Why do dogs dig holes? There may be a purpose.

By | March 28, 2016

Quite often dogs do surprising things, that don’t seem to make any real sense to us. It can be difficult to try and understand why they feel the need to behave in a certain way. However, given their high level of intelligence there is usually a very good reason why they want to do certain things, and in their minds it makes perfect sense. A frequently asked question is why do dogs dig holes? Here we are going to take a closer look, including the main reasons from a dog’s perspective, why we might find it annoying and what you might be able to do about it.

Why do dogs dig holes?

Is dog digging really a problem?

Well, for most of us, yes it is. This is especially the case if your dog digs very frequently, and really makes a good job of it. The end result is a big mess, with dirt and top soil spread for what seems miles on end. It’s even more of a problem if you’ve just spent loads of money on a new lawn or plants for your garden!

Digging Dogs Make a MessIn fact, new soil can sometimes encourage digging even more – what’s nicer for a dog than fresh soil that they can easily get their paws right into! I lost count of the financial cost of plants and flowers due to our German Shepherd digging.

 

We pretty much gave up on investing in trying to develop a garden like the ones you see in magazines – it just wasn’t happening!

So, not only is it messy, but it can also be somewhat annoying if it happens consistently. Like any dog behavior, in order to understand why and if there’s anything to be done about it, we need to look at the root cause.

What is at the root of all this digging?

There are two types of digging that you may see in dogs –

  1. Digging to bury something
  2. Digging for the sheer joy of it!

Dogs digging to bury something

To understand more, we need to check in again with the ancestors of our domesticated dogs. Today’s pet dogs are not far removed from wolves, and it helps that we can still observe digging behaviors in the context of a wild pack animal.

Wolves often bury their food

Wolf packs have vast territories they roam in, only really stopping for longer periods of time in dens when they are giving birth or have young pups to look after. These territories are far bigger than our back yards!

They may cover large distances to hunt for food, but what happens if this food source is miles away from their den or they need to keep moving. Perhaps there’s more than enough for a meal, but when you have to work hard to catch your own food, you don’t want to just give it away.

So what do you do? You dig a hole and bury what you want to keep for later. That way, you can come back to it when it’s convenient.

In general terms, these canines are taking care of something that has value to them, saving it for a later date. So if you have a dog that digs to bury things, I am willing to bet they are hiding either food or toys – either of which your particular dog could value as a treasure that needs safekeeping.


 

What can you do to stop a dog burying their treasure?

Believe it or not, this is the easier of the two types of digging to try and prevent. However, it will take a little time and patience. The principle is similar to toilet training and you need to have eyes like a hawk.

You can start by watching to see if your dog gives any signals they are off to bury something. Chances are for “burying their treasure” they aren’t likely to do so in full view of either you or the house. They want to find a good hiding place!

 

Dogs who dig to hide thingsSo if your dog has something in their mouth – a treat or toy – and they start to head off into the bushes, chances are they are off to find a good spot to bury their treasure.

The simplest thing you can do is remove the treat or toy when they have finished with it, but before they go away to bury it. It may take a bit of practice to identify exactly when this is.

If they no longer have the treasure, then they won’t be digging a hole to bury it. Ask yourself if your dog is digging when left outside with treats or toys. You will know because the items in question are no longer lying about and your dog has dirt around their paws and/or mouth.

If you are concerned about taking the items off your dog, then distract them with something else that’s not food. Replace with an alternative toy, or have some interactive time with them. Play with them for a short while or choose that time to go for a walk. Effectively you are distracting them from the urge to bury the original item, hopefully to the point they forget about it.

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It is a catch 22 – if you don’t want your dog to dig to bury stuff, then you can’t leave them unattended in the back yard with toys and treats.

And will this mean they are going to be bored outside? This brings me onto the next type of digging…


 

Dogs Digging for the sheer joy of it

Dogs that dig for funThis type of digging is a lot harder to deal with, as it’s usually down to either boredom or because your dog thinks it’s something fun to do – especially when you are not around to witness it!

There are two potential avenues here – and I know which one is my choice! If your dog really does love digging, how about training them to dig in a set area? It’s my own view that digging is a pretty fun activity for a dog, so if it’s possible and you have the room, why not make their own place – a bit like a sand pit for a child, but heaver texture dirt – otherwise you will end up with sand everywhere! I’m thinking a bit like a garden, minus any plants.

