In my old home, I had a postage-stamp back yard that I abandoned to the destructive desires of my digging dogs. Not surprisingly, they trashed it, and that was OK with me because there wasn't enough room for the yard to be anything more than a dog run.
In my new home, I have a landscaped quarter-acre, and I decided to compromise and keep most of it looking nice. After a few weekends of fence work, the dogs have their part of the yard, and I have mine.
Their section of the new yard is larger than the entire outside space at the old house. And they still have access to my section when I'm with them to supervise. There's 24-hour access to their yard through a dog door from the house, and -- most important -- they are welcome to dig all they want in their outside space.
This compromise is in line with my belief that it's not fair to deprive an animal of what comes naturally, at least without offering something in return. You can take a working dog away from the job he was bred to do, but don't expect him not to substitute "bad" behaviors such as digging or barking to cope with his isolation, inactivity and boredom.
That's why although I've known many punishment-based "cures" for digging, I don't recommend them. As with any behavior, you have to understand what's at the root of the problem before you can come up with a fair approach to minimizing the damage.
Like many behaviors people find troubling, digging is natural for dogs, with any number of triggers driving the activity. Among them:
-- Excess energy and boredom. This combination is either directly responsible or is a contributing factor in most canine behavior problems.
-- Wanderlust. Some dogs, especially unneutered males, have a strong desire to dig their way out of the yard, especially when the breeze carries the enticing scent of a female in heat.
-- Prey drive. Subterranean wildlife is irresistible to some dogs, especially terriers or terrier mixes. These breeds were developed to dig vermin from their lairs, and they still do so with much enthusiasm.
-- Need for shelter. A well-dug den can keep a dog cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Although any breed or mix can show an interest in making a den, the behavior is more common in such breeds as huskies and malamutes.
-- Recreation. Digging is just plain fun. Just ask my dogs!
The trick to having a nice yard while being fair to your dog is to do what you can to eliminate the triggers for digging, make sure your dog is getting the exercise and attention he needs, and take your pet's natural tendencies into account when planning your outside space.
Neutering can greatly reduce the desire to wander, so if your dog's a roaming Romeo, a trip to the veterinarian should be the first item on your list. If wildlife's a problem, contact your local agricultural extension for tips on how to get the pests to skip your yard. And make sure your pet has the shelter he needs to stay comfortable no matter the weather.
Often the lack of exercise and sheer boredom are the biggest contributors to this behavior problem -- and any other. If you make it impossible for your dog to dig -- by cooping him up in a concrete-floored kennel run, for example -- he may switch to another unwanted behavior such as nonstop barking or self-mutilation.
Every dog needs an exercise program, with the emphasis on heart-thumping aerobic interludes such as a daily run or a game of fetch. If you keep your pet well-exercised, he'll be less likely to indulge in destructive behaviors.
Doing your part to keep your dog mentally engaged and well-exercised may discourage the casual digger, but it won't stop the truly dedicated. For these pets, a dog yard may be the best solution -- as long as you're not using it to neglect your dog's social and exercise needs.
Even in a dog yard, you may need to discourage some digging, such as a dog's effort to get under the fence. For these problem areas, discourage digging by filling in holes and covering them with chicken wire and large rocks or concrete stepping stones.
PETS ON THE WEB
Chickens can be wonderful pets, if you live where you're allowed to keep them. After all, not many pets can provide you not only with affection and entertainment, but also eggs! While your neighbors might not appreciate the sunrise serenades of roosters, hens can fit comfortably in most suburban and rural environments. The Backyard Chickens Web site (www.backyardchickens.com) is a welcoming place for would-be chicken keepers and experts alike, with information on choosing and caring for chickens, images of some incredible coops and message boards for getting help from other chicken fans.
Planning a summer vacation? It wouldn't hurt to make arrangements for your pets now. Summer's a busy time for pet sitters and boarding kennels, and slots fill up quickly for prime times like long holiday weekends and the Fourth of July. To be sure your pet is covered, make your reservations well in advance. The same holds true for the winter holidays: Some boarding kennels and pet sitters get reservations well before Labor Day for the weeks around Christmas and New Year's.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We want to respond to your article regarding bike riding with your dog or cat. We have a Jack Russell terrier mix, about 20 pounds, who we take on our bike rides.
We purchased a kid carrier, the cheapest we could find, made of hard molded plastic. My husband put carpet in the seat area to give the dog footing so she would not slip or slide around and also so she could have a soft place to sit. We snap two shoulder straps to her collar so she can't fall or jump out. We have been biking with her since August of '97. The longest ride we have done is 40 miles in one day.
Sarah enjoys being with us, but her legs are too short to keep up. That makes the kid carrier the perfect solution. -– R.S., via e-mail
A: Child carriers can work well for small dogs. A friend of mine has taken her Pomeranian cross-country skiing, using one of those soft-sided carriers designed to carry an infant on a parent's tummy. It worked out great for them both.
Of course, child carriers aren't the only means of transportation for small dogs. Anyone who has ever spent time in New York City has seen the heads of stylish small dogs poking out of the expensive handbags of their owners. The first time I saw this was at a Bloomingdale's department store, where a beautifully groomed Maltese surveyed the holiday crowds from the comfort of the owner's handbag while the equally well-turned-out woman tried out various lipsticks at the cosmetics counter.
Truly, small dogs have all the fun!
Q: I have a Westie who "demands" a 4-inch rolled rawhide nearly every day. My question: Should there be a limit to how many she gets? It doesn't seem to affect her digestive processes or appetite, and it does keep her teeth in great shape. -- D.C., via e-mail
A: Although popular, rawhides do present some problems for dogs and humans alike.
Every year I get anecdotal reports of dogs who have choked on these popular treats or have had to have surgery to remove blockages caused by them.
Then there's the risk to humans: A few years back the federal government warned that salmonella could be contracted from these products. Their suggestion: Young children and immune-compromised adults should avoid rawhides, and others should wash their hands thoroughly after handling the chews.
To be fair, the number of problems caused by rawhides compared to the amounts purchased and consumed is certainly very small, but the risks do need to be acknowledged.
In any case, a daily 4-inch rawhide strikes me as a bit much for a small dog. To satisfy your dog's chewing desires, try substituting a hard rubber chew. I like to recommend a Kong toy, stuffed with a little peanut butter to pique your pup's interest. Your dog will get lots of chewing time, without swallowing much material.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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