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Sharing Common Ground with your Pets

Practical ideas to ensure pets and flowerbeds happily co-exist.

It’s a beautiful spring day, you’ re on your knees in the flower bed with your favourite garden trowel when you hear the sound of digging and “Ho!” Clods of dirt fly your way! It’s that dog!

If you share garden real estate with an enthusiastic canine, you know the challenge. First, take a deep breath. Dogs, like gardens, imply a philosophy of life: each has something different to teach us.

You may have had the canine family member foisted upon you, or maybe you didn’t know what you were getting into when you welcomed a dog into your home and heart. Dog people who garden agree: the potential for world views to collide is great. But you don’t have to give up one to accommodate the other. The secret is to look for common ground.

A prim formal garden is likely to suffer from canine attentions, but a rambling sort of garden is the ideal to strive for. Creatures in the garden—what could be more natural? I, myself, own a large greyhound (more like a big cat than a dog), and I was skeptical when my son brought him home. In truth, this breed is pretty easy on gardens, so I went further afield to find out how dog people with great gardens manage. Most of them agree that our vision of happy pups gamboling over perfect English lawns with gardeners benignly looking on is largely unrealistic. The other extreme (people who dote on their dogs and have atrocious gardens) usually occurs when the dog takes over.

Such was the case with my friend J.J., who came to me recently for garden advice. J.J., No. 1 Dog Person, turns her dog, Ringo, out into the garden each morning; this is where the problem starts. Ringo, though he has vigorous exercise daily, spends part of each day unsupervised in the yard. There he does what dogs naturally do—he makes himself at home and rearranges the landscape.

Having the run of the garden is an open invitation for a dog to work out. There are several good reasons not to leave a dog unsupervised outside. Dogs are social creatures, and being cooped up in a yard isn’t much better than being locked up in a house. Besides getting up to mischief, dogs left alone in yards can become very territorial, barking to warn off strangers, or from boredom or fear (a nuisance to neighbours and stressful for the dog).

Taking the dog out twice daily for exercise is a must, and it teaches him that the garden is not his private toilet, boudoir or rec room. This, however, isn’t an option for everyone. Lorna, a devoted gardener, is mobility challenged, and her pooch, Seeku, must use the garden for daily constitutionals. Lorna has planted dogwood and lilac around the perimeter of the yard, about one metre (three feet) from the fence, providing camouflage for Seeku and reasonable room for cleanup. The ground beneath is deeply shaded, so not much grows there, making cleanup easy.

Dog experts agree that it’s harder to teach a dog not to do what he does naturally than to do something he doesn’t do naturally. Dogs that are bred to dig out rodents, like terriers, will naturally present more challenges in excavation prevention.  In finding common ground, it’s important to be innovative and to remember that dogs and gardeners look at green space differently: where we look for sunlight, soil type and growing zone, dogs look for cover, snacks and entertainment.

My friend Clint has a large pond that predates the arrival of his Portugese waterdog. To keep the dog out of the pond, Clint fenced off it off, made an attractive pagoda-style gate and hung antique Japanese lanterns from the sturdy fence rails. Betsy and John, who also have a water-loving dog, chose a tiered, well-anchored Victorian fountain for a water feature instead of a pond. It’s generally a good idea to put the bird bath away, as it can make a dog seriously ill if he uses it for a water bowl.

Freshly turned soil is a magnet for dogs. The dog’s urge to den is strong, so look for a spot you’re willing to give up. A spot under willows or a shrub against a fence is an attractive spot for the den lover. If your pooch picks another spot, stick a chair or potted plant there to dissuade her. She’ll get the picture.

My neighbours Judy and Jeff faced the ultimate challenge: teaching a three-month-old border collie to stay out of several acres of perennial and vegetable gardens. Border collies are an exceptionally busy breed, and Judy’s gardens are full of tender succulents, flowers, sculptures and tasty heirloom vegetables. It takes a special kind of inventiveness to foil an inquisitive pup, but Judy is philosophical that puppies, like children, won’t always behave as they do now. Vigilance is key at the beginning of the dog’s tenancy to prevent bad habits from forming.

Pups have a tendency to chew on everything, including the roots of poisonous plants. Keep a handy list of plants to avoid and make sure you remove what you can during the early chewing days.

As a temporary solution to dissuade young Saffy from digging in flower beds, Judy found some antique fencing to cordon off her favourite perennials. By fashioning enclosures of chicken wire over her most delicate plants, she managed to puppy-proof the garden in a morning or two. Another trick is to set bits of 30 cm (12 inch) edging fence very close against the fragile stem of the plant so the dog can’t step on it. This kind of restriction is usually only necessary for the dog’s first season, while she learns the rules.

A temporary fence around the vegetable garden (just some two-by-fours knocked into the ground with wire running around the perimeter) works wonders. A heavy plank between a flower bed and a dogwood shrub allows Saffy access to a cool spot on hot summer days. A few good dog beds are laid out on the outside porch, out of the wind and away from most foot traffic, the preferred lounging spots for Judy and Jeff’s older St. Bernard.

With lots of patience and repetition, young pups and older ones, too, soon learn what areas of the garden are permitted for strolling or not. An important part of this education means that you, the gardener, must spend enough time with the dog so she wants to work with you. Once she has firmly bonded with you, she will want to please you.

The benefits of dogs companionship, such as comfort and humour, far outweigh the detriments to the garden. Finding common ground comes down to providing reasonable alternatives for natural canine behaviour. My dog will gladly take up a more comfortable post—preferably overlooking the garden in the basket chair, for instance—all the better to supervise me doing the heavy digging.

Like accommodating human youngsters by stepping over toys, growing accustomed to a bit of mess while allowing dogs to be dogs and to share our garden is an important lesson in life. It’s good for us to lower our standards a bit, and it teaches us greater tolerance, in general. Gardens inspire us to create from nature; dogs remind us to relax our notions of control. Being more accepting of dogs and other creatures in the garden is one way to harmony, and the world could always use more tolerance and interspecies respect.