11 Tips for Keeping a Dog-Friendly Garden

Here's what I'm trying to keep my four-leggers out of trouble in the garden. What would you add to the list?


Editor’s note: Michelle Slatalla is the editor-in-chief of Dogster’s sister SAY Media site, Gardenista. This story originally ran on Gardenista, but we’re rerunning it with permission so you, our readers, can weigh in.

You can tell a lot about a dog’s personality by the way he digs in your garden.

Take my dogs, for instance. Larry is like Peter Rabbit, with little white paws uprooting a clump of pansies as he shoots mischievous glances over his shoulder to make sure you’re watching. Sticky, on the hand, can’t stop herself; she digs in a guilty and very neurotic way, as full of self-awareness — and self-loathing — as a character on Girls.

Normally I like help in the garden — but not from these people. I mean, dogs. Lately I was noticing that whenever I was outdoors digging, so were they. It was driving me crazy. There were mole holes piled up all over the place, even though we don’t have moles. The digging had to stop.

Now, I don’t know about your dogs. But if you tell Larry and Sticky to do something — or to stop doing something — they will pause momentarily, look up quizzically as if they don’t speak English (although we know they do, based on the fact that we have to spell out such phrases as “go for a walk,” “get your leash,” and “do you want some cheese?” to prevent them from going into a frenzy), and then return to whatever they were doing. I think the word for this is “bratty.”

They say, however, that little big-eared Papillons like Larry and Sticky are highly trainable — Papillons have been dubbed “most intelligent of the toy breeds,” whatever that means — so I went looking for someone who knows how to persuade them to stop digging. I did some “goggling” (as my father would say), and learned to my surprise that their bad behavior was my fault.

“Your dog needs attention,” warned the Humane Society’s Dig This page. “Make sure your dog has sufficient time with you on a daily basis.”

At first this seemed sort of ridiculous, given that my dogs get more attention than any other member of the family. They spend about 22 hours a day sitting on someone’s lap or sleeping against someone’s feet, and the other two hours begging for c-h-e-e-s-e. Dogs are pack animals, and Sticky and Larry are vigilant about keeping a distance of less than two feet between themselves and the nearest human member of their pack.

But then it dawned on me: every time I am in the garden, Larry and Sticky are going to be there, too. It’s like when you have a baby and for the next five years, that baby is pretty much attached to you. You have to retrofit the house so the baby won’t stick a finger in a light socket or fall down a flight of stairs or drink nail polish remover. If you can baby-proof a house, why can’t you dog-proof a garden? Make it safer for them, and also more welcoming; turn the place into a veritable Disneyland for Dogs, where they will be so amused that they forget to dig.

Here are the dog-friendly attractions I added and the strategies I used to keep my dogs out of trouble in the garden:

1. Give dogs a job

We all like to feel we have a purpose, and Larry and Sticky keep busy by patrolling the yard. Their job, they believe, is to keep the property safe from squirrels, bumblebees, and the occasional stray leaf that wafts to the ground without permission. To encourage Larry and Sticky to run around the perimeter of the garden where they can’t trample plants, we laid paths.

2. Have paw-friendly surfaces

My garden paths were laid with pea gravel, which is comfortable underfoot for Larry and Sticky; no sharp edges, and the surface never gets too hot even on sunny days.

3. Make sure you have plenty of “varmints” for them to apprehend

As if. My dogs can barely catch a fly, but they believe they are fearsome squirrellers. This myth dates to the time they almost caught a sick, mangy squirrel that they treed in Central Park in New York. This was about two years ago, but Larry and Sticky still talk about it as if it were yesterday. My garden has a lot of plants that attract birds and pollinators. Sticky and Larry spend a ridiculous amount of time bossily trying to run off bees and hummingbirds from the salvia and the roses.

4. Create comfort zones

Dogs get hot fast when they run around; you should have a cool shady spot under a tree or an awning where they can lie down and recover from all that squirrel work.

5. Put out a water bowl

Preferably in or near the shady spot.

6. Designate a “dog park” area

We have a grassy backyard where Larry and Sticky play fetch, run figure eights around each other, and flop down in exhaustion.

7. Play fetch with a small, harmless object that won’t destroy your prize peonies

Tiny tennis balls are very popular around our house. If your dog is too big for tiny tennis balls, consider regular size tennis balls; they’re not too destructive. A two-pack of small, Larry-size Beyond Tough Tennis Balls is $2.99 from PetCareRx.

8. Get sturdy border plants

Face it, there will be wrestling and roughhousing; you don’t want your dogs careening into your foxgloves, because that will be the end of the foxgloves. Plant dense edging plants like boxwood or low, resilient creepers — like, say, thyme — as a buffer zone between the dogs’ play area and fragile flowers.

9. Mulch with small cedar chips

The mini chips have soft edges that won’t irritate paw pads and are small enough, for the most part, not to get tangled in fur.

10. Resign yourself to having territory marked

If you see your dog marking on plants or grass, you can rush over with a hose to flood the area and dissipate the effects before plants turn brown or wilt. If you miss a spot, well, grass grows back.

11. Use edging around beds

This will create a physical distinction between areas that are off limits and spots where dogs are welcome.

I am happy to report that after we implemented these strategies, the digging problem started to wane. I did notice, however, that Larry has discovered a spot where he can wiggle under the fence and into my next-door neighbor’s yard. I only hope he doesn’t lose his little blue jacket with the gold buttons over there.

How do you protect your garden from your dogs, and vice versa? Share your strategy for creating a dog-friendly garden in the comments!

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