Our dog training expert explains why chicken wire is not the answer.

By Roxanna Coldiron
April 19, 2019
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dog in a fenced yard
Credit: Getty

Dogs like to dig. And any place where there's dirt is a good enough spot for your pup. If given the chance, many canine companions will dig holes all over the backyard, and they may even start digging under the fence. In addition to looking messy, holes beneath a fence allows entry for other animals and becomes an escape route for your own dog. So, the question remains: How do you train your dog to stop digging under the fence? Begin with these three major methods of correction and prevention.

Identify the Reason

Brian Kilcommons, dog trainer and owner of Great Pets Resort, says that digging is a natural behavior for dogs. "The dog is not trying to annoy his humans. Screaming at your dog is not going to stop the behavior," he says. "Dogs are very social animals. Maybe the dog isn't getting enough [social] exposure, or he's bored and trying to get to some distraction on the other side of the fence." Maybe the dog is chasing a squirrel or being pestered by a wild animal. Maybe there is the aroma of food wafting over the fence that has gotten the dog excited. Maybe the dog is feeling anxious or fearful. (Unneutered dogs may want to get out of the yard to find a mating partner.) Look at it from your dog's perspective if you want to understand his digging behavior. Once you've realized a motive, Kilcommons suggests working on the issue from there.

Amanda Eick, RVT, KPA CTP, VTS, practice manager at The Behavior Clinic in Northeast Ohio, says to talk to your family veterinarian if you haven't been able to determine what is motivating your dog to dig. "They may refer you to a veterinary behavior specialist or local animal training professional for additional guidance based on their thoughts of the situation and knowledge of your pet," she says.

Enrich the Backyard

Dogs get bored, just like we do. "Dogs need mental exercise," Kilcommons explains. "Make the yard more interesting. Put out some Kong toys that have treats inside of them for your dog to find in the yard." Adding a backyard sandbox appropriate for digging is another way to let your dog engage in natural behaviors but in an approved area of the yard. "You can bury the Kong toys in the sandbox for the dog to dig to his heart's content."

Another way to add enrichment is to turn the backyard into a pet-friendly playground. You can purchase or build dog obstacle courses and sandboxes to place around the yard. Add a dog house where he can cool off in the shade and a food and water station. Toys that require some puzzle-solving also help to stimulate a dog's curiosity. And, of course, there's always you. "The best entertainment is always interacting with a family member!" says Eick. "Going for a walk or run, playing frisbee, tug or fetch to release energy can also help decrease unwanted digging behaviors."

Build Physical Barriers

Maybe enriching the backyard did not fully eliminate his propensity to dig. Now, it's time to consider some additional options to keep your dog from escaping the backyard. You can make it undesirable to dig around the fence in a variety of ways. "There are actually books on landscaping for pets!" Eick remarks. "One includes recommendations on using layers of rocks in different sizes and textures to create an area that isn't comfortable to dig in, which then deters the dog from coming back to that area. Use of this technique would vary based on the number of areas where the dog is escaping from. It may not be feasible to cover an entire fence line with rock!"

You can also put turkey wire along the fence. Kilcommons suggests bending the wire into an L shape and tacking it down. He also stresses the importance of using turkey wire, not chicken wire or any other type of wire. Turkey wire is sturdier than chicken wire and effective at keeping your animals in the yard and intruders out. Some experts suggest sprinkling tobacco dust along the perimeter of the fence-a kind of fertilizer-that irritates the dog's sense of smell and will prompt them to avoid the area. However, the ASPCA advises against it. "At the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, keeping pets safe is our number one priority," says Dr. Laura Stern, director of client programs at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. "Tobacco dust fertilizer contains nicotine sulfate, which is highly toxic to our pets. Although the smell can keep most dogs away, others may still ingest it and could experience severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms. We recommend keeping this fertilizer away from all pets and wildlife." Between making the backyard more entertaining and adding physical barriers (if necessary), your dog should stop digging under the fence. You can always speak with your veterinarian if you have concerns about your dog's behavior or hire a dog behaviorist for their consultation (and personalized solutions) for the problem.

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