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Dog Gardening
A primer for making it safe and organic

My dog likes to dig. I watch her toss a chunk of wood—she barks, howls; she furiously claws, daring the evil stick to make a run for it. Dig dig dig, deeper it goes. Bite the stick—chew the stick—now she’s proud. I think she’s also proud of the hole she’s made. I think my dog wants to garden with me. I have a friend who’s done a study on dogs digging holes. She asserts that her dogs have more tendencies to dig up the lawn and garden once they’ve watched her dig. Doggy see, doggy do is her theory. I have doubts. I have no doubts, however, that dogs like to dig. They dig to hunt prey, such as mice and gophers. They dig to bury bones, and then dig them up again. They dig because it’s a fun, completely normal canine activity. The challenge is in protecting your garden from this fun.

Protecting the Garden
I once had the joy of tending a large expansive vegetable garden in rural France. Roomy rows for walking among manicured beds of luxuriant foliage permitted one to feel like the Master of the Manor inspecting one’s domain. In that garden, there was room for a dog to walk at my side without damaging any vegetation. Alas, my pocket-size urban garden in San Francisco barely has space for plants. Keeping such a plot a canine-free zone requires ingenuity.

Raised beds are one solution. Dogs can be taught where they’re permitted and where they are not. The more obvious the physical distinction between these areas, the easier the training. Architectural railroad ties, stacked two or three deep at the garden perimeter, are affordable and available from lumber yards and landscape supply companies. They are attractive, sturdy and free of the toxic compounds present in recycled real railroad ties. A raised bed garden requires extra soil and amendments the first year or two, but the results are well worth the effort and initial expense. You dog will understand not to jump into the garden (with a bit of training), while your back will learn to appreciate gardening at elevated levels.

Fences seem to be an obvious choice when total exclusion is desired. Bur quality, attractive fences are expensive, time-consuming to install and can block sunlight. Instead of fencing in your garden, consider fencing in your dog. Before you get upset, realize we’re not talking about abandoning your dog to a concrete fenced-in kennel. We’re giving him his own garden. It’s called a digging pit and is the secret for coexistence between a backyard garden and your dog. Set aside a small area and dig it up like a garden; a patch three by six feet is sufficient. Bury your dog’s favorite toys and treats while he watches, then encourage him to dig them up. As he does, praise and reward. During the exercise, chant “Dig in your pit, dig in your pit.” Dogs learn the trick quickly. Combine positive reinforcement with verbal discouragement when your dog wanders into a forbidden zone. You can speed the training process by being a bit devious. Drip some tasty food or meat broth in an area you wish him to avoid. When he explores and starts to dig, it is your opportunity to shoo him back to his pit and praise him for digging in his own garden.

Protecting the Garden
If you and your dog are going to share gardening experiences, it’s only fair to grow things you both enjoy. As you plan your landscaping, if you have room, consider planting a tree. In answer to the ever-popular questions “How do I keep my male dog from killing a young tree with his own ‘watering’ efforts?” I offer two approaches. Frequent rinsing of the trunk and soil with fresh water helps dilute excessive fertilization. Or, secure a copper or galvanized splash guard of appropriate height and circumference around the developing tree the first couple of years to divert unwelcome attention. Once established (preferably near your dog’s play pit), the tree will provide blissful shade for those days when your dog is busy watching you weed and sweat in the sunshine and heat.

There are trees to avoid (noted at the end of this article), but you can’t go wrong with an apple tree. A bit of apple, crushed and mixed with other fresh foods, is a delightful addition to the diet of a dog who appreciates homemade cuisine. So too can boring dog food be enlivened by judicious supplementation with a touch of fresh, home-grown parsley, ginger or mint. It might even improve your dog’s breath. Check with your vet to make sure fresh herbs and vegetables are appropriate for your pet.

Most things that you like from the garden will also appeal to dogs. Incorporate carrots, squash, potatoes, peas and other vegetables into meals or treats. Remember that the items you must cook before eating yourself, such as potatoes, require the same treatment for canine consumption.

Protecting Your Dog
Having protected your garden from your dog, you must now protect your dog from the garden. Within those forbidden walls many dangers lurk. Chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides head the list. Avoid them. With vegetable gardening, going organic makes great sense. If you want to freely graze in your garden (and not panic if your dog does the same) organic is the only way. Particularly troublesome chemicals used in non-organic gardens are worth of mention. The active ingredient in most snail baits (metaldehyde) is terribly poisonous—causing tremors, convulsions or death—and formulated in a way that attracts dogs. Gopher and mole poisons are quite nasty and should also be avoided. Most fungicides, herbicides and pest killers when first applied, even organic and relatively safe varieties, can be toxic if ingested or contacted by your pets. Always seal and safely store such products. Keep your dog away from sprayed areas until they dry. When watering, prevent excess run-off from drifting toward your dog’s favorite spot. You don’t want your pup lapping from puddles of dissolved garden chemicals.

Carefully consider plant selection. Many ornamentals and some vegetables can poison a dog who consumes vegetation. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna), Larkspur (Delphinium ajacis) and even potato foliage (Solanum tuberosum) have toxic effects on the heart and circulation. When dogs eat large amounts of onions, they may suffer red blood cell destruction. Rhubarb leaves (Rheum rhabarbaram) contain oxalic acid. In quantity, it damages kidneys.

If you dog loves to chew wood, avoid trees with toxic bark, such as cherry (contains cyanide-like components). Some nut trees are risky (walnut is notorious) when dogs consume rotting shells, which contain fungal organisms that produce nasty toxins. Depending on your dog’s dietary tendencies (and digestive tract), stone fruit trees (apricots, plums) can provide raw material for obstruction by indigestible pits.

I’ve lately noticed that my dog has more fun digging in her garden than I do in mine. Of course, she keeps finding those bones I’ve buried for her. Perhaps when the carrots are ready to pull, we’ll be on even terms. Maybe I’ll even share one with her.
 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 15: Summer 2001

Jack Aldridge, DVM, is on staff at the San Francisco SPCA.

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