We love them. We dote on them. And we treat them as part of the family. Dogs (and cats) are a vital part of Americans’ lives, every bit as much a household staple as the backyard garden. It seems those who love their gardens love their pets, and those who treasure their pets also treasure their gardens. The lovable beasts can wreak havoc on plants, however. So how do we live with both?

Keeping dogs safe in the backyard – and keeping the backyard safe from dogs – can be a delicate balance between catering to dog lovers and catering to garden lovers. More often than not, they are one and the same.

Dogs love to run and dig and roll and romp, and their damage to gardens and lawns runs the gamut from holes to barren patches to trampled or chewed plants. The No. 1 home- and dog-owner complaint, however, is cleanup. Droppings are easily addressed, but the acid in dog urine can damage both lawns and the bark of trees and shrubs.

When males lift their legs against the trunks of trees, acid in the urine can eat its way through the bark and compromise the tree’s health.

Brown spots in the lawn, sometimes surrounded by a lush, green ring, indicate a favorite elimination spot; the urine contains high volumes of nitrogen. Nitrogen delivered to a small area can burn the grass at the same time that it fertilizes it – thus the brown spot where the nitrogen is heavy and the green ring where the nitrogen level is more dilute.

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There are dozens of remedies touted in catalogs and on the Web, but most of them don’t work. Dietary supplements claiming to neutralize or acidify dog urine can cause serious health damage to the dog. Sprinkling dog spots with baking soda or detergent may actually make the situation worse. The only thing that can neutralize the nitrogen is water.

Training the dog to drink more water is one way to dilute the amount of nitrogen delivered to the lawn. But trying to keep up with every dog spot, when it happens? Not likely.

The best solution is kind and consistent training, and providing the dog with a specific area of the backyard that’s designated for business. They love routine, and will soon learn to limit their activity to one or two areas. Keeping those areas clean is critical.

Digging, a favorite activity, occurs for a number of reasons, including boredom, looking for prey, creating a comfortable nest or to escape. Again, a well-trained dog who receives adequate attention may be more likely to behave, but that’s no guarantee. Provide a safe space where dogs are encouraged to dig – sort of a dog playground – and they’re likely to limit their activities to their own part of the garden.

Will the clients agree to installing a dog run? Not the chain link, Folsom Prison type, but an attractive area, perhaps along the property line, where dogs can trot and explore? Lined with rounded river rock that won’t irritate sensitive paws, this can also help to delineate segments of the backyard garden. Being creatures of habit, they’ll stick to a path once they’ve established it, and if they happen to cross the lawn, they’ve helped you design a new walkway. Paved with flagstone, this path will direct the dog’s explorations as well as outline separate parts of the garden.

A word of caution about mulch: Shredded bark mulch will soon get kicked out of place, adding another task to regular maintenance routines. And mulch composed of cocoa shells may contain trace amounts of theobromine, a substance that is toxic to dogs. Should a dog ingest the mulch, he or she may suffer fits of vomiting and seizures. While it’s unlikely that Fido will eat the mulch, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Is there a place for shelter? A dog house needn’t look like a miner’s shack, and a small pergola covered in flowering vines can provide much-needed shade.

Is water readily available? Depending on the budget, a small, trickling water feature can serve nicely as a watering station as well as provide sound and coolness to a backyard retreat. Or find a way to incorporate a small wading pool that provides both thirst-quenching and splashy fun.

Really, the point is this: Your clients have dogs. They have gardens. They love both. When designing the backyard, make sure you take into account that it’ll be used by both humans and canines – and probably more so by the dogs than the daughters.

Photo courtesy of iStock | ChristopherBernard

Dog Facts & Figures

  • There were nearly 70 million dogs living in U.S. households in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available from the American Veterinary Medical Association. A greater percentage of households owned dogs than cats, ringing in at 36.5, with an average of 1.6 dogs per home.
  • More recent numbers come from the American Pet Products Association (APPA), whose 2015-2016 survey estimates that there are 77.8 million pet dogs in the U.S., with an average of 1.43 dogs per home. APPA says that 54.4 million, or 44 percent of households, own at least one dog.

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