As a gardener for wildlife, I am trying to develop a naturalized, plant-filled habitat offering shelter and nutrients for birds, butterflies and bees – and a haven for lizards, turtles, small mammals and so on that live in our yard. I try never to use chemicals in the garden and to keep clean sources of water available.
But as I’ve learned from my own and others’ experiences in the gardening world, the introduction of a domestic animal can quickly create chaos in the carefully balanced environment.
My dog Baxter, a fluffy mixed-breed from the Wake County Animal Center, was newly adopted when I started getting serious about wildlife gardening in early 2014. At the time, the 6-month-old pup in the backyard didn’t arise as a particular concern. And, as it turned out, Baxter is more interested in lying on the deck and occasionally dashing after a squirrel than digging into my flower beds. So far, he hasn’t caused any soul-crushing plant disasters – although I did find a Nyla bone hidden in a potted plant recently, so there may be more to come on this story.
Digging is pretty much the No. 1 problem that pet owners complain about when it comes to the garden. And it’s a perfectly natural activity – most of the time – according to dog behaviorists.
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Some dogs, especially terriers, dig to uncover small mice or voles living below the dirt’s surface, and then it’s on with the chase. Others are trying to pull a Houdini, digging out from under their pen or fence for the great escape.
However, most dogs dig just for the fun of it. It helps relieve boredom and repeats a behavior that was once a key to survival: Wild dogs that could quickly bury their spoils and come back to get them later wound up with more to eat.
Redirect digging dogs
Dog trainer Frank Verni, who helps dog owners with behavioral problems in southeast Wake County, says digging is as much a mental activity for some dogs as it is a physical exercise.
“Digging often stems from boredom – just like a bored kid is going to find something to do,” said Verni, a member of the Association of Canine Professionals. “Owners need to mentally, as well as physically, work their dogs before leaving for the office each day.”
Verni acknowledges that even the most stimulated pup still may still dig if he smells something that interests him. That may be tree roots or bugs – or it may be the freshly turned dirt in your wildlife garden.
Rather than punishing your dog, Verni says to redirect him to another activity that is reinforcing.
“People seem to expect their dog to know the ‘come’ command or what they should and shouldn’t do, but they really don’t know until they are taught,” he adds. “Dogs live in the moment, so if you don’t catch them in the act, bite your tongue and clean it up. Although you can express displeasure at the damage that was done – ‘Another hole in my garden!’ The dog might eventually make the connection.”
If you do catch your dog in the act of digging or tearing up plants, the loud blast of an air horn or a startling noise from a shake can (Verni uses a pineapple juice can filled with a few pennies) can create a negative association that will discourage the behavior.
As far as redirecting their behavior, many dog owners swear by the digging box. You can set aside an area for digging, and then add sand and a few buried surprises. With some positive encouragement, your dog will eventually adopt the box as her preferred digging location. Details on how to build and fill a digging box – and a cute gardener’s story about her dirt-loving pet – are here: nando.com/petprojectdig.
But, of course, digging is not the only issue that may arise with pets in the garden.
Like wildlife, pets can be injured by coming into contact with chemical pesticides and some fertilizers. A guide to more detailed information is at nando.com/petpoisonplants.
Even some common plants, including daffodil bulbs and azalea leaves, can cause vomiting and diarrhea in dogs.
Kim Winter, a National Wildlife Foundation habitat programs manager, admits that it can be tricky, even for a wildlife expert, to create a beautiful garden while keeping dogs happy on the same property. Her strategy has been to put more delicate plants in the front of her home, while her three dogs spend most of their time out back. Other wildlife gardeners emphasize the need for sturdy plants and shrubs that provide shelter and food, such as berries, but are more likely to withstand a dog encounter.
Some backyard gardeners recommend raised beds as a means of protecting plants from destructive pets.
PETAPrime blogger Elizabeth Bublitz is a gardener and a dog lover. She says because dogs like to patrol the perimeter of their property, it is best to avoid planting shrubs along the fence line. A path lined with pavers will also signal where dogs are invited to run.
One of her favorite strategies involves placing cobblestones around delicate plants. Because they are hard to walk on, they tend to keep pets away.
While my dog Baxter might not have been top-of-mind when I planned my wildlife garden, it’s good to know there are creative strategies to deal with any future behaviors that might pop up.