Woe to the owner of a collie who digs. As we are generally a breed that does not do this because of inherited traits, it is sometimes a surprise to hear of cases where one of my kind will dig obsessively. Lets look at some of the reasons a collie may be a digger.
First and foremost and by far the most common reason that impels a dog to dig is out of sheer boredom. Too often a collie is left alone outside with no toys and nothing at all to occupy it. If it is an especially young collie, this can be a truly grueling way to spend one's day when he has so much energy to burn and nothing to direct it to. At some point during your collie's puppyhood he will probably have already learned that the ground is soft or pliably enough to move with a few simple scratches of a paw. With nothing better to do, the bored collie may have started pursuing a bug along the ground or even discovered a little spot that smelled very appealing. In his desire to figure out where his prey went or what that lovely aroma was from he might start to scratch a little. If he paused a moment, some of the dirt may fall back in and look like movement of some sort to the collie thus enticing him to dig a little more and a little more and a little more. If his interest is kept up sufficiently he may begin to feel a certain amount of satisfaction or even pleasure in the digging. This is largely in part because the exercise is encouraging his brain to produce an endorphin called serintonin. This particular chemical is an especially potent mood enhancer. (Many humans will attest to getting a good feeling after a workout because of the same chemical and the attitudes of many problem dogs improve dramatically when they are on the appropriate exercise regimen.) It is so powerful a stimulant that in many cases a dog will continue to dig until it can't stand up a moment longer and collapses in a happy heap. If it happens a sufficient number enough of times, the discovery will become a tendency and from there, a habit. Many times it can become an obsession even if there seems to be nothing from the human point of view that could possible be causing the behavior. It is still a mental issue. Remember that if this is the case, he does it because it feels good.
Digging in boredom can also be associated with digging under a fence to get out of the yard. Sometimes it is in response to something on the other side of the fence and sometimes its because the dog just likes to roam the neighborhood. Digging to roam the neighborhood is not restricted to dominant un-nuetered males. Un-nuetered females in estrus will also dig to roam in search of male to mate with and some dogs just love roaming so much they'll dig their way out just to do it regardless of whether they are intact or not. (Studies have shown, however, that the incidence of roaming does decrease when intact roamers are neutered. This is theoretically because the hormones that encourage dogs to roam have been greatly reduced. The one rare exception is in the case of un-nuetered EXTREMELY dominant and/or aggressive females. When neutered they may actually become more dominant and/or aggressive when the major producer of estrogen and progesterone, the uterus, is removed. Canine hormone replacement studies are in process now.)
Another common reason for digging is truly predatory in nature. If your dog seems to regularly dig in the same places or general areas and if they stop or pause often as if listening for something, it may be because there are little furry things living beneath the ground of your backyard. Collies have a high need to pursue things. A lot of times it won't matter what it is, as long as it is moving away from them. (Some people use the fashionable term "chase drive".) This is an instinctual survival mechanism that has helped many predatory species survive. Over the centuries, domestic dogs that were strong in this trait were bred and the best were culled and kept as working sheepdogs. They, in due course, became separate breeds with separate characteristics. What is most valuable about the herding breeds however is actually the fact that though they like to chase, they have been bred to generally lack the secondary step of actually using their jaws to bring down and kill their quarry. They wouldn't be very useful herding dogs if they killed their sheep and cows now would they? Since many confined collies will have a distant instinct to pursue with no natural outlet such as a herd of sheep to round up, they will often lend their chase skills to whatever they can find. Being a breed with some amount of brains, collies will very easily learn to diverge from the full "run after to pursue" to the more stationary "dig after to pursue". Field mice, voles, moles, chipmunks, groundhogs, rabbits and a host of various ground dwellers will find their tunnels and homes most rudely destroyed and entered upon when there is a collie about who knows that they make great sport and quite a challenge. Don't worry folks. We're not terriers. While most collies enjoy a good chase, few of us will ever actually intentionally hurt our quarry, but remember that we are all different and that there are occasionally exceptions. I myself have cornered and pinned quite a few rabbits and squirrels beneath my front paws in my younger days, but I never did figure out what I was supposed to do with them once I had them!
Many will find that their collie only digs during the summertime. What drives owners nuts about this yearly digging ritual is that the dog will lay in the dirt hole afterward. This is one way that many dogs will attempt to keep cool on a hot day. The earth underneath is usually cooler than above and whenever possible the hot collie will particularly choose spots that are shady as long as possible throughout the day. They may do this along the side of the house or actually excavate a little tunnel under the deck or their own dog house! Most collie owners with dogs that do this will find it to be a habit learned by observing an older or previous dog do this. As most collies would normally refrain from such a wasteful use of their energies they would really have to know or have already learned that there is some benefit, even if minor and temporary, to this behavior.
