Watch out for Dog Holes

Digging is normal canine behavior

July 14, 2023 (published)
Erik bought a sticker to decorate the fiberglass cast. Photo by Phyllis DeGioia/VIN

My ankle is fractured in two places.

It hurt about as much as you'd think.

I'm hoping you can learn from my stupid mistake. Maybe I currently care more about your bones than you do, but at a certain point you may come to care a lot more, as I did.

Safety Tip #1: Do not put the canoe away in the back yard in pitch dark.

Safety Tip #2: Do not step into a hole dug by your dog during the kind of deep darkness that makes fireworks look good.

I'm pretty sure Zita, my 20-lb Pomeranian mix, excavated that particular hole. She often comes into the house with dirt on her nose, indicating she's been digging.

In the immediate aftermath of the high-volume post-double-fracture screaming, my boyfriend Erik went to look for my ancient crutches in the basement. While he was getting them, I crawled through the back yard on my hands and knees towards the back door. I almost threw up.

Knowledge Tip #1: The orthopedic nurse said if you feel nauseous almost immediately afterwards, you have likely broken a bone because nausea is one of your brain's reflexive responses to pain.

Your fibula and tibia would really, really, really like for you to stay as far away as possible from any irregular ground caused by digging canines. A few other bones are likely to feel the same way.

Safety Tip #3: In daylight, look for holes dug by your dog(s). Varmint holes aren't likely to bother an adult human fibula. However, the convex hole typically dug by canines is usually big enough to be noticed, has no lawn or flowers left, is surrounded by loose dirt, and may not seem big or deep but waits for you like a tick on a blade of grass. Fill in those holes.

You may be asking yourself at this point why dogs dig.

Digging is normal canine behavior, according to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Christine Calder of CattleDogPublishing. Some dogs are not interested in moving so much as a nail full of dirt; Lady of Lady & The Tramp comes to mind, flipping her stunning ears around like a movie star's tresses. But I'd bet my bottom dental chew that Tramp scored more than a few holes.

Some dogs dig because they were bred to do so. In French, ‘terrier' translates as ‘burrow,' and In German, ‘dachs' means badger, and ‘hund' means dog, indicating a dog who hunts rather vicious animals that weigh up to 30 pounds. During fox hunts, fox terriers were released when the fox went below ground. The deceptively innocent-looking Australian terrier goes after snakes and vermin, and usually wins. A Bedlington terrier will go after rabbits or mice, and so on: it's part of the genetic job description.

In dogs not bred to excavate, holes can still wait for your ankle for a number of reasons, Dr. Calder tells me. (By the way, as an undergraduate she fell off a horse and broke her talus – the main ankle bone that your fibula and tibia are attached to - and was supposed to be non-weight bearing for 6 long months. Because we are all stupid at that age, she went to classes rather than dropping out for a semester. She ended up repeating the classes anyway, but let's give her points for effort. Also, like me, Dr. Calder is barely taller than a garden gnome, so falling from a horse is quite a distance.)

Anyway, non-hereditary reasons for dogs to dig holes include:

  • Boredom, boredom, and boredom.
  • Staying cool.
  • Creating their own dens for puppies and icky weather.
  • It's fun!
  • To bed down and nap.
  • Chase and hunt critters just for fun.
  • Boredom.

If your dogs come into the house frequently with noses covered in dirt, like my Zita, you might want to consider some additional enrichment. I certainly am!

At any rate, I am pleased to say that as soon as I'd crawled my way to the house and got inside, it pretty much stopped hurting. I could move my toes and bear a teeny tiny amount of weight. “Oh gosh, it's not that bad!” The ER said I could wait until the next day.

Knowledge Tip #2: Don't wait. If you think you've broken a bone, go to the ER. I waited about 15 hours, which is when I could get into my regular clinic in the afternoon on Monday. They took x-rays, gave me a walking boot, and referred me to an orthopedist, but I didn't get in there until Friday. Had I gone to the ER, I could have had five less days being non-weight bearing in the fiberglass cast, and if I'd needed surgery, I would have had it sooner.

Non-weight bearing is so frustrating to independent types (like me and Dr. Calder) that in the beginning I cried several times every day. I must say that except for those excruciating minutes right after the fracture, my ankle has not hurt as long as I don't bear weight on it, so I didn't need pain pills.

Safety Tip #4: On hard floors, be careful not to place the tip of either crutch in one of those swirling tumbleweeds of dog hair dust bunnies unless you want to fall again, possibly emulating a turtle stuck on their back. Life can be brutal.

My English setter, Dodger, was bred to run like the wind, not dig. Obviously, he was on his way to China here, even though the breed is not noted for digging. Photo by Phyllis DeGioia/VIN

Sadly, I suck at crutching due to insufficient upper body strength from being an LOL (Little Old Lady). I get around in a wheelchair or crutches right now and have a walker and a quad cane ready to go for later, because I also suck at being non-weight bearing with a walker. I've even crunched a toe on the good foot by running the wheelchair into it; it's summer and I'm foolishly barefoot. Given my generally clumsy nature, which Erik insists is due to inattention rather than actual clumsiness – and who am I to argue? – I will eventually need mobility aids again. I'll be in a walking boot for two or three weeks after the cast comes off, then taper off. The boot is decorated with stickers of bunnies and capybaras because last time I used one I learned the Swarovski crystals eventually fall off.

Here in the Midwest, summer is the best weather of the year. It is awful to miss it, and I won't be in our new canoe for a while. I will have spent the majority of these lovely summer days on the couch with my leg elevated, whining like a puppy. For the first few weeks after the injury, I cried a few times every day about the unfairness of life. Well, suck it up, buttercup.

However long it takes to heal, I am truly grateful that it wasn't worse, like Dr. Calder's injury.

I strongly recommend that you check for holes around your yard and add some enrichment activities for your dogs if they have any tendency to dig. Don't be lazy like me: just get out there and do it. It may save you from the unspeakable indignity of imitating turtles.

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.