dog digging.
- Why Do Dogs Dig In Their Bed?
If your dog is digging their bed, then they are most likely creating a comfortable area to lie down by instinct. You may notice your dog sniffing, circling, and pawing at their bed. In a natural environment, they would be moving aside sticks, leaves, and rocks to make a comfortable bed. In the home environment, they will continue this behavior. Instead they’ll move around their bed, blankets, and toys.
- Why Do Dogs Dig Inside?
A dog may dig inside when attempting to hide food or a bone, or out of frustration due to an inadequate environment. Dogs may dig at rugs or carpeting in an attempt to bury away extra food or to hide a valuable bone away from others. They may even move around pillows and blankets to stash valuable items away to be retrieved at a later time. If a dog is environmentally deprived inside, either from lack of exercise or social interaction, they may dig at doors or windows in an attempt to escape.
- Why Do Dogs Dig Out Of The Yard?
Dogs may dig to escape a yard for a number of reasons. If they are feeling restricted by a lack of space and exercise, they may try to break free to meet those needs. If they experience separation anxiety from their owner, they may try to break out of the yard to be reunited with their loved ones. If dogs feel threatened by something outside their yard they may also try to escape and respond with aggression. Other reasons could be in pursuit of prey (that squirrel that’s been taunting them for days) or in search of a potential mate.
- Why Is My Dog Digging Holes All Of A Sudden?
If your dog starts digging holes seemingly out of nowhere, look for changes in their environment. Are you experiencing a heat wave and your dog is looking for ways to cool off? Has your schedule changed and your dog is no longer getting walks at their usual time? Did your neighbors recently get a new dog? Have you recently changed their diet? Most often there is an explanation for this sudden onset of digging behavior!
Do All Dogs Dig?
Yes, all dogs can dig. However, some individuals are going to be more likely to dig than others. As previously mentioned, breed can contribute to a dog’s motivation to dig. Genetics can be a strong driver behind the expression of digging behavior. The sex of the dog can also contribute to likelihood of digging. Male dogs are more likely to exhibit separation-related behavior such as digging (Bradshaw et al., 2002). Intact dogs may be more likely to dig than neutered or spayed dogs as they have greater amounts of hormones driving them to find a mate. Young dogs may be more prone to investigatory digging as they are typically more inquisitive than their more mature counterparts (Odendaal, 1997).
When Should I Allow Digging?
In most cases, dogs are digging due to completely natural motivations. If the digging is not overly destructive and doesn’t have the potential to cause harm, let it happen!
When Should I Be Concerned With Digging?
In most cases, digging is a completely normal and healthy dog behavior. However, there are instances when digging becomes abnormal which could be indicative of a larger problem. Digging becomes abnormal when it is performed either too frequently or too intensely. If this is the case, examine your dog’s environment carefully and try to identify what is triggering abnormal digging. If a change in environment doesn’t correct the digging issue, you could examine whether or not the dog is digging as an attention seeking behavior. Dogs learn that performing some behaviors will get their owners to give them attention (even negative attention can be rewarding to an attention-seeking dog). If the dog is receiving adequate attention but is still excessively digging for attention, then the behavior would be considered abnormal and a certified behaviorist should be consulted to help correct this behavior.
Additionally, digging could be a sign of an anxious dog. Dogs may be anxious in nature or may have learned anxiety from past experiences. When dogs dig excessively due to separation panic, then intervention may be necessary. Speak with your veterinarian about prescribing medication to help the dog cope, and consult a behaviorist to learn ways to modify their environment to ease distress caused by separation.
How Can I Stop My Dog From Digging
Once you understand the motivation behind your dog’s digging, you can take steps to either reduce the occurrence of digging or the damage caused by the digging behavior. Let’s explore some of these motivations below.
- Motivated to stash away food
If your dog is trying to bury their food, this could be a sign that they are being overfed. Consider feeding them smaller meals, or smaller meals with a greater frequency so they don’t feel the need to stash away leftovers.
- Motivated by instinct
In dog breeds that are genetically predisposed to digging behavior, modifying their behavior may be difficult. You’re working against hundreds of years of selective breeding to promote that trait. If you are searching for a new dog, then keep this in mind when selecting a breed. If you do have a dog genetically bred for digging, consider creating a space for them in the yard where they can safely express this behavior. Having a designated digging area may help deter them from being destructive elsewhere.
- Motivated by the elements
If you think your dog is digging in an attempt to create shelter from the elements, consider providing them with a dog house or another form of shelter. But if your dog is digging to find cooler ground to thermally regulate their body temperature, make sure your dog has access to shaded areas or even sprinklers to aid in cooling.
- Motivated by frustration
To reduce digging as a result of frustration, make sure their expectations for exercise and socializing are being met. Keeping your dog on a consistent, predicable schedule may help relieve their frustrations and reduce their motivation to dig.
- Motivated by aggression
Aggression towards a neighboring dog or passersby on the sidewalk can be reduced by restricting access to the fence line. If the aggressive dog is intact, neutering may be an option to consider that helps reduce the hormones contributing to their territorial behavior.
In conclusion, digging behavior in dogs is completely normal. If your dog’s digging becomes a problem, then try to determine their underlying motivation to find the most optimal solution. By getting a better understanding of our dog’s behavior, we can live harmoniously with our furry friends.
Adams, G. J., & Grandage, J. (1989). Digging behaviour in domestic dogs.
Bonnie, V., & Beaver, B. S. (1987). The digging dog. The Southwestern Veterinarian, 38, 35-36.
Bradshaw, J. W. S., McPherson, J. A., Casey, R. A., & Larter, I. S. (2002). Aetiology of separation-related behaviour in domestic dogs. Veterinary Record, 151(2), 43-46.
Campbell, W. E. (1986). The prevalence of behavioral problems in American dogs. Modern veterinary practice (USA).
Dalla Villa, P., Barnard, S., Di Fede, E., Podaliri, M., Candeloro, L., Di Nardo, A., ... & Serpell, J. A. (2013). Behavioural and physiological responses of shelter dogs to long-term confinement. Veterinaria Italiana, 49(2), 231-241.
Jakovcevic, A., Elgier, A. M., Mustaca, A. E., & Bentosela, M. (2013). Frustration behaviors in domestic dogs. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 16(1), 19-34.
Odendaal, J. S. J. (1997). An ethological approach to the problem of dogs digging holes. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 52(3-4), 299-305.