Teach Your Dog to Stop Digging Up the Backyard

By Sarah Hinds Friedl on June 30th, 2022

You know your dog relishes their outdoor time. But, if they’re using it to dig up your garden, chomp on potentially dangerous plants, and even try tunneling their escape, you might feel hesitant to let them out.

In this article, we’ll talk about what you can do to convince your dog to enjoy your outdoor space with a little less chaos.

#1: Until they’re reliable, supervise them
One of the wonderful things about having an outdoor space is that you can open that backdoor and let your doggo run free. But, until your dog can safely do their thing in the yard without digging, chewing, or plotting their escape, you’ll need to be outside with them. 

Not only is this a safety precaution, but there’s also a neurological reason for this. Right now, your dog has created a neural connection between your backyard and destruction. With some strategic training, you can replace those learned neural pathways with new ones that you prefer, such as sniffing around or relaxing with a chew toy.

So for now, you might need to have Fido on a long leash or keep a close eye on them so that you can manage their movement in the yard.

#2: Make sure your backyard is safe
Even though you’ll be there to keep an eye on your pup during the training phase, it’s still a good idea to make a few safety upgrades to your yard. 

Some changes might include rooting out or blocking off plants that are dangerous to dogs, such as daffodils. If your dog is a digger, you’ll also want to check your fencing for any damage or areas where they might be able to escape. Planting hedges along the base of your fencing can also discourage attempted escapes.

#3: Interrupt digging and chewing behaviors
Digging and eating plants is a highly stimulating and reinforcing activity for dogs. And once your dog has picked up the habit, it can seem downright impossible to break their fixation on getting down in the dirt.

For this reason, it’s key to interrupt a digging session so that your dog doesn’t have the chance to experience that reinforcing flood of feel-good chemicals that are released when they’ve got their snout in the dirt. To do this, tell them firmly but not harshly, “No digging,” and guide them away. If they’re persistent, you might need to end outdoor time for a few minutes and then allow them back outside for another chance. This time, try being more proactive with keeping them focused on something that isn’t the garden or fence. 

#4: Give your dog something to do when they’re outside
As we mentioned, your goal here is to replace the behaviors you don’t want with behaviors you do. And, one way to do that is to give your dog more enticing alternatives. Here are a few options:

  • Interactive play. Some doggos dig because they’re bored, others because it’s in their breed history, and others still because they know it’s the fastest way to get your attention. All three cases can be avoided when you give your dog some one-on-one play. That might include fetch, a game of tug, or a flirt pole.  
  • A special chew toy. Maybe it’s a treat-filled kong, a lick pad or a dog-safe bone that only comes out when they spend time outside. Keep in mind, of course, that dogs who tend to bury their toys shouldn’t be given this option. But, if it encourages them to plop down and chew a while, this can be a great outdoor activity. 
  • Playtime with other dogs. If you can schedule a playdate with your dog’s bestie, chances are, they’ll be less likely to resort to destructive behaviors in your yard. 
  • Mental challenges. Scavenger hunts and scent work are two fun ways to keep your dog preoccupied outside. You can set up this engaging game by scattering treats or food around the yard or hiding their favorite toy. Not only is this a fantastic form of mental stimulation, but it will also teach them that the most exciting things are found in designated areas of the yard—not the garden! 
  • Consider setting up a designated digging area. The fact is, for many dogs, digging and foraging is a natural instinct. And, you may not be able to curb it completely. If you have the space, consider setting up a designated digging area, like a sandbox, where your dog can learn that supervised digging is a-okay.

Ideally, you want to offer these alternatives before your dog resorts to their M.O. Otherwise, they may learn that the really fun activities come out as a result of their naughty behavior.

#5: Reward them for good behavior
Rewiring your dog’s brain isn’t just about limiting their access to the garden or distracting them from digging. It’s also about rewarding them for doing the things you want them to do. 

If your dog starts to veer towards the garden, for instance, call them back to the area where you want them to be. When they come to you, make sure you give them a tasty treat with plenty of praise.

Or, if you notice your dog relaxing under a tree instead of digging around the fence, you might sprinkle a few treats around them to let them know they’re doing exactly what you want them to do.

Over time, your dog will learn that digging leads to an end to outdoor time, while other activities are rewarded.

Phasing out a natural instinct can take time, but your dog’s safety depends on it!
Teaching your dog how to behave safely in outdoor spaces is an essential skill. Not only will it save your flowerbed, but it will also lower the risk of them digging under the fence or ingesting something toxic. So, be patient, creative, and proactive. Your doggo will learn that digging isn’t nearly as fun as the other outdoor activities they can enjoy!

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