I was at a Home Dog Training session in Dawsonville last Monday working with a new client and his one-year-old Weimaraner named Cathy. Weimaraners are great hunting dogs, but they are also wonderful family dogs. My client had brought Cathy into their family to be a family dog.
The good news was that she had a great personality and loved every person and dog that she ever met. The “less than great” news was that, like all Weimaraners, she was nuts. She jumped, stole stuff, didn’t listen, and pulled on the leash. We needed to explain to Cathy that these were bad things and she needed to pay attention to my clients.
After a few hours, Cathy was paying attention to my clients and proved that besides being a wonderful dog, she was also an obedient and focused dog. My clients were ecstatic with the results. As we were finishing up, they had one more question.
They had a big, fenced in back yard and Cathy loved to go out there to run and play. The problem was that besides running and playing, she also loved to dig, chew, and destroy stuff. Did I have any great ideas on how to make that stop?
I told my clients that even though many dogs don’t destroy stuff when they are in the back yard, many dogs also do things like dig holes, pull up plants, chew on patio furniture, rip apart hoses, and more. It is not that one dog is good and one dog is bad.
To understand why our dog may be “destructive” in the back yard, we first have to understand the environment we are presenting to him. We, as his masters, have allowed him to go into the back yard. We normally open the back door and let him run out. We may throw the ball around for a moment or two or we may simply go back inside assuming that he will find “stuff to do”.
The “stuff to do” thing is where the disconnect starts to take place. We “assume” that he will run around chasing the squirrels, sniff some plants, explore the bushes, and find a cool and shady place to lie down. Many dogs naturally do this, and this is our expectation when we open the back door to let him out.
Well, as my client was acutely aware, some dogs get out in the back yard, dig holes and pull up plants. In order to solve this problem, the first question we need to ask ourselves is “Why?”.
Why does our dog, for some reason, like to dig holes and destroy stuff in the back yard? Why won’t he do the things we want him to do like chase squirrels and explore the stuff in the bushes?
It all gets down to what is getting your dog’s interest at the moment. What is causing his adrenaline to spike and where is he focusing his attention? Some dogs just like to dig. When they get outside, that is what they want to do.
Let’s think about it for a moment. When we were kids and our mom took us to the neighborhood playground, we always had our favorite thing to do. It may have been the slide, the swings, the ring bars, etc. Whatever it was, there we went. Other kids focused on other things. Our dog simply is focusing on “the hole”.
Since we now know the target, we need to decide what to do about it. We can’t protect the entire yard from digging, so we cannot remove the target. The best thing to do is to create “a target” that we consider acceptable and then direct our dog towards “our target”. We call this “a digging pit”.
Since our dog loves to dig, let’s let him dig. But, let’s allow him to dig under the rules we establish. Our main goal, obviously, is not to turn the back yard into an open-air strip mine. With this said, we still want to allow our dog to dig.
We need to define an area where we want our dog to dig and then modify that area in such a way that will naturally direct him to that area and, when there, dig. We have fulfilled his need to dig and we have preserved our back yard. Here is what you do:
- Identify an area in the yard that your dog can easily locate. The area should be about six to eight feet square and in a partially shaded area that does not puddle in the rain.
- Dig about four to eight inches of soil from the area and line the base of the area with a plastic tarp. The “fishpond liners” from Home Depot do a great job for this. Next build a wooden boarder around the area to hold the liner in place.
- Fill the area with sand. Now, put some of your dog’s favorite toys in the “Digging Pit”. Put some of the toys on the surface of the sand, partially bury others, and completely bury others. Get some doggie biscuits and place them on top of the sand with the rest of the toys.
- Bring your dog outside on a long lead and play fetch with him for a few minutes. Give him a doggie biscuit every now and then to get him focused and excited about “goodies”. As you are playing with him, move him closer and closer to the digging pit.
- Finally take him to the pit and direct him towards the doggie biscuits you have left on the sand. Keep him there and excited while you enthusiastically show him that he has other toys and goodies in the area.
- Repeat this every time you bring your dog out until he naturally wants to get “directly to the good stuff” in the digging pit.
- Watch him for a few more days to assure he is constantly going to the pit. Once that becomes his “go to” place, you have resolved the digging problem. Or, to be more accurate, you have redefined the problem into a solution.
Another destructive thing that our dogs often do in the back yard is to pull up plants in the garden. We frequently see them scattered around the yard, or often placed on our patio or back porch. The interesting fact with this inappropriate activity is that our dog is not trying to be mischievous or destructive. Interestingly, he is simply mimicking our activities.
We go to The Home Depot and pick up a bunch of flowers, plants, and pallets of sod to spruce up our back yard for the spring. We often have our dog out with us as we bring all the stuff in the back yard. Our dog watches us take the plants out of their pots, dig the holes, and put them in the ground. He may also watch us roll the sod into the back yard and lay it down.
Our job is now done and we go inside. When we look outside, the sod has been pulled to the back gate or our back deck. The flowers have been yanked from their holes and are probably sitting in the middle of the yard. Although we always get mad, we never ask ourselves, “What just happened?”.
Our dogs love to watch us and will often mimic our actions. They saw us bring the sod in and put it down; they simply moved it back. They saw us dig the holes and plant the flowers and bushes; they simply took them out. So, what do we do?
Here is a simple, universal rule that I always provide my dog training clients who are also gardeners. “Don’t garden with your dog!”. If your dog doesn’t see the grass going down or the plants entering the ground, they are not objects on which he will focus. When he comes outside to play, they are simply “other things he hasn’t sniffed” in the back yard. He will normally give them a quick sniff to identify them, place that information in his “doggie identification database” and move on.
There is one last destructive thing that I want to discuss regarding our dogs and the back yard. For some reason, our dogs love to chew on our expensive backyard furniture. This is often because we sit or lie on our furniture. This leaves our scent and naturally draws them to the furniture. Once there, they have nothing better to do than to start chewing.
The best way to resolve this expensive issue is through a redirection. Give them something else to do that will allow them to chew but refocus the target. I always suggest the tried-and-true Kong Food Toys. Chewing on the Kong Toy offers the same, tactile pleasure of gnawing on something and provides them the added benefit of getting something tasty to eat.
Take some peanut butter, place it in the Kong Toy’s food hole, and place the toy in the freezer. When everything is frozen, take it out when you let your dog out in the back yard. Get him excited over the toy by playing fetch with it or hide-and-seek with it. This will focus his attention to the Kong Toy as his “go-to chew target” and your yard furniture will remain safe.
These are just a few of the “annoying” things our dogs can do in the back yard. Please call Robin or me at (770) 718-7704 if you need any dog training help or “back yard tips”. We are blessed to have been your local dog training professionals for over seventeen years. We have trained over 5,000 great dogs and loving families and are ready to help you.