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Why do dogs dig holes? Here are the top reasons, according to experts

Consider what pros have to say about why dogs dig holes, so you can determine the best way to stop this unwanted behavior.

Why do dogs dig holes? Here are the top reasons, according to experts

Sure, a dog digging a hole may look cute in a cartoon. But when dogs dig holes in real life, any pet owner knows it’s anything but endearing. Muddy paws, uprooted plants and even risk of injury are all potential harmful side effects of a bad digging habit. It’s enough to leave you asking why in the world do dogs dig holes in the first place? 

Any dog in the right circumstance, whether it’s being left alone for long periods of time or sharing a backyard that’s also home to wildlife, will dig, says Pam Nichols, a doctor of veterinary medicine and owner of Animal Care Daybreak, an American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) accredited animal hospital in Utah. “But almost every dog can also be taught not to dig.”

We chatted with experts to understand the reasons why dogs dig holes so you can determine what’s motivating your pup’s digging behavior — and stop it once and for all. 

4 common reasons why dogs dig holes

Wondering why your dog’s paws are covered in dirt — for the tenth time today? “Boredom is the most common [reason dogs dig] in my experience,” Nichols says. “Anxiety is a close second.” But not all reasons why dogs dig in the dirt are necessarily signs something is troubling them. 

Here, experts dive into what motivates dogs to dig holes and offer up questions dog owners can explore to determine what kind of digger they have on their hands.

1. Boredom 

“Active and playful dogs are likely to dig out of boredom,” says Sally Grottini, a dog behavior expert with JustAnswer. Have a puppy who won’t stop digging? It’s also most likely due to boredom, Grottini says. Just as with dog zoomies, puppies of any breed often exhibit digging behavior due to their naturally higher exercise requirements and energy levels, she explains. 

When it comes to determining if your dog is digging because they are bored, our experts recommend taking note of both their physical and mental exercise needs. “It is always important to know what your dog was bred to do so you can keep up with the activity level they may need,” Grottini says. “For example, there are dogs that are bred to work such as herding dogs like the Australian Shepherd or Border Collie, which need a lot of exercise.”

On the flipside, some breeds like Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Basset Hound and Bulldog have naturally lower activity levels so they may need less exercise, but more mental stimulation to keep them from digging, Grottini explains. She recommends using mind-stimulating toys such as treat or kibble dispensing balls to keep them busy when left on their own.

In general, Nichols recommends prioritizing mental exercise over physical exercise when it comes to curbing boredom. Since energy levels vary, providing outlets to keep your dog’s mind busy is the best way to safely exhaust your pup so they are less inclined to dig holes, she says.

2. Anxiety or escape behavior

“There are dogs that dig out of stress, especially if they have a fearful or anxious temperament,” Grottini says. Just as with boredom, keeping these dogs mentally occupied with food dispensing balls or puzzle toys is important, she says. “It is better to occupy their mind than to just allow them to go through the stress of being outside [alone].”

Is your dog digging relentlessly near or under a fence? “If a dog is digging during confinement, he may have separation anxiety,” explains Stacy Choczynski Johnson, a doctor of veterinary medicine with over two decades of experience. “These dogs may incessantly dig — even to the point of injury — to reunite with their owner.”

For dogs with anxiety or a fearful temperament, our experts warn that digging habits can become obsessive. “If the dog is digging every time it goes outside, and running from place to place just to dig, it may be a compulsion,” Grottini says. “Some dogs will also carry it over inside digging in carpets as well.” 

If you notice escape behavior or obsessive digging, our experts recommend talking to your vet right away. “There are behavioral modification techniques and medications that your veterinarian may suggest,” Johnson says. 

“If the dog is digging every time it goes outside, and running from place to place just to dig, it may be a compulsion. Some dogs will also carry it over inside digging in carpets as well.” 

—Sally Grottini, a dog behavior expert with JustAnswer

3. Instinct based on breed

Some dogs may exhibit digging behavior due to their natural instincts. Here are the top biological reasons canines dig holes:

They are hunting 

“[The desire to hunt] for rodents and other creatures is part of a dog’s genetic makeup,” Nichols says. 

With this in mind, the experts we spoke to agree that some dog breeds definitely dig more than others. “Smaller dogs like the west Highland Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, Dachshund [and] Cairn Terrier may dig more holes [than other breeds], looking for smaller borrowing animals like mice, rats, moles or groundhogs, as they are bred to do this,” Grottini says. 

They are preparing to give birth 

Is your digger a female dog that is pregnant? It is also an instinct for dogs in the wild to dig when they are nesting during pregnancy or wanting to lay low from predators, Grottini says. 

They are trying to regulate their temperature 

If left outdoors during warm months, some dogs will dig to try and escape the heat. This is most common in large breed working dogs such as the Newfoundland who become diggers in search of the cooler ground that lies beneath the grass, Grottini explains. 

