When it came to creating a dog-friendly garden for our two new members of the family, I found that most gardening books weren't terribly helpful when tackling the subject - some even going so far as to rearrange the word 'pets' to spell 'pest' instead.
An intensive period of trial-and-error with regard to dog-proof fencing followed, not to mention a lot of research and head scratching over what plants would make us happy and also be safe for our dogs. Along the way I came across quite a few gardening myth-conceptions – and it’s surprising how many of them are still prevalent.
Here are the four most common:
. . . . . . . . . MYTH: You can have a nice garden or a dog, but you can't have both . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Definitely a myth: if you need proof, look no further than popular TV gardening experts such as Alan Titchmarsh (a history of Labradors), Carol Klein (a brace of Lakeland Terriers) and Monty Don (scene-stealing Golden Retriever Nigel, plus three buried in the garden) who successfully combine being dog owners with having stunningly beautiful gardens.
Admittedly, most of us probably don’t have such large areas to tend, and there’s no doubt that the smaller your plot, the more wear and tear it’s likely to suffer at the paws (and teeth) of your dog. But that’s no excuse for claiming that nothing can be done to prevent your dog from making it look like a prison-exercise yard: it’s perfectly possible to keep your garden looking good while also making it a fun place for your dog to spend time. All it takes is a little extra effort – you’ll both benefit, and who knows? Like me you might even find yourself enjoying the challenge!
. . . . . . . . . MYTH: The urine of bitches is more damaging than that of males . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I remember my Dad groaning whenever he spotted one of my girl dogs spending a penny on his immaculate lawn during visits – his own dog was a boy, which he reckoned did less damage. Actually the urine of both is just the same – this is one of those myths which is due to the difference in toileting habits rather than content. Bitches tend to squat and although some do urine mark like the boys, most will usually empty their bladders completely on one spot. Male dogs on the other hand (once they’ve learnt to cock a leg) are more likely to spread it around, as well as aiming at vertical surfaces, treating it as a scent marking exercise as much as a bladder-emptying one.
It’s this quantity of pee, rather than the quality which does the damage. Urine has a high nitrogen content, and while this can be a great fertiliser, if overdone it will actually ‘burn’ the growth instead – hence the reason why those dead brown patches on the lawn are surrounded by lush growth, where the concentration of nitrogen is less.
The solution to the problem is both easy and cheap: as well as free-running walks, take your dog (whichever sex) out for briefer leash walks too so s/he has plenty of opportunities to spend a penny elsewhere. At home, keep a filled watering can ready and if you see him/her having a pee, straightaway add three or four times the volume of water (once he’s finished of course) to dilute the excess nitrogen. If you have a male dog and see him helpfully fertilising your plants, water them too, as although the quantity may be less, if he keeps returning to the same spots it will be cumulative and result in damage.
. . . . . . . . . MYTH: Dogs dig everywhere . . . . . . . . . .
Although many dogs show no interest at all, it’s true that some are terrific diggers – and not just the terrier breeds traditionally associated with such activities. If digging is in your dog’s blood, then you’ll find it difficult to keep him from doing it without keeping him under constant close surveillance: and even if you do succeed in stopping him excavating in one spot he’ll probably just move on to a different place. Thwarting his natural instincts may also make him pretty miserable and could possibly lead to some other alternative but equally annoying behaviour instead.
If you do have an enthusiastic digger, it’s not true that you have to live with a garden that looks like a badly organised archaeological site: the secret is to focus his activities onto one area instead of allowing them free range. Creating a digging pit will keep you both happy, especially if you keep hiding exciting things in it: the prospect of discovering buried treasure will encourage him to keep using it.
It’s a fairly simple thing to make, but if your DIY skills are really minimal, you can buy raised bed kits using boards which clip together and which will help to define the permitted digging area. If your dog has an especially favoured spot, locate his digging pit there if possible. Slightly loosen the soil at the bottom of the pit with a fork, top up with clean top soil, add a few goodies and watch your dog have fun – easy!
. . . . . . . . . MYTH: Having a garden will allow your dog to exercise himself . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A garden can be a great place to have fun with your dog – but shouldn’t be viewed as somewhere you can turf him out to do his own thing as an alternative to taking him for a walk. Getting out and about is as important for your dog mentally as the physical exercise involved: and if you have a physically very active dog he’ll probably need more space in which to run and let off steam than most gardens provide anyway.
Making sure your dog gets enough exercise away from home means that your garden will be less likely to suffer damage, and it can become instead a place where he can enjoy a well-earned rest, rather than behaving like a hooligan. If you have the space to safely throw a ball or Frisbee, that’s fine but engage him in other less adrenalin-fuelled activities too, so that he learns how to relax in his surroundings. Providing chew and interactive toys, having a Tellington-TTouch session, grooming, or giving him a gentle massage are just a few of the many ways in which you can keep him entertained and minimise any destructive tendencies.