Has Your Client’s Landscape Gone to the Dogs?


How to make canines and their owners happy

Photo by Kelly Orne.

Just because your clients have dogs doesn’t mean that their landscape is forever doomed.  You can change the landscape to fit the dog’s behavior or you can ask the client to train the dog to adjust to the landscape, but the ideal solution is to do a little of both, said Cheryl Smith, a dog trainer, master gardener and author of the book, “Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs” (Dogwise Publishing, 2004).

“I promote a two-pronged approach: designing the yard with (the) dog’s needs in mind, and training the dog to respect the landscape,” said Smith.

Different breeds, different problems

Smith says it is important to understand the behavior of a particular dog. Watch the client’s dog in the landscape for a period of time, and then investigate where the damage is being done and try to match the landscape design to the habits of the dog. The design will depend on how much outside freedom the client allows the dogs, as well as the breed of dog and its temperament.

For example, guard-type breeds, such as German Shepherds, will instinctually want to patrol the fence line. Instead of fighting this instinct, simply pull the plantings away from the fence and leave a path where the dog can do its “patrolling.” Terriers and dachshunds, notorious diggers, will benefit from a structure filled with loose dirt, or even an area of ground where they can dig. “You can make this area even more attractive to the dog than other areas by burying treats and toys,” said Smith.

Photo by Kimberly Stockwell-Morrison.

Safety first

Remember that certain plants and landscaping materials can be toxic to dogs. For example, cocoa bean mulch contains caffeine, and the hulls of nuts that fall from trees (particularly domestic walnuts or wild hickory) are loaded with tannin; both substances are highly toxic to dogs.

Other plants that are toxic to dogs include castor bean, foxglove, pokeweed, buckeye, rhododendron, azaleas, daphne and cherries. Ornamental grasses, in particular, should be avoided, since dogs tend to chew on them.

A complete list of plants that are toxic to dogs can be found on the ASPCA’s Web site at www.aspca.org/toxicplants or at Cornell’s Department of Animal Science site at www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/dogs.

Advise your clients that you will need to avoid potentially harmful products in the landscape, such as herbicides and pesticides. Any landscape materials that could potentially be dangerous to children will also be dangerous to your dog, such as steel-top metal edging, which can cut into a dog’s paw; use soft rubber alternatives instead.


Dogs like to dig, and if they are in a well-manicured landscape, they won’t care what it cost your client to install—they will still dig.

“Dogs can either be trained to stay out of dirt areas, such as gardens, or barriers can be used,” said Smith. If a dog is shown a low, decorative fence (one he could easily step over) and trained not to cross it, after some time he will avoid the area, said Smith, adding that this may require the help and advice of a dog trainer.

The answer to digging problems will depend on why the dog digs, which is why it is helpful to watch the dog in the yard or carefully question the owner.

Digging to get at something that smells good can be easily addressed by providing a “digging area” in the yard and filling it with sand, soft soil and mulch for easy digging. Fill the spot with bones and treats. If the holes get too big, the homeowner can fill them in or rake them smooth again.

Anxiety-driven digging, or digging because the animal wants lay down in a cool spot, can be resolved by providing more shade with trees or a doghouse. You can also suggest that the client add some kind of water feature on the property, such as a dog-friendly pond, to keep the dog cool, hydrated and entertained.

If mud becomes a problem, create a “paw cleaning” track made with crushed stone, mulch or wood chips—a runner of some kind to “wipe” the dogs’ feet—to prevent tracking dirt and mud into the house.

Digging near fence posts or along a foundation can be remedied by adding structures that dogs don’t like to dig in, such as a combination of lawn fabric and chicken wire topped with ornamental rocks. Rocks around young plants also provide protection.

In particularly severe cases, you may want to suggest a hardscape as a low-maintenance alternative to grass. Hardscapes around house entrances are good for creating outdoor “mudrooms” for brushing off pets (and kids) before going inside.

“Use pavers, stepping stone or pea stone/wood chip paths to keep high-traffic areas from becoming mud pits,” said Carolyn Edsell-Vetter, a landscape designer with A Yard & A Half Landscaping (www.ayardandahalf.com) in Waltham, Mass., who frequently works with dog owners. She also suggests using round rocks instead of granite, which is jagged and can cut the dog’s paws.

Artificial turf in particularly problematic areas is also an option, but it must be installed properly or it can cause nail fungus in dogs.

If the constant paw traffic on the turf is causing bald spots, you may want to use a tougher type of grass, such as perennial rye, bluegrass or fescue. You may need to include reseeding and compost applications in the regular maintenance of the lawn.

Photo by Kimberly Stockwell-Morrison.

Treating “dog spots”

Not only is the constant traffic a problem for lawns, but a dog’s urine and feces, while in theory are “fertilizer,” can, in large amounts, cause burn and dead patches in the turf.

The high nitrogen in dog urine causes a condition called dog spot: an initial lush green growth from the fertilizer effect followed by dieback causing unsightly yellow spots on the lawn.

If the dog relieves itself in the yard, there are several options to take to protect the turf:

1. Train the dog to eliminate in one area. Suggest that the client teach the dog to eliminate in one area of the yard, which can be pleasingly designed for the dog. Use pea gravel or mulch and add a marking post like a boulder, lawn ornament or even a fake fire hydrant.

2. Dilute the dog’s food. This will lower the urine concentration. Moisten dry food with water. You can also suggest the owner use Yucca schidigera supplements (available in health food stores) for dogs, which supposedly bind with ammonia in the urine to make it less acidic and less harmful to the lawn.

3. Plant the landscape with dog spot-resistant grasses. Perennial ryegrass, often used to repair athletic turf, is quick to germinate, wear-tolerant and also shows more resistance to dog spot than bluegrass or bermudagrass. Adding clover to the lawn blend adds nitrogen to the lawn, and is also wear-tolerant.

4. Water the spots. Dog spots can be eliminated by watering the spots after the dog has urinated, or after the feces have been cleaned up. However, this is time-consuming and owners will not always have time to do this.

5. Designate dog areas. Suggest to the owner that they designate a dog area, keeping them out of other areas of the yard. It can be designed as a small side yard landscape with a combination of tough plants, pea stone or mulch. You can also fence out the dog from areas of the yard that are off-limits, such as a perennial flower bed or herb garden, with an attractive fence. Wire cages around delicate trees and shrubs will prevent urine from reaching roots and trunks and damaging the plant.

Go with the flow

If the homeowner has been in the house for a while with the dogs, chances are the dogs have created a “route” they follow around the yard. Edsell-Vetter says the landscape design can work with, not against, the dogs’ tendencies.

For a client who is a dog trainer, Edsell-Vetter designed an entire hillside water feature around the paths the dogs used to climb a hill, even adding a rock in the water for them to use as a springboard. Her clients wanted pond access for the dogs, so she created a gradually sloped “beach” area for them. Not only were the dogs happy, but the clients ended up with attractive features in the landscape they would not ordinarily consider.

Click to view “The Pros and Cons of Various Dog-Friendly Landscape Solutions

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.