“RUFUS,NO!” Even dog owners who accept that dogs dig, and who acknowledge that digging is the nature of the beast, occasionally lament, “Why does that dog dig up my flowers?” Dogs do not dig to be naughty, nasty, vengeful, destructive or vindictive.
Dog owners can help themselves and their dogs by keeping digging problems in perspective. Dogs do dig for many reasons, so changing the behaviour when it becomes a problem can be complicated. For instance, Rufus may like to dig in flower or vegetable beds because that is where he sees you, his role model, showing him how!
You dig and put things into the soil (seeds, plants, bushes, stakes). At other times, you dig and remove things (seedlings, weeds, carrots). Your enjoyable gardening pursuits could he mistaken for lessons in digging technique. Unless or until Rufus understands the rules of gardening – “Do as I say, not as I do” – it is counterproductive to punish.
To arrive at a successful solution to the problem, use the three basic rules of discipline:
- Correction when caught in the act followed by praise for stopping.
- Teaching what is acceptable.
- Prevention by removing the opportunity for further misbehavior.
- Leaving dogs indoors while your garden is an easy way to begin reforming problem diggers. If the dog is outside, you must keep an eye on it and teach as you garden. This is especially critical when working with a puppy. Freshly turned soil smells good and offers irresistible temptation. In addition, puppies consider digging pure playtime. A simple 12- to 18-inch fence (reinforced with a few “no’s”) can curb the urge to dig.
In the Genes
Canine digging is linked to survival. Dogs dig safe dens in which to sleep and rear their young. They dig to hide their food supply. Wild canine species bury kill they cannot immediately eat, usually urinemarking the spot, which says to other creatures, “Keep your paws off. This, meat is mine!” Canine specialization has also made a contribution to certain dogs’ digging tendencies.
Terriers were originally bred to extricate prey (especially vermin) from earth tunnels. (The word terrier comes from the Latin word terra, meaning earth.) This behavior contributes to hunting successes, but it can be a gardener’s nightmare.
A small Norfolk Terrier can leave annoying potholes, but an Airedale is capable of digging caverns. Terrier owners face destroyed lawns when the trail of a mole tempts one of these dogs. Keep you cool. Remember, terriers have been digging for the past 800 years or so.
You can’t repair lawn damage by yelling at the dog. If you catch the dog hell-bent for destruction (and vermin), show your displeasure, make the correction and remove the dog from the scene. However, a sure-fire way to put an end to this natural behavior is to eliminate the vermin. Northern breeds, more comfortable in snow banks, sometimes dig to get down to the cool earth beneath the warm surface soil.
Siberian Huskies are known for their excavating enthusiasm, and breeders routinely warn buyers that this is part and parcel of the Siberian temperament. Scolding or punishing won’t solve the problem.
Instead, relocate the dog to the basement or garage where it can he comfortably cool without having to dig.
Our dogs have adapted many of their instinctive ways to adjust to living in our households, but digging remains a common behaviour in all dogs. Like other normal behaviours that we do not find acceptable in our 1990s pets, undesirable digging can be stopped. Digging often begins inadvertently.
For example, a puppy may begin digging while trying to pick up or paw at a stick. The dirt starts to fly and the pup gets carried away with the sheer fun of this new game. A firm but friendly No! combined with the distraction of a game more to your liking will help alter the urge to dig. Watch for signs of the pup’s attempt to repeat the adventure. Puppies are easily dis tracted and more eager to please you than are adult dogs.
Prevention and positive teaching produce results with dogs, especially with puppies. To prevent digging or to teach an alternative, more desirable pursuit, you must monitor the dog when it is outside. This time spent with the dog contributes to a quick and easy avoidance of all three major canine crimes: digging, barking and chewing.
Digging is not just annoying; it can be dangerous in the case of the dog that digs to escape. Occasionally, a dog digging alongside a fence discovers a new world on the other side. Being a normal sort of dog, it will want to investigate further. The problem is, the dog may end up getting lost, killed on the road or, at the very least, in trouble with neighbors.
Once successful at escaping, a dog is likely to continue its forays until it and the escape route are brought under control. A dog with a “don’t fence me in, or “barrier,” fixation requires patient behaviour modification, as well as numerous precautions taken for its safety. Keep calm; don’t punish the dog after an escape. That will only convince the dog that it’s not a good idea to come home after digging out.
Begin by inspecting your fence. For it to protect your dog and your property from intruders, the fence must he in good repair. For the chronic escape artist, install a trench about a foot deep and 18 inches wide directly below the fence on the inside.
Attach strong turkey wire to the bottom of the fence, lining the bottom of the ditch. Fill the trench with large stones and earth, and finish it of however you like. (Thorny climbing roses, perhaps?) While this renovation is under way, keep Rufus indoors, taking him elsewhere on lead for necessary walks. Spray the area thoroughly with one of the products made to keep pets off plants or outdoor furniture. Read the label to be sure it is safe if ingested.