This next reason for digging isn't excessively common for collies but the number of dogs in general that do this is growing alarmingly quick. Digging compulsively at shadows, whether real or nonexistent is most often human-induced. Imagine using a flashlight (or more popularly now a laser pen) and encouraging your puppy to chase after the contact point of the ever moving beam of light. Because humans unmindfully find this such novel entertainment, everyone laughs and giggles much to the delight of the puppy and it seems that he quickly comes to enjoy the game... So much so that he is played with in this way nearly everyday sometimes several times a day. In time, the puppy becomes so absorbed in the chase that he doesn't need the laughter to encourage him. His desire to catch the light is all he needs. Since he spends more time chasing than catching, it is easy for his frustration to build to a point at which when he finally thinks he's caught it he begins to scratch frantically at it trying to get it off of the floor. All to soon the humans begin to notice their puppy will scratch and chase at the barest flickers of a shadow or beam of light. In time, it is no longer funny because the puppy begins to spend more time chasing and digging at shadows than anything else let alone the fact that the dog's nails are destroying the carpet and the backyard. With so many more moving shadows outside than usually inside it isn't a difficult step for a dog to take when they begin to associate these shadows with the game inside. Humans can't seem to understand why their dog is "suddenly" acting so weird and while they cry for answers they usually don't want to accept that they in fact actually taught the puppy to do this in the first place. For this kind of dog, it has nothing to do with feeling good. It is a compulsion straight and simple. It can develop into an obsessive compulsive disorder in a surprisingly quick amount of time but the time it takes to "deprogram" a dog from this behavior can take years, serious money and commitment and in some cases, drugs. On occasion, a puppy or dog can have such a combination of exaggerated issues or personality traits that they can develop the behavior with little or no encouragement from humans, but that rarely is the case. I encourage you not to play this game with any dog. Use real objects to fetch, never tease a dog with moving lights and don't intentionally hide treats or game items under objects he cannot possibly move no matter how hard or how long he scratches.
Some dogs like to dig holes to bury things in. This is usually due to a combination of several things. First, is the competition rate over food or other valued items. While this most often occurs during their time with their siblings it can also occur later in life if they are mixed in with a number of other animals. What can happen during these times to create a "hoarder" is the possibility of too many mouths not enough food, or a somewhat submissive dog never being able to enjoy what he manages to get. If he doesn't hide it, swallow it immediately, can't out run the others or cannot physically defend his prize it will most likely be taken away. Most of the time a puppy will try to swallow his prize whole. (In today's modern times, many people will find themselves rushing their pet to the vet to remove a swallowed nonfood item like a pen they were caught chewing on.) But on occasion, a puppy or dog will have a little instinctual reminder that at one time a lone dog or wolf with a piece of prey to large to eat all at once would many times bury the remainder of the kill in the hopes of keeping it from other animals for later. Some dogs learn to go to great lengths to hid their special things from others by digging holes to bury the item in. Others (like me) simply try to push the extra cookie or bone under something nearby such as a pillow or couch. If the hidden cookie is left untouched, many dogs will continually use that same spot or area to hide their things in.
SO YOU HAVE A DIGGER... NOW WHAT DO YOU DO?
Well, first off, try to figure out why your collie is digging and avoid putting him in those situations. The best way to tackle the problem would be to not allow it start in the first place if you don't like that behavior by keeping a sharp eye on the puppy and discouraging it whenever and wherever you see him trying it. I know, I know... Easier said than done. Few people have the time (or the desire) to stand outside with the puppy or dog every time they let it out. That's why they got the fenced in yard, right? So they wouldn't have to? Well, you have to understand that with dogs, praise and correction must always come at the right time and consistently. You may think that if you skip a couple of corrections or discouragement's for digging that it won't harm your teaching him not to do it, but unfortunately, that isn't true. Allowing him to get away with the digging behavior (any behavior in fact), even if only occasionally, is actually reinforcing that he can still dig. It isn't telling him 'never'. Its telling him 'sometimes'. And if you don't like the behavior at all, 'sometimes' isn't going to be liked any more than 'always'.
