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Gardening with Dogs

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I´m an avid gardener with two energetic giant schnauzers who love to play in my gardens. Together “Dirty Digger” and “Plant Eater” form the “Destruction Duo.” Although I fantasize about my dogs becoming garden helpers—pulling cartloads of mulch and fetching garden tools—at this point I´m satisfied if they get some outdoor exercise without destroying plants and being exposed to unnecessary risks.

The irony is that I want my dogs to stay in the landscaped areas; the undeveloped areas are full of burrs, foxtails, poison oak and other dangers. They also need plenty of exercise. As a result, my landscaped areas are designed to be dual purpose, satisfying my interests and theirs. That means I need to think like them or at least observe their traffic patterns, favorite spots and activities.

Traffic Patterns: When possible, it´s easier to acknowledge their patterns and to design the garden around them. For example, if dogs patrol the perimeter of the property, leave space for them to do that job. Since forbidding them to drink from my fountains is useless, I surround the fountains with indestructible plants like ajuga, avoiding brittle plants like escallonia, azalea, and Indian hawthorn. (Plants with flexible stems and perennials that rebound next year are better selections.) Turn dog´s shortcuts into paths rather than creating obstructions to redirect them.

Consciously creating paths through the garden helps manage traffic flow of both humans and dogs. Make parts of some paths wide enough for games of Frisbee, wrestling, and chasing. Keeping games in the paths, out of the flower gardens, is challenging. Clearly delineated boundaries—rock borders, raised beds, or different surfaces (mulch in the garden and grass in the path)—help dogs distinguish between play areas and those that are “off limits.” Densely planted areas with larger plants are less likely to be invaded. A playground monitor who redirects traffic is also important.

Pet Safety: In addition to insect stings and thorn pricks, there are other risks for pets in the garden, especially related to fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Dogs should not be allowed to roll or walk on treated grass until the time specified on the label. Because dogs are likely to lick their paws and ingest chemicals, have them walk through a pan of clean water after walking on recently treated grass. Never allow pets to eat fertilizers or plants that have been treated with any chemical. Look for organic fertilizers and those advertised as pet friendly.

Reduce use of toxic chemicals and choose less harmful or household remedies. For example, for weeds between cracks of bricks, use vinegar instead of herbicide. For slugs, avoid metaldehyde products and use iron phosphate or caffeinated coffee. Safer alternatives for controlling household and yard pests can be found at or Curious pets also often get into improperly stored chemicals so proper storage is imperative.

The list of poisonous plants is too long to memorize, so make sure there is no plant eating. Pick up residue when deadheading plants, spray enticing plants with commercial remedies or lemon juice, and remove mushrooms. Drain saucers under container plants (fertilizers and pesticides may flow through the soil) and keep other water sources clean because algae can be dangerous. Cocoa mulch—also attractive to dogs—is poisonous. Websites providing lists of toxic plants are: and

The ASPCA poison control number is: 1-888-426-4435. A consultation $50 fee may be assessed. Some symptoms of poison are vomiting, diarrhea, and labored breathing, but some animals may appear normal. Consult your local veterinarian if any kind of poisoning is suspected.

Special Challenges:

*Vegetable Garden. If dogs are attracted to edibles, the area should be fenced. Many vegetable plants, especially the Solanacea Family (tomatoes, red peppers, potatoes) are poisonous. Grapes, rhubarb, spinach and rosemary are also dangerous. Fencing also prevents dogs and other animals from “doing their business” in the vegetable patch.

*Compost. Compost piles should be constructed to keep dogs out since compost is likely to contain harmful items such as coffee grounds.

*Elimination. Immediately douse pet urine on favorite plants or grass with water to dilute it. Spread an inch of compost if available. Pick up all fecal matter since it may contain parasites and attract flies. Dogs can be trained to eliminate in designated areas if the behavior is monitored and amply rewarded.

*Digging. My dog digs out of boredom and to create a cool place to rest. Others dig to find rodents, which makes it dangerous to use poison to eliminate gophers and voles. Many dogs are attracted to freshly turned soil and to areas that have been fertilized with blood meal, bone meal or fish emulsion. Filling the holes with stones and covering with bricks may help. As a last resort, if edibles will never be grown there, putting dog manure in the hole may deter digging. Redirecting them to a sand box may work for dogs that have an irresistible urge to dig.

As a result of these strategies, my dogs and I enjoy spending time together in the garden. They´ve been so good lately, I may need to find new nicknames for them. See you and your dogs in the garden.

Marlys Bell is a Master Gardener and dog lover. “Dirty Digger,” also known as Skansen´s Superman Chakazulu will be participating in the Sierra Tuolumne Kennel Club Dog Show at the Sonora Fairgrounds, August 26-27.