The Dog-Friendly Garden

Meet Dandelion, Kat’s new puppy

Meet Dandelion – hopefully, with training and planning for a safe, compatible outdoor space, not to be Dandelion the Destroyer, but our family’s new furry garden companion.  We decided to become a dog family earlier this summer, and I have immersed myself in puppy training information in anticipation of her arrival, with a dedication and drive for detail I ordinarily reserve for horticultural education.  After my blitz of puppy boot camp, here are my top tips for a canine-friendly garden area, which were immediately put to the test when we introduced our small puppy to our back garden and yard:

Re-home toxic plants:  I spent the weekend before Dandy came to join us digging up my Actaea racemosa “Brunette”, or black cohosh/baneberry – it now has pride of place in the front yard, where she will only be visiting when on-leash.  I also moved two clumps of Asclepias incarnata “Ice Ballet” that were featured on their own at the foot of the garden arch, because I knew the low hanging leaves and stems would be too tempting.  I kept other milkweed placed in the centre of my densely planted pollinator garden, but will reevaluate next year when the emerging plants appear if they then appear more accessible/interesting to Dandelion.

The American Kennel Club has a comprehensive list of outdoor plants and shrubs that are poisonous for dogs (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/protect-your-pooch-from-poisonous-plants/ and https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/dogs-plant-list).  Closer to home, the Ontario SPCA has information on this as well: https://ontariospca.ca/blog/poisonous-plants-flowers/

Common landscaping plants such as hydrangeas, rhododendrons and holly contain toxic substances in their leaves (and flowers in the case of hydrangeas). Yew berries and foliage can cause severe problems, including death.  Annual geraniums (the pelargonium variety) are poisonous for dogs in all of their varieties. Sweet peas are decisively not so sweet for canine friends.  Buttercups, morning glories, larkspur and foxgloves are toxic as well.

Fruit and nut trees can also pose a hazard when the fruit is dropped, and the pits or nuts imbued with poisonous compounds are ingested by a dog sniffing the ground below.  Black walnuts are common trees that pose this risk.  Acorns can be toxic as well, causing all sorts of digestive issues, but can also pose blockage risks to small dogs.

Spring bulbs can be dangerous in plant or bulb form; garden mainstays such as daffodils or tulips can cause severe symptoms.

If the invasive nature of lily of the valley wasn’t enough reason to pull it out, it is another plant that  can cause digestive and cardiac problems in your dog.

Post-legalization, cannabis plants have found their way into many more home gardens – both the Ontario SPCA and the American SPCA list Cannabis sativa or marijuana as a plant poisonous to dogs.  This is a more serious problem if a dog eats cannabis in a form made for human ingestion, but a number of sources I consulted report possible symptoms from the live marijuana plant as well.

This is by no means a complete list of hazardous plants, and I have noticed that many compendium-type resources do not include local wildflowers that on further research prove toxic to dogs, such as Jack in the Pulpit, bloodroot, mayapple, and skunk cabbage.  With increased interest in native plant gardening, more resources on this for home gardeners would be beneficial.  Paying attention to common names can be helpful – it’s safe to say that avoiding death camas, deadly nightshade, and dogbane (which grows wild in our local black oak savannas) is a smart move.

There are also helpful lists of dog-friendly plants, especially at the ASPCA site (https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/dogs-plant-list), which includes garden regulars such as daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), nasturtiums, sage, and zinnias, along with many, many others.

Secure fencing and other barriers: Where we live, few houses have fences and people rely on invisible fencing to contain their pets.  Our new  house did come with a fenced backyard, and we inspected the perimeter for loose boards and signs of daylight underneath the fencing.  A section of black metal fencing with bars proved too widely spaced for Dandelion when she spotted me on the other side and slithered through – fortunately, her backyard trips are fully supervised and she didn’t have a chance to get anywhere.  That particular problem will resolve itself soon as she grows to her larger size, but by then I will need to keep an eye on exit routes up the compost heap and over the fence in the back corner.

Address pet waste: My usual preference of being barefoot in the grass has taken a bit of a turn, as parts of our outside space will be Dandy’s bathroom area.  The Northumberland County waste wizard says that animal waste goes out in the garbage, and we have been doing plenty of stooping and scooping since our puppy came home.  We even located affordable compostable dog waste bags at Warkworth’s Zero Waste Store, to avoid adding plastic waste to that particular garbage output.  I am also looking into the addition of a pet waste digester in a quiet corner of the yard, which is buried in the ground and uses compost and septic tank principles to process up to 5 or 6 kilograms of pet waste and organic kitchen waste including meat per week: https://quinterecycling.org/pet-waste-digester/  Due to the pathogens associated with pet waste, the resulting “compost” should not be incorporated in your garden.

Create space for your dog to be a dog: As part of my puppy boot camp reading, I read every page of Cesar Millan’s How to Raise the Perfect Dog: Through Puppyhood and Beyond, and was really interested in how he articulated that many unwelcome dog behaviours, like digging up the garden, are expressions of innate traits that can be redirected productively by giving dogs work to do which is then rewarded.  He explained how he made a designated digging area, with tunnels and holes where he hid treats and rewards, and trained his puppies to devote their instinctual digging to that spot alone.  In her first few days our puppy’s interest in a bare patch of veggie garden was obvious, but she was also intrigued by a spot in the lawn under the cedar trees where I had dug out a spiky thistle in my hazard removal sweep.  We encouraged digging in the latter spot, not the veggie garden, and she delighted in what she found below ground when she came across a cedar root.  The “stick” that wouldn’t come out has kept her busier than any of her toys so far.  In the fall, I have plans to set up a puppy obstacle course in that same section of the yard, to give her places to climb, crawl, tunnel and race, out of the way of the family’s usual yard traffic and a decent distance away from any proper garden planting.  Until then, we make sure every backyard adventure includes toys for distraction if she gets excited about the plants.

Give your puppy a place to dig.

Tops tips from the field/yard: I have a big community of fellow gardeners on Instagram, and I asked them for their top tips on puppy-proofing a garden and raising a happy dog in a backyard.  A lot of the advice concerned pet waste, both in avoiding lawn destruction (@susiwar33 recommended Dog Rocks to avoid urine burn patches) and @frenchglue pointed out that clover lawns don’t get scorched by dog urine.  Also recommended was keeping the waste all in one spot by constructing a gravel bed where the dogs were trained to eliminate every time (thank you @aquilegia7!).  @hare_cottage_garden leaves rainwater bowls throughout the garden to double as wildlife water sources and ad hoc dog bowls.  @jackykip trained her dogs not to walk on the flower beds at all, and @frenchglue wisely pointed out that it was best to garden with your dog, accepting they may “nap in the hostas, dig, knock you over when you are gardening to essentially love you.”  My favourite tip of all came from @anneski5, who lived on a farm with dogs: “don’t let a herd of bullocks trap you and pup!”  Sound life advice, I’d say.

authored by Kat Kinch

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