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The dog ‘big dig’ and how to stop it

Geraldine Evers

Geraldine Evers

March 16, 2013

“My dog digs!” is one of the most common complaints about dogs, whether you are a gardener or not. So…….why do dogs dig? Well, it’s entirely natural dog behaviour. Some dogs have been bred to dig – terriers specifically. Other dogs dig to bury things – like bones…. Some dogs dig to dig up the afore-mentioned bones. Some dogs dig to investigate – maybe a cricket, a smell or what’s on the other side of the fence…. And some dogs dig ‘cos it’s just what they do and they like it. And once they start digging, they tend to keep going until the hole is as big as they can make it. Digging could also be a product of boredom and sometimes even separation distress.

Digging to China

Now what’s on the other side of that fence?

When talking to a friend the other day about her recent acquisition – a 5 month old Labrador puppy – I was yet again reminded of my life with a puppy – 8 years ago, and then again 2 years ago. Eight years ago, my big, now almost perfect, Labradoodle Jasmine was a real challenge when it came to digging. She came into the family when we were making a few changes in the garden and for us that meant, widening a garden bed, planting some new shrubs and creating a new vegie bed.

The new garden bed had some camellias and cliveas in it as well as a box hedge. There was an area between one of the camellias and a clivea that became a recurring dig. I have no idea what the fascination was for Puppy Jasmine but she insisted on returning to the same spot on several occasions and the clivea suffered. We actually ended up putting some large roof tiles over the area to prevent her digging. This was successful, though not very pretty but now knowing a bit more about dogs and digging I would probably try other strategies before the roof tile method.

Digging can be a symptom of boredom or even distress

Digging can be a symptom of boredom or even distress

The lawn ….well…grassy area in the back yard….was also a victim of the big dig. I coined the phrase “two paws wide and shoulder deep” – this was for holes that appeared during our absence on longish days when my husband and I were at work. We would come home to find a crater in the middle of the grass – absolutely no indication why she had chosen this spot – but there it was! And do you think we could find enough dirt from what had been dug out to fill it up….? No….! Where on earth did all that dirt go? (unintended but not bad – humour). We asked around for advice and several ideas seemed to have merit. The one that worked for us in recurring dig sites was to refill the hole (as much as possible) and put one of the dog’s droppings on top of the hole. The theory is that dogs don’t like to get too close to one of their own. This strategy actually did work for us.

Two paws wide and shoulder deep

Two paws wide and shoulder deep

Benson, our other Labradoodle who is 2 ½ now, continues to dig random holes at unspecified times. We are employing the poo strategy but then he moves on to another area. Oh well…at least I am patient (most of the time). The frequency of digging by him is diminishing and I am looking forward to his middle aged years being dig free.

For most dogs, digging tends to be more of a problem as the pup is growing up….they tend to grow out of it, but someone I was talking to just this week said their 6 year old Golden Retriever was a digger. I suggested she try the “poo” method that had been successful for me – I’m waiting to hear back on whether she had success.

The problem is that we don’t want them to dig in the garden. It can kill plants and makes an unsightly mess. So – what can we do to stop them digging? Well, there are several things you can try. Sprinkling white pepper over the ground as a deterrent – if you have done some planting and the soil is freshly turned over, this could be very interesting to a puppy when you’re not there and white pepper just might cause a sneeze or two and that might be enough to deter interest. (have you noticed that there are a couple of “mights” in that sentence? There are no guarantees with dogs and training – they are all individuals. You just have to keep trying as necessary to get the right result). I have also heard that chilli powder can have the same affect.

Jasmine on the left is almost perfect, whereas Benson still has somepuppyness to get out of his system.

Jasmine on the left is almost perfect, whereas Benson still has some
puppyness to get out of his system.

One lesson taught to us by our dearly departed dog early in her life with us was that blood and bone was a favourite of dogs in general – so, for the last 20 years, I have used liquid fertilisers – only because there is less chance of attracting a dog’s attention and safer for the dog because they are less likely to try to eat it.

I tend to think the safest way to protect the vegie garden is to fence it off in some way. It doesn’t necessarily look so good but it can prevent random acts of destruction. These days, if I was planting shrubs (not vegies or fruit trees) in our back garden, I would most likely finish the job with a few strategically placed poos with a view to deterring any interest in the area.

The boredom issue for dogs can be a big one. Think about providing things/toys for your dog that can distract him. If he has several toys, rotate them – put one away and introduce a new one each week. And it helps if dogs get enough exercise as well. If they haven’t been out for a couple of days, they are probably more likely to ‘self exercise’, which can involve a bit of frenzied activity and is sometimes followed by frenzied digging.

Digging isn’t bad or naughty behaviour – it just isn’t what we want them to do. Yet again, when it comes to dogs, we need patience and persistence – patience in putting up with them and persistence in applying/using strategies to mould their behaviour to fit in with our expectations. Jas, as I mentioned earlier is just about perfect – Benson is gradually growing up but he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry lose his puppy playfulness. I love them both!

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10 years ago

We did chili paste on a wire fence our pup like to chew on to get over. Didn’t work at all. In fact I busted her out there licking it all off. Loved the stuff!
I actually stopped my pup digging by not giving her things to bury. Pigs ears were the worst for her a quick pick and then a hole! Hope that helps

10 years ago
Reply to  Dann

I love it that every dog is different. What one dog hates, another will love…. Perhaps your dog had some Mexican heritage….. 🙂 The instinct to bury food for later consumption can be strong in some dogs. One of the funniest things I remember from our old, dearly departed dog, was when she stole the foil drip tray from the Weber when we were cleaning it out….we found the tray screwed up and pushed up against the fence with dirt and bark chips pushed up over it in a very poor attempt to bury it – she wasn’t very good at digging holes…

Amanda Mackinnon
10 years ago

Love the photo of your 2 beautiful dogs. I have a pretty well behaved labrador who is now 9 years old. He hasn’t caused too much havoc in the garden. The one hole is has dug though is so huge that he can sit inside it! Lucky for us it’s down behind the shed where it doesn’t matter.