You can encourage your dog to dig there. Usually digging with a shovel or spade is enough for them to happily join in – just mind they don’t get in the way!

Create your own dog gardenOr spend some time in there with your hands if they need a bit more encouragement. You can then use positive reinforcement when they are digging in that patch, versus using your usual training method to deter digging anywhere outside of this space. They will soon learn that this is their own personal digging heaven!

If you want to train the behavior right out of them instead, it will take longer and more perseverance. You can expect your patience to be tried, and tried again, as you will need to catch them in the act of digging in order to try and stop it. So, again, you have to weigh up the balance – how much does the digging annoy you versus the time to train your dog to act differently.

Are you talking to me?

You will need to adopt your “firm but fair” training voice, so you can say “no” and mean it, without shouting. Be careful you don’t offer an alternative distraction  and end up encouraging your dog to dig so they get a toy to play with, a walk or playtime with you – i.e. a reaction of some kind. It’s more a case of vocal commands, consistently saying “no” until they get the message.

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In conclusion, your dog may be digging to bury their treasure or just because they enjoy it. To assist the “treasure hoarders” try not to leave dogs unattended with any food or toys, instead rotating with other toys or activities to take their mind off it.

For dogs who are digging for fun or boredom, think about creating a dedicated “digging space” for them join in the fun. Otherwise, the alternative is to train the behavior out of them, which is likely to take concerted time and effort.


 

I hope you have found this useful and if your dog is a digging canine, that you have some ideas about how to best deal with it. If you have any comments, or any of your own suggestions, I would love for you to share them below.

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Why do dogs dig holes? There may be a purpose.

  1. Chris

    This is actually another great article – brings me back to my mother’s dog (once again!). Never had any real idea why she opted to dig so frequently. I have heard that your dog might dig to counteract the stress of waiting or to escape and go find you. What do you think about this reasoning?

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Hi Chris,

      I would say it depends where the digging occurs. If it’s near a fence or wall, then I think it’s a fair enough assumption that they are trying to escape or go to find you. If it’s digging holes anywhere, then it’s moire likely they are either bored or wanting to bury their treasure. You’ve made a good point though! Your mother’s dog sounds like a bit of a character!

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Mara.

      Reply
  2. StyxTx

    You remind me of someone I used to watch on TV, David Attenborough, who did the series “The Living Planet”. You take a topic people don’t usually think about or they take for granted and turn it into something quite interesting. I always thought they dug just to be a royal pain. haha. But I enjoyed the article. I learned a little more about our best friends.

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Thank you – that’s quite a compliment! I love David Attenborough and have always enjoyed his TV series. Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for stopping by.

      All the best, Mara.

      Reply
  3. Neil

    To be honest, I have always wondered why dogs dig holes. Especially the ones who have no bones or toys to hide, lol.

    I can see how this would be a major problem in the garden too because it would look a complete mess if there were many holes dug by the dog.

    I have certainly learned some new things here when it comes to dogs digging holes, and this is something I will bear in mind in the future when I get a dog of my own 🙂

    Neil

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Hi Neil,

      Thanks for taking the time to read this and comment. It can be a right pain for dog owners that have holes all over their garden, plus the financial cost of ruined plants (speaking from my own experience here!).

      All the best, Mara.

      Reply
  4. James

    OMG I totally had this problem! My golden used to do this all the time and it would drive me nuts, particularly after doing some spring landscaping. You get everything just right, walk out the next day and a giant chunk of turf is missing. Worse yet, as he got older he would forget where he buried it and end up digging a couple of holes to find it. 🙁

    Reply
    1. Mara Post author

      Hi James,

      I love hearing from other dog owners! I shouldn’t laugh but I can just picture an older dog forgetting where he left something and having to make a few attempts to find it. I sympathize as I forget where things are all the time! And to top it off dogs can’t write lists to help them remember! Our German Shepherd would go months without digging anything, and then out of the blue we would find a random hole in the garden – I think in his old age he forgot that he didn’t dig holes! Thanks so much for sharing – great to hear from you.

      Mara

      Reply

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