A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Minneapolis Community Education class called “A Dog in the Garden.” The concept sounded pretty straightforward; I figured I’d walk away with a list of toxic plants and maybe some tips about how to address urine burns on the lawn, but hey, I’m always up for something dog-related so I figured it was worth a shot. I was pleasantly surprised that the class was taught by a professional with a MAEd (Masters of Arts in Education) in Natural Science and Environmental Education, Fran Kiesling, who actually designs gardens and yards for dogs and their owners, taking into account her clients’ relationship with their dogs, and their lifestyle, including the functionality of their yard space. Petscaping is defined as “pet-centered landscape design and installation that focuses on the needs of animals as well as people. As they design space, petscaping professionals respond to the physical, psychological, and social needs of pets.”
As a trainer, I was also impressed with Kiesling’s perspective on dealing with backyard behavior problems, taking into account both training and landscape design, but making it clear that no amount of garden design can replace solid training and good manners. Kiesling had many good points and a systematic approach to planning and designing a yard that is well-suited to an individual family’s needs. Here are some of the enlightening take-aways I had from the class:
- Reconsider grass. Grass, also known as “green concrete” (a point further emphasized in a subsequent rain gardens class I took a couple weeks later) requires a lot of water to maintain during dry periods, but it doesn’t effectively absorb rainwater to curb runoff. Dogs create unsightly urine burns and wear dirt paths in lawns, requiring even more care to maintain. My upbringing in a rambler in the suburbs included lovely lush lawns, so the prospect of doing away with grass was sort of mind-boggling but also (surprisingly) a huge relief. One of Kiesling’s first questions to the group was “What do you use your yard for? Is grass important for your yard to be functional?” Meaning that unless you’re an avid croquet player or regularly hold picnics on the turf, maybe the effort and expense to maintain your grass (fertilize, water, cut, etc.) isn’t really worth it. If your yard is largely a playground for your rambunctious Labradors, it may be wise to consider a different surface such as wood chips or mulch that is easier to maintain and more durable. This was a huge (and valuable) perspective shift for me.
- Informal garden designs don’t show the dog wear and tear as much as formal designs. Meaning when you have a more natural, “wild” looking landscape, it’s not as obvious that your dog lopped off a couple of peonies or trampled the marigolds—there’s lots of other “cover,” whereas if you have a very quaffed and formal design with manicured hedges and straight, structured flower beds, any damage your dog does will be more evident.
- Berms, berms, berms. For my own situation, raised earth berms would be a great solution to create interest in an otherwise flat landscape, in addition to creating fun obstacles for the dogs to chase each other around and over.
- You can designate different areas of the yard with landscaping elements that will be associated with different behavior expectations. For example, if you have a patio area where you want the dog to be calm, add some other elements to designate the space from the rest of the yard such as some fencing and potted plants, making it an extension of your home, then associate calm behavior and a command with that space. Similarly, you can associate a command like “go play” with excited behavior in another portion of the yard, to help the dog understand what the acceptable behavior expectations are in different areas.
- Plant toxicity is relative—it’s not really accurate to generate a list of “toxic plants” and warn people away from them. Almost all plants are toxic to some degree; it’s their defense mechanism. What you want to keep in mind is your dog’s weight and health, how much was consumed, and the chemical compound of the plant. Think of your yard in terms of “supervised” and “unsupervised” areas to decide what plants are appropriate where. For example, you shouldn’t leave your dog unsupervised with Lilly of the Valley or Azaleas because they could be highly toxic if consumed, but Spirea is probably okay. It’s also interesting to note that annuals tend to be more toxic than perennials.
