Canine horticulturists

2014-04-03 00:00

WE adore our pets, but how many owners despair after their gardens are re­arranged by their beloved canine companions? Unfortunately, some of us believe that digging cannot be changed due to reasons such as breed design, or even that Toffie, aka The Excavator, is being spiteful.

To obtain some insight, we need to have an idea as to the reasons for the digging. Digging is a natural exercise for dogs, for purposes such as burying bones, searching for rodents and insects, and creating soil indentations for coolness. Pregnant mothers may prepare for birth by digging a comfortable space in the earth.

Unnatural or abnormal digging mostly takes place while owners are absent, or at night. Thus, a determination must be made as to normal versus abnormal digging and this also means establishing whether it has evolved to an attention-seeking level.

Normal digging would, for instance, involve front paws throwing damp soil backwards to make contact with the belly area, creating a cooling effect, especially when ambient temperatures are warm to hot. Another example would be the sniffing of mole heaps, which may result in a scratch or two, or frenzied digging. The fresh sight or scent of a disturbed surface is a magnet for the canine nose.

The owner’s scent left on new plants is often an indicator that they are “legal” toys that may be removed for purposes of amusement. Also, recently introduced plants may be perceived as an intrusion in the pet’s territory and thus require removal.

Pet owners should be aware that confinement is unnatural and that a luxury home with excellent food is not a recipe for a contented state of mind. Social deprivation, isolation, inadequate space, lack of stimulation, dysfunctional human-canine relationships or incompatibility with other animals, can all be contributors to abnormal digging behaviour.

For a dog, digging is mentally and physically stimulating. A cornucopia of odours emanating from the soil attracts the interested party normally via the senses of sight and smell, allowing for a release of pent-up energy. The physical action of digging also allows for muscle toning, thereby satisfying both physical and mental needs.

Some dogs dig holes all over the garden, while others will concentrate on a few locations.

Most digging happens in the owner’s absence and upon returning they are greeted with scenes of destruction. A typical response is to call the pet, indicate what it has done wrong and then punish it. This can only make things worse.

Owners who indulge a cute puppy and then later condemn it to the garden, could precipitate activities where digging becomes a stereotypic compulsive behaviour, mainly because the instinctive gregarious, social needs have initially been allowed for, and then terminated.

Digging always begins as an instinctively driven action which is part of the overall design. It is not just a phase that pets go through, and when the result is excessive or abnormal, it is an indication of a behavioural disorder. Destructive outcomes cannot be judged on a moral basis, but should be viewed as a deviation from the norm, caused by a stressed state of mind.

In multiple canine households, pets will quite often form opencast mining clubs because of the dog’s ability to copy or mimic behaviour. Fortunately, it is easy to identify the perpetrators as they produce evidence such as muddy front paws or soil on the nose.

Please contact me, or your vet, should there be any concerns.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website at www.dogtorsteve. Advice is dispensed only in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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