Harley, my 1-year-old chocolate lab/husky mix, has a digging problem. He sniffs around the yard or in his pen and goes at it like he’s digging to China. This mostly happens when he is unsupervised, which I know can be attributed to separation anxiety, but he also does it when we are out with him.
He digs next to fences, trees, fire hydrants, bushes, flowers, etc. He eats up the grass, and then digs up roots and eats them, and sometimes he just digs to dig. When he is in his 10-foot-by-10-foot pen, he digs at the corners, so I’m sure he’s looking for an escape.
We’ve been told that he needs something to occupy him to keep him from digging, but he destroys every toy he’s ever gotten. Plus, I don’t like leaving him alone with things he might swallow. It also has been suggested to put chicken wire into the holes and fill them in to discourage the digging, but I don’t know how good of an idea that is.
This is my first dog, so I’m not entirely sure how to approach it. He knows he shouldn’t do it — he puts his ears and tail down when he’s caught — but continues to do so anyway. I’d like to find a solution before our entire backyard is a mud pit. Any suggestions?
— Caitlin from Illinois
As the ol’ saying goes, “Bees gotta sting, birds gotta fly.” Well, in your case, it’s “dogs gotta dig.” I can understand your frustration about Harley’s unsolicited attempts of relandscaping your yard. As a certified professional dog trainer, I have worked with many dogs and dog guardians in similar situations, so hopefully I can provide some management and dog training tips for living in harmony.
Like all normal doggy behaviors, such as barking and chewing, digging can be seen in many — if not all — of our domestic dogs at some point or another. And like other canine species-specific traits, each personality characteristic can be more pronounced in some dogs than others; where one dog loves to chew, another loves to dig. You’ve ended up with a digger.
Why does Harley like to dig? A few reasons are:
» He hears something below ground that leads him to wanting to hunt after it.
» Harley smells something in the dirt that he’s trying to get to.
» The soil itself is cool, soft and comfortable. Digging a hole in the ground is an ingenious way to create a nice comfy space, especially for dogs who have a thick coat and might be warm.
» He is fearful of being alone or of something in his environment.
» Digging is just gosh darn fun! It sure helps provide entertainment when boredom kicks in.
The scenario you’ve described, and your own evaluation of him not wanting to be alone, leads me to suggest you find an alternate plan for when Harley needs to be left on his own. If he is indeed experiencing isolation distress, you’ll want to confirm this by consulting with a professional. An animal behaviorist, certified professional dog trainer and/or your veterinarian can all help rule out isolation distress vs. boredom behaviors.
With isolation distress, you’ll need to condition Harley to be left alone. This is a longer process and one in which you will need a more detailed behavior modification plan, with or without accompanying medications to treat states of uneasiness. I’d suggest you consult with Harley’s vet first to also rule out any medical issues he may have.
If Harley’s digging adventures have more to do with a way of entertaining himself, then you’ll want to spend time teaching him what you want, while still providing him access to “legal” digging areas. (Trust me, if he has the urge to dig, providing the time and place for him to do it will make you all happy!) This also helps set him up for success — one of the key concepts for successful dog training — by simply managing his environment so he isn’t able to practice the behaviors you don’t want.
I also encourage you to try some fun and rewarding activities together, such as setting up scavenger hunts or playing other dog training games, that also can help prevent boredom-related behaviors.
There are additional things you can do to help prevent canine boredom blues, including providing enrichment, especially when Harley is left alone.
Using interactive food toys and even creating his own digging pit can help redirect Harley’s energy to specific allowable areas — he’ll be too busy digging through his own treasure chest or playing with his own games that he won’t care about digging in other areas.
For more simple and practical dog training tips for managing a dog like Harley who loves to dig, visit the Inquisitive Canine blog to read what Poncho has to say.
In summary: First, rule out the motivation behind Harley’s digging tendencies — fun or fear? If you’re not sure, consult with a professional to help you determine the cause. If it’s boredom related, then remember to manage Harley’s environment to help prevent unwanted behaviors from occurring, reward Harley for making good choices (refraining from digging), allow him to dig in legal areas to help him fulfill this digging urge and provide enrichment to help channel his energy elsewhere.
These steps should help bring your sanity and your garden back to life while still fulfilling Harley’s hankering for plowing the earth.