If his digging isn't compulsive, obsessive, or only occurs outside, try giving him his very own place to dig outside. Get a kiddy pool and fill it with sand or dirt and every time you catch him digging where he shouldn't be, give a little negative sounding "Ah, ah, ah" and then encourage him over his dirt pit. As soon as his paws hit the dirt praise him immensely and remember to go hog wild with the praise if he actually starts to dig in his pit. I don't recommend giving treats for that because even a half way intelligent dog of any breed will come to realize that if he digs in the bad spot first and then runs over to his pit he'll get a treat. Who has who trained then? Instead I suggest immediately taking him out to the pit right after you have finished putting it in and hiding a bunch a dry yummy biscuits in the sand. (This works well when they're hungry right before dinner time!) With your own hand or even his paw if he'll allow it, scratch a little sand aside to reveal a biscuit hidden in the sand. Praise him the entire time and especially lavishly when he discovers the biscuit. Remember to make it fun, exciting and game like. Repeat as often as necessary until he understands and begins to do this on his own. Don't leave him outside alone until he does. Do you get the idea? If he equates the biscuit with digging in his dirt pit first, he'll be less likely to dig else where. Once he has this down, you can go out and hide some biscuits in the sand whenever you want to put him outside for few moments. You can even put it to a cue word or phrase. I scratch or dig on command to the phrase, "Scratch it!" Some rather artful folks with green thumbs have found this cue useful for having a little four-footed help when digging flower beds or gardens!
If your collie digs after little furry things and giving him his own place to dig doesn't help much, than consider an ultrasonic pest deterrent. These devices emit a non-lethal but very annoying sound that is specifically made to chase small furry animals out of the yard or within a certain range. Some emit the sound through vibrations from poles inserted directly in the ground and others can be simply plugged into an outside electrical socket. The sounds and vibrations usually do not bother household pets. If it does, it is a simple matter to teach them it is a pleasant thing by turning the device on and off regularly and offering a special treat to the pets every time. There are other methods of furry pest control but some can be messy and some are dangerous to your pets and family.
If your dog is always digging at the fences to get out then you must first be sure that he is not displaying a sign of separation anxiety called barrier frustration. If your dog scratches at the windows and doors or walls and/or barks constantly the entire time you leave him alone in the house, than chances are high that he has separation anxiety. If he digs outside as well with these other signs you'll need to consult a canine behaviorist as separation anxiety treatment is very involved. If he is digging simply to get out and roam than it can be a little difficult to catch and dissuade them from doing it. You can try putting a long line on the dog and stand some distance back. As soon as the dog begins to dig at the fence you can give a sharp "pop" or two on the line. As soon as the dog stops digging praise him verbally and enticing him to come over to you offer a treat from your hand. Though these next few ideas are similar in form to using a long line, they are NOT my first choice. Using the hose to squirt a dog as soon as he digs... using a human controlled electronic device with a receiver and correction device attached to the dog's collar (ie "static stimulation", citronella spray, or tone only correction).
If your collie only digs to find a cool spot than make sure that he has adequate shade in the first place and plenty of cool water available. Try getting a piece of cheap "cut to fit" linoleum sheet from a local hardware store or a bunch of tiles and place either of these in the hole that he has dug. These two items have a tendency to keep a little cooler if they are not in direct sunlight. (Some of you may have noticed that your collie already likes to rest on these types of surfaces in the house on hot days.) Placing these items in your collie's cooling off hole can at least keep him from becoming a dirty mess and help keep him cooler to some degree. Tiles have the added benefit of allowing rain water to seep between the cracks and not lay in a puddle on top.
No matter what the issue, always leave some appropriate play and chew toys available outside so your collie has something to do. Look at your dog's personality and try to be creative. Some folks have had success suspending a toy from a mildly thick tree branch with just a little give and thus giving the dog an inanimate tug of war buddy.
Some other tips on counteracting digging would be to try filling in they hole and putting a nasty smelling deterrent on top of the area or putting large heavy rocks in the holes and covering up the hole with a top layer of dirt. Digging to escape can be countered by attaching a heavy gauge chicken wire to the bottom of the existing fence and putting the rest of it in the ground. The loose side and ends should be staked firmly down. If the dog only digs along the fence in same spots every time try filling in the holes with thick pieces of cut tree trunk or four by four railroad ties. They need to be long enough and heavy enough that the dog cannot move them by pulling with their mouth or by digging. If your dog digs at random spots along the fence it would best to just treat the entire fence with the deterrent of your choice since chances are this kind of escape digger will just try a new spot if one spot is blocked.
Once again my friends, be creative. Using the last few types of deterrents may take some time for the dog to learn that digging is futile and give it up and even then it may never be completely gone, but at least there stands a better chance of containing your best friend to the yard than just ignoring the problem completely and losing him.
Until next time, GOOD LUCK!