Retrain Rufus by taking him out on a long, loose lead. You want him to attempt to investigate so you can make a correction, and he must be on lead so you have control. As he nears the fence, make a growling sound – aaacht – and say”‘no!” ‘Then,using a happy voice, draw his attention away from the fence. Mending the fence is half the cure; teaching the dog is the other half.
If Rufus responds to a negative command or sound you use for other misbehaviours, by all means use it to stop digging. But it will work only if you use it as you see him assume the digging position and lift one paw. Timing is critical.
An old soda can containing a few pennies or pebbles, thrown on the ground as you shout ‘no! ‘works well with dogs that need only a “don’t even think about it’ reminder. You may prefer to go modern and try one of the ultrasound devices on the market. The point is to have instantly available a means of control from a distance for use when Rufus is off lead. Use the minimum correction to which your dog responds.
What’s a Dog to Do?
The owner of a dog that was kept outdoors was upset because the dog was digging holes all over the yard. He complained that they were unsightly and, worse, filled up with water when it rained. It turned out that the dog was kept on a chain almost 24 hours a day and had nothing better to do.
Digging relieves stress, exercises muscles, provides activity, and it’s fun. So give the dog its due. An intelligent but bored dog had merely discovered the benefits of occupational therapy. Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not need endless hours of fresh air to he healthy and happy pets. In fact, most dogs kept much of the time indoors are more relaxed and content, and therefore better behaved. Indoors or out, canine behaviour problems need to be examined to understand the cause.
Only then can you retrain the dog. The dog associates your displeasure with its digging only when the correction takes place precisely as the dirt flies. Don’t be misled by Rufus’looks when you yell at him for something he did hours before.
That is not guilt; it is submission. When you punish the dog after the fact, all it learns is to stay out of your way. Sometimes a dog is relegated to the outdoors because it misbehaved in the house, and no one took the time to pinpoint the cause and solve the problem.
Out of sight, out of mind may be an easy solution for the owner, but not for the dog. He gets a sentence of solitary confinement when all he needed was to be taught right from wrong. The ‘bad dog” in the house inevitably becomes a “bad dog’ outdoors. Dogs left alone outdoors constitute the majority of diggers and barkers.
These behaviours result from the dogs’ desperate need for physical and mental exercise and companionship. You must provide walks and play for the former, more playtime and lots of hu- man contact for the latter. neouts are only for those occasions when it’s not possible to walk the dog; use them only for brief periods of time and never in combination with a choke collar.
Few dogs dig to bury bones, perhaps because dogs are increasingly kept as pets, and we force them to retain infantile characteristics. Today’s predolescent dog in the wild would not be a hunter, nor would it bury surplus meat. It digs and buries only as playlearning. In my lifetime involvement with a variety of breeds, only one dog, a Cocker Spaniel, ever buried anything. On the other hand, a red squirrel that hangs out under my bird feeder buried close to 100 sunflower seeds in a nearby flower bed and followed this marathon by neatly planting” a cup of kibbled dog food putout for pheasants! Digging is instinctive in many animals, but it is often an exercise in futility when the reason for it becomes clouded.
Please Dig Here
It is amazing the lengths to which dog owners will go in their attempts to put a stop to unwanted digging. Creative – but ineffective – methods include filling each hole with pepper and filling a hole with water and pushing the dog’s nose into it. (Attempted drowning never taught a dog anything other than to have a healthy fear of water.)
These methods never work because dogs cannot connect the crime with the punishment. Many behaviour experts recommend providing an outlet for a digging-prone pet. Providing a digging pit and directing a dog’s earth-bound pursuits to a specified area may reduce its tendencies to enter forbidden territory.
I was sceptical about the pit (or sandbox) made expressly to give the dog some- place to dig, so I collected opinions from those who have used the method:
- The owner of a Shih Tzu swears by the sandbox. Her dog stays clean (sand is easier to brush out than dirt), and its toys stay in one place.
- A German Shepherd Dog owner dug an 8-foot-by-10-foot pit, filled it with clean, screened earth, put the dog through an intensive training period until he felt the dog understood what the pit was for and how to use it, only to have the dog start digging all over the yard – something it had never done before.
- A Beagle mix was given a corner of the yard in which to dig. The owner buried dog biscuits as incentives to explore the pit. Barney promptly buried every dog biscuit given to him and otherwise avoided his designated play area.
- Other people advised covering the box or pit before rain or at night to keep out neighboring cats; using a yard spray for fleas and ticks; and watching carefully what the dog had in its mouth when headed for.the burying ground.
- The owners of a Great Pyrenees confessed that their dog had a penchant for their house guests underwear. The dog owners were unaware of their dog’s passion until they discovered the objects of its desire during one spring’s gardening. None of the guests had ever complained about their missing underwear
- Perhaps the most often repeated warning was not to introduce the sandbox idea to any dog that has never shown any interest in digging, because the lesson can so easily backfire. If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it.