It's a common sight often depicted in comic books or aired on T.V. in favorite cartoons or shows: Rover grabs a big bone and starts digging up a hole to bury it and then walks away with a satisfied look on his face. What's up with this behavior? Ethologists like to call this behavior caching, although the term is mostly used for squirrels, rodents and birds. Although dogs are not rodents nor birds, their motives for stashing food for the future show some interesting similarities.
A Matter of Feast or Famine
Ever heard the fable of the ant and the grasshopper where the grasshopper spent the whole summer singing while the ant worked hard storing food for the winter? Well, this fable shares some similarities with our domesticated dogs, but to better understand the moral of the story, we need to take a few steps back in history.
A dog's ancient wild ancestor, the wolf, evolved in such as way as to survive situations of feast and famine. In other words, these animals went through periods during which there might have been an abundance of food and periods during where food was scarse.
This means that there were times during which wolves were greedily gorging themselves after a kill (feast), and times when they were starving or close to starving (famine). These lean times triggered wolves to smarten up, and start saving foods for scarse times.
The best way to do it? Digging up holes and placing the surplus of food in it. While this may not seem like a very practical or hygienic way of conserving food, at a closer look, this strategy is overall quite astute.
Lack of Refrigeration
While dogs are domesticated and are very different than wolves (there are more than 30 differences between dogs and wolves, by the way), they still retain some instincts reminiscent of their ancestral past. Sure, many instincts have been watered down to a great extent, but the habit of burying bones has survived the test of time.
Perhaps a reason why this instinct has remained alive for so long is because it has remained so effective. With no refrigerators, lids for canned foods, or artificial preservatives to rely on, dogs throughout history had to find their own ways to conserve leftovers.
By digging and storing spare foods under ground, dogs have found an effective way to keep their leftovers cool and protected from spoilage. Indeed, tucked away from the sun's rays, temperatures under ground tend to be cooler than on the surface so this allowed leftovers to be stored longer.
By placing food underground, dogs also prevent it from getting covered with annoying flies or stolen from swooping raptors. Tucked away from the earth's surface, buried food is also protected from the curious noses of other wild animals.
Did you know? The idea of burying food was so ingenious that even humans decided to borrow the idea, and hence, started storing food in cool underground cellars.
A Matter of Social Learning
Many dog breeds are prone to digging and their instincts to dig may be enveloped deep down into a dog's genetic core. For instance, small terriers such as Jack Russell terriers, rat terriers, Irish terriers and certain hounds such as dachshunds, are natural born diggers considering the fact that they were selectively bred to flush out rodents from their holes.
Not all dogs dig with a passion from genetics though. Some dogs may not have much digging instincts, however, they may learn to dig as a result of social learning.
In other words, dogs watch other dogs and people dig and they soon learn to mimic their actions. So if your dog sees another dog dig and hide his bone or toys in a hole, he'll likely want to imitate that behavior.
Sure, humans don't bury food or toys, but when dogs watch us gardening and see us bury seeds, bulbs or plants under a layer of dirt, perhaps they assume we are burying some goodies too!
Did you know? Dogs who don't have access to a yard or who feel the home is a safer (and cleaner) place, may "bury" their toys under the pillows of a couch or the blankets of a bed.
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs have several good reasons for burying their toys and bones. One main difference though that exists between domesticated dogs and their wild ancestors, when it comes to burying bones, is the fact that dogs often tend to forget all about having buried them! Hence, why dog owners often end up finding piles of treasures stashed underground upon tilling their land.
Regardless of whether your dog forgets or remembers where he stored his goodies, one this is for sure: plenty of dog owners wonder: "How do I stop a a dog from burying his bones?" Here are several tips that may help out.
- Don't dole out too many goodies at once. Remember: it's the surplus of food that triggers a dog's instinct to hoard and bury foods for leaner times. So if you give your dog one bone at a time every now and then, versus offering several every single day, the burying instinct may be less likely to pop up.
- Skip the long-lasting chews. Many dogs feel more prone to burying foods that are longer lasting such as raw hides and cow hooves versus softer (and safer!) chews that they can readily finish in one sitting.
- Close the door. Let your dog enjoy goodies inside the home so that he doesn't feel compelled to bury them outside. However, consider that, while some dogs may adjust, other dogs start whining with a bone in their mouth while pacing and asking to be let out. Some others may start burying their bones under sheets and pillows.
- If your dog buries toys, try rotating them so to keep your dog's interest alive.
- Couch covers made of tough materials may prevent your dog from digging and burying toys and bones under pillows and can also help protect your precious couch from your dog's damaging nails.
- Provide your dog with a "legitimate" digging area. Let's call it his official "designated digging spot." A pool filled with sand can be an extra fun space where your dog can have fun and dig and bury his toys to his heart's content! A win-win situation for all!