4. Curiosity or retrieval 

Is there something in that area the dog is digging for? Curiosity can also be the cause of digging. Some dogs will even dig to bury something they may wish to retrieve at a later time, such as a bone. If you can’t quite figure out why your dog is digging, and think it may because they are just curious, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Do you have plants that are dropping fruit or nuts?
  • Do you have a plant growing something with a scent dogs may like? 
  • Is there a garbage or recycle bin nearby?  
  • Are squirrels hiding their nuts in your yard? 
  • Is there something the dog wants to hide from another family pet such as a bone? 

How to stop your dog from digging holes

Given the potential consequences, Nichols says that when it comes to the dogs she cares for, she’ll do just about anything to stop digging before it happens. Digging can not only rip nails, but it can cause a dog to ingest things like rocks, sticks or fruit pits which can cause obstructions in the GI tract or throat which could potentially require surgical removal, she explains. 

And if your pup catches that animal they are after? Catching a creature can expose both dogs — and their owners — to diseases like rabies and leptospirosis which are transmitted through infected rodents, Nichols says, and require medical treatment.

To keep your pet safe and healthy, here’s how to prevent and stop your dog from digging, according to Nichols and the other experts we spoke to.

“Provide a sandbox or a baby pool filled with dirt. Encourage digging by burying toys and dog-friendly treasures in this designated area.”

—Stacy Choczynski Johnson, a doctor of veterinary medicine

Establish good habits early

Nichols strongly urges dog owners to discourage digging from the start to prevent bad habits from forming. Once a disruptive behavior like digging is repeated a few times, it becomes tougher to stop, she points out. Our experts’ number one tip to prevent digging? Never leave puppies outside unattended because both boredom and curiosity will set in. This is also important for keeping your dog safe in general.

“I do not recommend any puppies be left on their own — not because of their breed, but due to their curiosity,” Grottini says. “Puppies can get into a lot of trouble at different stages of their life. Just when you think your puppy is safe and somewhat trained, they will go through a stage that brings on more curiosity which can have them digging into something they would never look at before. This is why puppies should be watched and trained for the first year of their life.”

Create a safe space to dig

If your dog is a breed that is instinctually wired for digging, one solution is to provide an area where it is appropriate to dig holes in search of safe items to uncover, Johnson says. “This is as simple as providing a sandbox or a baby pool filled with dirt. Encourage digging by burying toys and dog-friendly treasures in this designated area,” she says.

Guard areas you don’t want your dog to dig holes in

“For areas of the yard where you want to discourage digging, bury chicken wire or fencing underground to create a ‘floor,’” Johnson recommends. This will create a less desirable underlying layer of land for dogs to dig.

Check your property for signs of pests

Live in an area where there is other wildlife nearby? “Your dog may be searching for a mysterious underground gopher, mole or even rats,” Johnson says. She recommends looking into removing unwanted visitors to your yard through humane extermination efforts which can easily solve a digging habit spurred on by your dogs instinct to hunt.

Be sure to offer cool spots in the summer

If you notice your dog’s digging is accompanied by panting and drooling, it’s a good indication they are overheated, Grottini explains. To prevent this, Johnson recommends providing your dog freedom of choice when it comes to temperature regulation. “In warm weather, be sure to offer access to shade, a cool surface for resting or even a doggy door allowing access to an air-conditioned home,” Johnson says.

Ask yourself, ‘What’s on the other side of the fence?’

If you have a dog that is digging under a fence, take a minute to try and determine why they are trying to get to the other side. “Your dog may have a favorite playmate — or even a foe — on the other side of the fence,” Johnson says. She recommends arranging for a doggy playdate to help manage the heightened energy at the fence line if it’s a friend they are after.

If your dog is spayed or neutered? If not, their motivation to get out of the yard may be to mate. “Dogs who are seeking a breeding partner can become the most skillful diggers and escape artists,” Johnson says. If this is the case, she recommends speaking with your vet about the best time to spay or neuter.

The bottom line on why your dog digs holes — and what to do about it

While some dog breeds dig out of instinct and curiosity, most dogs dig holes due to boredom and anxiety, according to the experts we spoke to. No matter the motivation, they recommend that unattended digging behavior in all dogs should be discouraged because it can cause more harm than good.

To prevent puppies from forming a habit of digging holes when they are bored, be sure they are not left alone outside, according to Nichols. “If digging holes is already a habit for your dog, you’ll have to replace this behavior by retraining,” she says. 

Start this process by assessing your pet’s temperament, breed, age and environment to determine why your dog is digging holes then taking actionable steps to stop this behavior. If you notice incessant digging to the point of injury or that even gets continued indoors on carpets, reach out to your veterinarian as it may qualify as obsessive behavior that requires expert behavior intervention or medication.