Dog digging in water dish

Q. My dog digs in her water dish. It's stainless steel, and I think she might be playing with her reflection, but I'm not sure. Why is she doing this and how do I get her to stop? She's making a mess.  

A. Off-the-wall behaviors from our dogs don’t always make sense from the human perspective even though they seem logical to the dog. The motivations for digging in the water bowl can vary from dog to dog. Although many dogs outgrow dish digging after puppyhood, others continue it throughout their lives.

Why Your Dog Digs — and How to Make It Stop

There could be several reasons your dog is digging in her water bowl. Here are six possible motivations for your canine’s water dish digging, as well as solutions to help her stop.

1. She's hot. Certain breeds like Labradors and Huskies are notorious for digging in water. Blame it on their love of water or a desire to cool down in the heat. If you suspect your dog is dish digging to cool off, provide an outdoor kiddie pool for her to swim in. I worked with a Labrador Retriever who regularly attempted to swim in his shallow water bowl. When he was given a kiddie pool to swim in, his dish digging stopped. Alternatively, give the dog plenty of chances to swim at a doggie swimming pool or dog beach. Keeping the water in the bowl at a lower level, only 1 to 2 inches deep, also decreases the dog’s ability to take a dip. However, if your dog is truly hot and trying to cool off, you want to make sure she has access to plenty of water.

2. She sees something. Stainless-steel dishes reflect light; your dog may be trying to catch the reflection by pawing and digging at the dish. Make the dish digging less fun by choosing a bowl that’s a solid, nonreflective color, or by putting water in a spillproof container. Elevating the dish may also help, but for large-breed, deep-chested dogs, elevated feeding bowls are associated with a higher risk of bloat, so talk with your veterinarian before switching.

3. She's bored. Dogs lacking mental and physical exercise will often devise their own entertainment. Digging at the water bowl becomes a source of physical activity and mental occupation. If your dog is digging out of boredom, provide her with more activity. Twice-daily walks that leave your dog panting and tired from the exercise, not the heat, stimulate her mentally and physically. (Of course, check with your veterinarian first to make sure your dog doesn't have any conditions that may prevent her from engaging in strenuous exercise.) Have a regular routine of play, such as fetch, structured tug or hide-and-go-seek to help your dog relax better at other times. Food puzzles are another way to move your dog’s attention to a proper outlet. Stuffed Kongs and treats can even be frozen in a block of ice for dogs particularly obsessed with water, by using the Kool Dogz treat maker. Doggie day care and the dog park are other outlets for dog-friendly canines to expend their energy.

4. She prefers moving water. Digging in the bowl creates movement in the water. Dogs that opt for moving water may also like drinking out of the toilet, because of the movement and cool temperature in the bowl. For pets partial to moving water, using a pet water fountain that creates a continual fresh stream of water may reduce her need to make waves of her own, although there's a chance that it might make her want to play more.

5. She wants attention. Dogs repeat certain behaviors that have a successful history of grabbing our attention, including digging in their dish. If your dog got a response from you the first couple of times she did this, she’s likely to repeat it in the future. To get her to stop, ignore the behavior. The next time your dog digs in the bowl, walk away. Instead of making a fuss when she's digging in her bowl, use treats and praise to reward your dog for alternative behaviors that are incompatible to the dish digging, such as sitting calmly or lying at your side.

6. She's exhibiting compulsive behavior. In rare cases, dogs may become obsessed with objects and activities. I worked with a Pomeranian obsessed with casted lights and shadows on any surface. This behavior requires immediate intervention from your veterinarian, and training to properly address the issue.