Pet Connection: This dog's a digger – is there a cure?

10/30/2012 12:00 AM

10/29/2012 4:28 PM

Over the Labor Day weekend, a puppy joined my family. While he's still pretty small, he has a lot of growing to do, especially if he's to help fill the hole in my heart left by the death of my 16-year-old Sheltie, Drew.

The transition from a very old dog – Drew was managed with daily fluids and medicine for kidney failure a year before his passing – to a lively young puppy can be jarring. Drew had been a well-mannered adult since the Clinton administration, and young Ned has a normal puppy streak of naughty.

Which is why I wasn't really prepared when I came upon a hole in the backyard clearly dug by Ned's little paws. With a puppy, it's pretty easy to catch and correct unwanted behavior, but it's not impossible even with a grown dog. As with any behavior, you have to get to the root of the problem before you can come up with a fair approach to minimizing the damage.

Like many behaviors people find troubling, digging is natural for dogs, with any number of triggers driving the activity.

Among them:

Wanderlust: Some dogs, especially unneutered males, have a strong desire to dig their way out of the yard, especially when the breeze carries the enticing scent of a female in heat.

Prey drive: Subterranean wildlife can be irresistible to some dogs, especially to terriers and terrier mixes – breeds developed to dig vermin from their lairs.

Need for shelter: A well-dug den can keep a dog cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Although any breed or mix can show an interest in making a den, the behavior is more common in breeds such as huskies and malamutes.

Recreation: Digging is just plain fun. This is Ned's motivation, I'm pretty sure.

Excess energy and boredom: This combination is either directly responsible or a contributing factor in most canine behavior problems.

The trick to having a nice yard and a happy dog is to do what you can to eliminate the triggers for digging, and then take your pet's needs into account when planning your landscaping. Neutering can greatly reduce the desire to wander. If wildlife's a problem, contact your local agricultural extension for tips on how to get the pests to give your yard a skip. And make sure your pet has the shelter he needs to stay comfortable no matter the weather.

Every dog needs an exercise program, with the emphasis on heart-thumping aerobic interludes, such as a daily run or a game of fetch. If you keep your pet well exercised, he'll be less likely to indulge in destructive behaviors. A tired dog is always a good dog! Some trainers suggest giving dogs an area where it's OK to dig, and training them to use it. This is an especially good strategy for dogs who just love to dig.

The final tip? Design your yard for compromise. Make a less-visible part of the yard a dog-friendly, free-dig zone, and limit your pet to that area when you can't be there to supervise. Provide safe chew toys to keep him occupied, such as peanut butter-stuffed Kongs. Discourage digging in off-limits areas by filling in holes and covering them with chicken wire and large rocks.

If you address the under-lying issues that cause digging and then allow your dog the opportunity to do some of what comes naturally in an area that's acceptable to you both, you'll find it is indeed possible to have a yard you can be proud to show off.

Ned seemed pretty easily distracted and pretty happy to gnaw on a chew toy rather than continue with his digging. But if he shows signs of getting a real kick out of the excavations, I'll be setting him up with an area where he can dig in with my approval.

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