Jack Russel with dirty paws from burying her food.

Why Do Dogs Bury Their Food?
We Explore The Reasons

Burying stuff underground… It's yet another one of those slightly bizarre things dogs like to do. While not all dogs do this, may enjoy digging and burying things like bones, treats, and even various other objects. So what’s up with that? Why do dogs bury their food in the ground? Let’s find out!


The Digging Instinct

If it’s the first time you’ve seen your dog burying food, you might be wondering - where does this behaviour come from? Sometimes, even dogs who have never seen another dog (or anyone) bury something somehow get this idea.

Well, you’ve probably guessed it, for dogs, burying stuff is instinctive behaviour. It’s something that comes naturally for them, a form of inheritance from the long-lost wild canine ancestors.

"The reason why a dog buries something is to save it for later. When you don’t know when you’ll find your next meal, it makes sense to hide leftovers.” - Teoti Anderson, Live Science (1)

The compulsion to hide food is usually called “food caching” and is quite common among various animals, including birds, and, notably, squirrels. This type of behaviour is also prevalent among all of the dog’s wild relatives, including wolves (2), coyotes (3), and foxes (4).

The ancestors of our dogs didn’t have a consistent food supply like our pets have. With no other way to preserve food, they’ve learned to hide it underground. While it doesn’t fit into the modern dog lifestyle, some dogs simply cannot stop themselves: they have evolved to enjoy burying food and digging it up later.

Jack Russell that's been digging.

Getting to the Roots of the Digging

The basis of the food burying is instinctual. However, some dogs do it more often than others, and there might be additional reasons that make our canine companions more inclined to go around hiding their food.

Burying an occasional bone might not be such a big issue. However, if a dog is compulsively burying every treat or every bit of food they get, there might be an underlying problem that makes them do this.

Anxiety

Possessiveness is a common issue in dogs that live in multi-pet households. If there are other pets around, your dog could be burying food out of fear that other dogs could steal it. The ‘possessive’ behaviour in dogs is thus much more frequently caused by anxiety than actual selfishness.

If you suspect this might be the case, try to find ways to make the pup feel safer. For example, try feeding each pet separately so there is no fear of stolen food.

Overfeeding

If your dog is getting more food and treats than he or she needs, they might be inclined to hide the excess for later. If your dog has a healthy weight and isn’t obese, this is not a problem. By burying food, your furry friend is managing his or her diet! But, at the same time, not offering as much food and treats to the dog might reduce the digging action.

Attention Seeking

Sometimes, burying food can be a form of playful behaviour or an attempt to grab your attention. Especially if you’ve been trying to stop the dog from burying food and reacting each time they try to do it, this might just be what your dog is trying to do: get you to react.


Is Burying Food a Problem?

There is nothing inherently wrong with dogs burying food. It’s quite natural for them to do so, so if you have enough space in your yard, you might as well let your dog enjoy saving the bones for later.

However, sometimes this type of behaviour is not desirable. For example, your pup might be digging in all the wrong places and digging up your yard. Some dogs also try to bury way too much food and other objects until the behaviour becomes obsessive. If that’s the case, you might need to set up a strategy to get your dog to stop burying food.


How to Stop a Dog from Burying Food

As mentioned above, it’s perfectly fine to let your dog keep burying an occasional bone or treat providing that there is a safe space for them to do so. However, in some cases, it’s simply necessary to get the doggo to stop digging.

If that’s the case, we recommend trying to distract the dog and encourage positive behaviour. Punishing your dog for fulfilling instinctive needs like food caching is rarely a good idea. It can result in an anxious and fearful dog.

Related: How To Stop Your Dog From Digging Under The Fence.

For example, here is the advice of a veterinary behaviourist on redirecting the digging behaviour:

“This behaviour can be difficult to stop, but it can be redirected. The best way to do this is by giving them their own appropriate area to dig. If you’d rather keep them out of the garden, you could get him a sandpit where they are free to dig and bury. Encourage them to use this space by filling toilet paper rolls with treats and hide them in there.” - Dr Jess Beer / SPCA (5)

In the end, the same thing won’t work for every dog, though. The thing that can help you be more successful in finding out the root cause of your dog’s need to bury food. If your dog is anxious around other pets and/or possessive of their belongings, perhaps creating a safe space to enjoy treats alone will help curb the digging.


Final Thoughts

While your dog’s decision to go out in the yard and bury the treat they’ve just received might seem a bit bizarre, burying food is normal for dogs. It’s what their ancestors have been doing for ages with excess food. In the wild, it’s a strategy for survival.

If the behaviour stops after the occasional bone or treat has been buried, it’s completely fine to let your dog keep doing this. However, if the burying seems excessive and your dog appears obsessed with hiding all the food he or she gets, it’s probably time to investigate the issue and try to find the root cause of the problem.

References

  1. Meanes, T. January 23, 2021. “Why do dogs bury bones?”. Live Science. Retrieved June 28, 2022. https://www.livescience.com/why-do-dogs-bury-bones.html
  2. Phillips, D.P., Danilchuk, W., Ryon, J. and Fentress, J.C., 1990. Food-caching in timber wolves, and the question of rules of action syntax. Behavioural brain research, 38(1), pp.1-6.
  3. Phillips, D.P., Ryon, J., Danilchuk, W. and Fentress, J.C., 1991. Food caching in captive coyotes: Stereotypy of action sequence and spatial distribution of cache sites. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 45(1), p.83.
  4. Careau, V., Giroux, J.F. and Berteaux, D., 2007. Cache and carry: hoarding behavior of arctic fox. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 62(1), pp.87-96.
  5. Beer, J. “Why do dogs bury bones?”. SPCA. Retrieved June 28, 2022. https://www.spca.nz/advice-and-welfare/article/why-do-dogs-bury-bones
Vedrana Nikolic

Vedrana Nikolić is a professional writer, anthropologist & dog lover with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology. Currently pursuing a Masters degree in Semiotics studying the communication between animals and humans. Vedrana is able to use her expertise to analyse and review dog products and write informative posts on canine behaviour and training.

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