I can’t tell you how many times I have heard homeowners lamenting the damage their dogs have done to their yards. The sad part is, it doesn’t have to be that way. In taking the time to consider how your dog actually uses the back yard, you can accommodate his or her behaviors while indulging your love for beautiful flowers, trees and shrubs.
As is the case for any garden design, the first step is planning. Gardener, dog behaviorist, and trainer, Cheryl S. Smith, has written a helpful book entitled “Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs” (Dogwise Publishing, 2004). As the title implies, she eases you into the world of creating a garden with the family dog in mind.
Dog-friendly garden elements include a shady spot for relaxing, a play area, paths that make it easy for the dog to get around without tracking mud into the house or trampling flowers, a digging pit, and a place to “go.” These areas should be close to the action, so the dog (a social animal, after all) can see what’s going on and be part of everything.
One of the first considerations is the type of dog you have. Is he/she a hard – playing, Frisbee-catching, charging- around- the- yard maniac? Or maybe you have one of the digging or hunting breeds, like a dachshund or a terrier, or a champion chewer that will gnaw on anything. These factors are as important as your soil type, or how much sun your beds receive at different times of the day.
Smith says; “The big mistake dog owners make is not taking the dog into account when they are designing the gardens. It’s important to keep your dog’s tendencies in mind because you can avoid a lot of stress and damage that way”…”I give the example of guarding-type breeds patrolling fence lines. So if you plant your beds up against the fence, the dog is likely to run through the back of them. If you leave space back there, then the dog can still patrol, the path will be hidden by your plants, and everyone can be happy.”
Go outside with your dog and walk around your entire property. Try to see it with new eyes. Notice any areas where the dog seems interested in sniffing, digging or rolling? You might not want to plant delicate perennials in those places, or if you do, you may have to take measures to protect them. Those measures include things such as paths, edging or low fencing that will discourage most (but not all) dogs from entering the area.
Smith favors physical barriers: “Dogs can be trained not to cross boundaries, and I talk about that in the book, but I’ve found that often people aren’t very good about following through on training. So barriers work well. You could start with temporary fencing that actually bars the dog from the area, then switch to lower and more attractive fencing, and end up with the foot-high or less decorative edging type fencing and still have a dog who stays out of the area.”
Armed with your human and canine wish lists, you can now begin planning in earnest. Think about fences. The important thing is to keep your dog safely enclosed, and other animals out. Fences with gaps between the boards can be dangerous, because the dog can get his head wedged in there, and nasty people can poke things through from the outside. Also consider your hard surfaces, some of which can get slippery and invite injury. Does your dog like to be up high, above it all, to survey his territory? Is there a spot where he can do that? A deck often serves this purpose.
If you are going to have a swimming pool or a water feature, think again about the type of dog you have. Is he a water dog, like a Lab, who will jump right into your lovely new koi pond? Is there a safe exit from the swimming pool and does your dog know how to use it? Make sure he knows where the pool stairs are, and if there are no stairs, add a safety exit ramp that provides all animals that might fall in (including wildlife) a safe way to get out. Train your dog so he’s comfortable using it. Panicked animals, like humans, can end up drowning.
Will you be using outdoor lighting? Plan this from the beginning of the design process, and make sure all low voltage lines are buried so the dog won’t chew them. If, like most serious gardeners you compost, find a way to keep the dog out of the bins. The easiest way to do this is to have an enclosed bin with a good lid on it. Garden tools and ornaments with sharp edges can also present hazards, as can hoses, which can be irresistible to hardcore chewers.
Now look at trees and shrubs. If you are planting new ones, get larger specimens that will be less prone to dog damage, or protect small ones with fencing until they’re stronger. Remember that freshly dug soil is enticing to a dog, so satisfy that urge by providing him with a designated digging area that he has been trained to use.
What about the lawn? There is a common myth that female dog urine creates the brown spots in the grass. This is untrue. Females just tend to go in the same area, so it builds up. Creating a designated potty area in the yard will solve this problem. How much of a perfectionist are you? Try to avoid using chemicals and if you must, spot treat problem areas. Insecticides, herbicides and granular fertilizers are toxic to dogs, and they can also track them to other areas of the yard and into the house.
Dogs have died after eating traditional metaldehyde slug and snail bait. Smith recommends a product called “Sluggo,” which takes care of the problem and is harmless to dogs, cats and birds. Most gardeners already know that certain plants, if eaten, can also harm animals. Check the ASPCA’s plant list before choosing your annuals and perennials.
Mulches are increasingly popular in gardens, (sometimes too popular, in my opinion) but having a dog can restrict your choice of mulch material. Think about whether you would want the mulch inside your house, because chances are the dog will roll in it at some point and bring some in on his fur. Many mulches contain artificial dyes, and some have sharp edges. Then there is cocoa hull mulch, which is said to be toxic to dogs. Steer clear of this one.
Thoughtful planning is essential to creating a landscape that everyone will love, but training is also important. Your dog needs to learn proper garden behavior, which includes knowing which areas are off limits and which are OK for digging and playing. Teach these behaviors by rewarding the dog for using areas for their designated purposes.
If you are patient, consistent and attentive, it shouldn’t be long before your dog gets the idea, but even experts like Smith can be surprised by their own dogs’ behaviors: “People don’t realize that a lot of terriers can actually climb wire fences (I’ve watched them do it). Our own relatively new dog, Teddy, a long-bodied, short legged mixed breed, kept getting out of the totally fenced yard into the larger yard. I couldn’t figure it out until I hid and watched him and saw him jump through the less than a foot square opening in the decorative part of the fencing, nearly three feet off the ground.”