Can a Dog Be Trained Not to Dig?

Dear Bark: I recently adopted a charming two-year-old Terrier-mix, my first small dog. I had heard that they like to snuggle under the covers, and sure enough, on the first night with me, Ezra did just that, and I was delighted. Less delightful is that he steals socks and buries them in my garden (at least now I know what happened to them). He’s also digging up some of our favorite plants. I can’t always supervise him, so need some advice on how to stop his digging, or at least redirect it.

I sympathize with your frustration. Many dogs dig, but Terriers are notorious for it—no surprise, given that many of them were bred to dig for vermin. They dig to bury things (like Ezra’s doing), for entertainment, to ease boredom, to cool off and sometimes to escape. On the upside, your dog likes to “burrow” under the covers, another form of digging!

Here are some strategies to modify this behavior.

Not here, there. Since digging is such a natural behavior for dogs, it’s often easier to channel that urge to an appropriate place rather than to eliminate it completely. Make it easier and more tempting for Ezra to dig elsewhere, in a place you set up for that purpose. Create a digging area with sand and dirt and treasures so that it is a better, more fun choice. Start by half-burying a bone, stuffed Kong or other treasure in the designated area to teach your dog that it’s worth his time to dig there. As time goes on, you can make treasures harder to find, but it’s important that he have success right away so he has good motivation to return to dig where he’s allowed (and encouraged!) to do so.

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Entertain him. Many dogs dig when they’re bored. If they have other options, some will forego the digging. That means an essential part of dealing with a digging dog is to add activities to their day. There are two general approaches: work the body and work the mind. More physical exercise can make a huge difference, especially if it’s the kind of effort that really tires him out. Extra time on leashed walks is good, but running off-leash until he’s truly tired—chasing balls or playing with a dog buddy—is often more effective at changing behavior.

Mental exercise is also an important part of keeping a dog from finding his own amusements, whether that’s burying socks or digging up plants. Chew toys, food puzzles, stuffed toys like Kongs, searching for hidden treats in the house and training sessions are all ways to keep your dog’s mind busy.

Preventing trouble is half the battle. Managing the situation so your dog doesn’t have the opportunity to do what you don’t want him to do is a big piece of the puzzle, too. (This is true for any behavioral issue, by the way.) Management may include setting up barriers such as fencing or chicken wire around your prized garden plants. It could also involve spraying a scent your dog doesn’t like around the area you seek to protect. (Tip: Many dogs don’t care for citrus scents.) If you have mice, shrews or any other little critters that make your yard smell delicious to your dogs, do what you can to remove them with humane and non-toxic methods. Finally, do all you can to keep socks—and any other treasures your dog likes to bury—out of reach.

Don’t give him the freedom to make mistakes. For now, while you’re teaching him a new habit, don’t allow him to be outside if you can’t supervise him or offer him something else to do. When you’re out in the yard together, give him a frozen stuffed Kong and observe how much time he spends on it. Once you know how long it will keep him occupied, you’ll know how long he can be outside without you. If you see him digging where he’s not allowed to, it’s essential that you react to it—redirect him to his own spot or involve him in some other activity instead.

Garden in secret while he’s learning his new habit. Many dogs watch us dig in an area and then do the same thing. Until he learns that he may not dig in your garden and is content to dig only in his special digging area, don’t let your dog observe you digging in the garden. What you see as an undesirable behavior may just be his way of joining in the fun!

Though digging is a natural dog behavior, it can be very inconvenient and irritating. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to make the situation a happier one for both of you. A love of digging is part of who Ezra is, but you can train him to dig less, and on your terms.

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