Some of the most insidious behavior problems to address are backyard behavior problems, primarily because of the lack of supervision that many dogs enjoy in the backyard. Ironically, boredom and lack of supervision is often how the problems develop in the first place! Had the dog been supervised, engaged, and consistently and effectively interrupted and corrected early on, the behavior likely would have gone away or not developed in the first place. Rather, many dogs are left to their own devices in the backyard and some take full advantage of this. Some of these backyard behavior problems include barking, fence running (or fence aggression), coprophagia (eating feces), fence jumping or escaping, digging, eating sticks, plants, etc. Here are some tips to address and manage some of these behaviors:
- If fence running or fence aggression is a problem, you may be able to plant bushes next to the fence so the dog is unable to run along the fence. We live along a somewhat busy sidewalk, and though we have a privacy fence, the dogs still get very excited when people go by on the other side. We already had bushes along the fence, but the dogs were able to run behind them, making it difficult for us to get to them to correct the behavior. We installed a cheap garden fence usually meant for rabbits, to keep the dogs out of the shrubs, essentially creating a second fence line that keeps them within reach of us at all times and doesn’t allow them to reach the object of their excitement, the wood fence, which keeps the excited outbursts more manageable. Along with this, you should also train a solid recall or sit-in-motion command so you can gain control of your dog when he engages in this behavior.
- Keep the poop picked up, as well as sticks and other objects your dog may be tempted to pick up, carry around, or consume (including small rocks). Your neighbors will appreciate it too!
- Train your dog to toilet in one area of the yard. You can be as fancy or basic in denoting this area as you want. Use some fencing to cordon off a grass patch that you don’t mind destroying, or lay down mulch to help denote the area, even include an upright ornament or rock/boulder for marking. Train your dogs to only go in this area by taking them out to the exact spot to do their business. Of course, if you start immediately from puppyhood, this work will be much easier than if you have to retrain your adult dog, however it can be done!
- Don’t allow your dog to pick up items off the ground that aren’t clearly toys that have recently been given. Toys should always be given to the dog by you, and not simply found and picked up, so keep the toys picked up from the yard when not in use. This will prevent the bad habit of picking up inappropriate items from the ground such as sticks, wood chips, rocks, grass, feces, etc. Picking up inappropriate objects (and often times consuming them) is often a problem in retrievers that have a genetic predisposition to doing so. Make sure you’re playing plenty of fetch with your retriever to give him an outlet for this behavior. You may also want to teach the “take it,” “drop it,” and “leave it” commands to be used in the backyard.
- Lots of people put their dog in the backyard “for exercise” and are surprised when they return to find new holes dug in the ground, bark chewed off the trees, or other destruction. Yards don’t exercise dogs, people exercise dogs. Provide your dog enough physical exercise in the form of long walks (or even better, runs) THEN put him in the backyard. Dogs are less likely to engage in destructive behavior when they’re tired, because they don’t have the excess pent up energy to expend.
- One quick and dirty tip provided in the class to help with eating vegetation (especially grass) was to feed chopped raw cabbage once a day (about 1 tablespoon per ten pounds). Other green vegetables may also have the same effect (zucchini, broccoli, green beans (cooked)). Make sure veggies are chopped or grated very fine and never feed onions as they are toxic to dogs (and cats).
- Check out this interesting page for information about urine burns on the lawn. Written by a veterinarian, this article discusses the cause and explores dietary and other proposed (and sometimes misunderstood) solutions.
Finally, I’d recommend that you get in touch with Fran Kiesling for help with your own yard, or take the “Dog in the Garden” class offered by Minneapolis Community Education next time it’s available. So far, we haven’t been able to implement any berms or remove any lawn. In fact, the extent of our landscaping so far this spring has been to move the picnic table so the dogs can start to wear a different path around it in a new location, in hopes that the old wear path would recover a little! Oh the things I would do with my yard(s) if I had a blank check… : )
Here’s to warm summer days spent outside with our dogs in the yard!
Fran Kiesling, MAEd Natural Science and Environmental Education, LISW social worker
Petscaping article in Dog Fancy Magazine (May 2008)
Petscaping for Dogs and Cats by Julie Orr, a Bay area (California) designer