Many dogs dig, and may do so for a variety of reasons. These can include genetics, boredom, anxiety, or the desire to make themselves a comfortable spot where they can lay down. Because digging is a natural behavior for dogs, you’re unlikely to stop yours from doing so altogether—but, by working with your pet, you can prevent the habit from becoming destructive.
We like to dig deep for puns, which is why we considered telling you that we were going to give you the hole story or all the boring details or the inside dirt or the scoop on dogs’ digging, that dogs dig digging, or that we were going to unearth everything you need to know on this topic. Ultimately, we decided to restrain ourselves.
For more details about why your pup burrows into the ground—and how to harness that tendency in a way that will keep them and your garden happy and safe—read on.
Why dogs dig in the ground
Most of the reasons dogs dig in dirt have to do with their instincts—which are advantageous when they’re doing certain jobs or fending for themselves, but may be less welcome in your yard or flower bed.
The simplest explanation for why dogs dig is that dogs have dug for thousands of years. The behavior served a purpose in the wild for our pets’ ancestors—wolves dug, and dig, to look for and cache food, or to make a den or a cool spot to lie down. Many dogs were bred to hunt creatures below ground—terriers tracking down rats and dachshunds seeking badgers, for example. Even if your dog is not a hunter, they might still be looking for prey. If rabbits or rats get into your yard, for example, they could attract your pal’s attention. Any interesting smell or sound might set off digging for a dog who is so inclined.
Some resources, including food, can be scarce in the wild. Out there, a dog who finds more meat than they require at the moment might bury some so he can dig it up later—using earth in the meantime to cover it up so that other animals don’t eat it. Wolves do this, too. While you likely give your dog all the food and toys they need, there’s part of them that wants to protect anything valuable just in case.
Dogs also dig in order to make a comfortable, cool spot where they can lay down. Feral dogs without the benefit of air-conditioned homes would do this to beat the elements on hot days. And even though dogs won’t get the same results inside a house as they will outdoors, instinct may nevertheless drive them to try digging a hole in the living room.
Anxiety or boredom
Dogs without much to do, or who are upset when left alone, may dig either to entertain themselves or in an attempt to escape. Speaking of which…
Intact males may dig their way out of yards in an attempt to find female dogs in heat.
In addition to full-on digging, some dogs scratch the ground after peeing or pooping. Scientists give various reasons for this behavior; ethologist Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, refers to the behavior as part of a composite signal through which they might use the scent glands in their paws and the physical marks left by digging to communicate with other dogs. The most relevant information might be that dogs who engage in this behavior seem to enjoy it. If your dogs are among those who derive pleasure from ground-scratching, Bekoff suggests, “let them do it.”
Why dogs dig the bed, blankets, or carpet
Dogs may dig their beds—or your own bed, carpets, or other surfaces—in your home for similar reasons as part of their instinct to give themselves a cozy place to rest. As noted in our article about why dogs circle before lying down, Dr. Stanley Coren’s research found that dogs were more likely to circle on a rough surface—a carpet—than a smooth one, and several canine study participants also scratched or dug said rug before lying down, supporting the idea that digging is part of dogs’ nesting behavior.
Dogs have scent glands in their paws, so digging a bed could be a way of marking it as theirs.
If your dog is digging a carpet or another soft surface when they’re not about to lie down, it could mean any number of things. With their exceptionally sensitive noses, dogs may perceive smells or errant food particles buried in carpet fibers. If they’re the burying type, they may be looking to “store” an item for later. And, again, they may be digging out of anxiety or boredom; if they’re doing it constantly or at times that may be associated with anxiety (like when you leave), take steps to discover the root cause of the stress and work with a trainer or your vet to address it.
If you’re concerned about damage to the surfaces your buddy digs, make sure to keep up with nail trimming.
Why dogs eat dirt
If your dog is not merely digging outside, but also eating dirt, they may suffer from a nutritional deficiency, gastrointestinal problem, or other health issue. Dogs may eat dirt for psychological reasons, too—for example, due to stress. If you notice that your pet is eating dirt, contact your veterinarian to investigate and get help as soon as possible.
How to stop unwanted digging and encourage “good digging”
While digging can be a good physical and mental outlet for dogs, the dangers of uncontrolled excavation could go beyond uprooted begonias—some soil can contain toxins, parasites, choking hazards, and more things you don’t want your pet getting into. And dogs who dig compulsively can injure their paws. For these and other reasons, you may want to reduce or direct your dog’s digging.
If your dog is digging out of boredom or anxiety, treat the root cause of the problem through enrichment. Exercise, training, puzzle toys that encourage “hunting” for food, and chews can keep your dog’s body and mind active and make it more likely that they’ll be tired and content instead of making mischief while you’re out.
If your dog is digging to hunt rodents in your yard, you may want to look into dog-friendly pest-control methods. You can also install obstacles—like a fence, rocks, or a sprinkler—to prevent your dog from accessing areas where you don’t want them to dig. And don’t leave your pup alone in the yard.
If your dog loves to dig, don’t force them to quit. You can give them an approved digging area—loosening the dirt a bit to encourage them and rewarding them when they choose the right spot for their shoveling—or play games that involve digging or burying and recovering objects. This is something you can even do indoors using blankets, pillows, laundry, and dog toys—just avoid anything that could be poisonous or a choking risk.
Certain dog sports, including Earthdog (a breed-restricted American Kennel Club activity) can be a safe way for dogs to express their passion for digging without jeopardizing your garden, your furniture, or their health.
Should you find that—despite your best efforts—your pal has done an unauthorized and uncanny impression of a backhoe, do not punish them. Instead, consider seeking out a professional trainer for help.
Can you show me some videos of dogs digging?