Dealing with your dog digging in your garden

Have you ever arrived home from work, only to doubt whether you came home to the correct address? Your usually well-cared-for garden has had a make-over, and not the good kind. Next thing Fluffy enthusiastically comes to greet you – his face covered in soil. Turns out, Fluffy is what happened to your garden.

Our domesticated dogs will at some or other stage in their life present digging behaviour. This is most prevalent during the developmental period when they are still puppies. It is part of how they explore their surroundings, and they might smell something beneath the grass or soil that they want to get at. For some dogs it is also enjoyable to dig when it has just rained and the soil is soft.

The big WHY?

Simple answer: they love it! Digging to dogs is a natural behaviour and the action results in a release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter that is involved, among other functions, in reinforcement of behaviour – it makes the dog feel GOOD. When a dog receives reinforcement for any behaviour, the behaviour will be repeated; therefore, with a dopamine release, the dog will feel good when digging, and thus WILL repeat it.

Dogs dig for various other reasons as well: as part of foraging behaviour, boredom, frustration, relief of stress or anxiety, looking for a cool spot to lie in, and many more. When digging becomes a problem behaviour and whole gardens are uprooted, it is imperative that a qualified animal behaviour practitioner is contacted to ascertain the cause of the behaviour. Advice from friends and family should be avoided, as in most cases the behaviour becomes worse and the owner becomes very frustrated, resulting in the breakdown of the precious human-animal bond. Punishment should never be used to change this behaviour as the dog will only get confused.

How can you save your garden?

Instead of trying to prevent your dog from digging, the following technique works quite well.

Create a digging pit for your dog where he is allowed to dig. Choose a nice, shady corner in your garden where you can loosen the soil and remove vegetation and stones. It should be a soft substrate so that the dog can easily dig there. Another suggestion is to make use of a kiddies shell for this purpose. Place the shell in a shady area and fill with clean sand. Bury some dried treats and chews that will not spoil in the sand and then encourage your dog to dig there. Start digging with the dog and when he discovers a chew, give him lots of praise.

Try to start this technique over a weekend so that you are there to encourage your dog to use the digging pit. Each time you see your dog going to the digging pit, praise him, thereby reinforcing that he goes there to dig and forgets about all the other areas that he is not to use. It is very important that you keep the digging pit stocked, otherwise the dog will find nothing in the pit and might start digging around the garden again. The added benefit of providing chews for the dog is that chewing also results in a release of dopamine in the brain, so your dog will feel good keeping himself busy.

Keeping your dog content

Just like with people, there are specific things that a dog requires in his day in order to be content. A behaviour practitioner will be well-equipped to assist you in providing for all your dog’s needs. This will vary from breed to breed but mostly include sufficient exercise, social contact, stimulation of prey drive/hunting, sleeping, eating, training and play. When a dog is content, the likelihood for problem behaviour is significantly reduced.

Research is vital

There are certain breeds of dog that has a higher predisposition to dig than others, and this must be understood before you acquire such a breed. These breeds include the Hounds like the Dachshund, Terriers like the Jack Russell, and Working breeds like the Border Collie. Working breeds who are not sufficiently stimulated will most likely resort to unwanted behaviour.