Dog Training for the Garden

Dog in HABITURF lawn photo by Guy Thompson

by Janice Patton

Designing Your Garden
Having a garden that you can share and enjoy with your dog is a wonderful experience.    And all can be smooth sailing if you consider your dog’s garden wish list.   Here are some ways to include your dog.

  • High tolerant grassy area for romping or playing fetch
  • Place to lie in the shade
  • Place to cool off, i.e. a bubbler spot, a kiddy pool or a shallow pond
  • Place to relax or enjoy a favorite bone
  • Place to lie in the sun
  • Squirrel observation tree (with squirrels safely out of reach)
  • Places of height for your dog to explore
  • Area to dig (Could be a trendy raked Zen garden if you’d like to share)
  • Doggie greens garden
  • Something tall to pee on
  • Paths directly to favorite areas
  • Water bowl by outdoor faucet

If your dog already has favorite places, it may be easier to incorporate them into your garden design than to try to change her preferences.    Training your dog to alter her course will take time and it is often more efficient to landscape around a worn path.   Provide paths of crushed granite, heavy gravel, pavers or stepping stones that go directly to your dog’s favorite places.    If it is not practical for your dog to spend time in your main garden, create a fenced-in special garden that you both can share.
Have clear boundaries.  Raised beds work well and discourage path of least resistance mistakes.  Four foot wide raised beds are recommended for vegetable gardens.  To provide a path for your dog, leave a 3 foot space between the raised beds.  Container gardens also work well for dogs.

Keep the compost area completely out of your dog’s access and protect delicate plants with a temporary wire fence until your dog naturally avoids that area.   Choose bigger specimens of hearty plants for areas that your dog likes to visit.   Dog hardy plants include Sedges, Russian Sage, Verbena, Coneflower, Black-eyed Susans, Shasta Daisy, Liriope, Mexican Primrose, Mexican Petunia, Butterfly Bush, Quince.  You can also use ground covers like Cotoneaster, Sweet Woodruff or Periwinkle.  Avoid having bare soil between plants by using mulch or a ground cover.  When mulching, consider a finer shredded variety.
Dogs like to explore perimeters and you may want to leave a gap between fence and garden.   Privacy fences are preferable for dogs because it blocks their view to outside the fence which helps keep them calmer. You can also use vining plants on your chainlink fence to provide a visual barrier.  It is not a good idea to let your dog run or chase at your fence line.  Chasing and/or barking increases your dog’s arousal levels and can lead to problems with dog reactivity or aggression.   If your dog routinely chases or barks at the fence, get professional help.

Working Outside with Your Dog
Plan your time together and be aware of the behaviors you are modeling for your dog.  Planting in dirt will look a lot like digging to your dog.  If you have a younger dog or a breed that is prone to digging like a terrier, it might be a wiser choice for him to spend a little time inside that morning.  If you don’t mind extra dog baths and would like some assistance, you can teach your dog to “mix” soil, bark and compost.

Come up with ways your dog can participate.  Dogs who like to fetch can bring your gloves, a bottle of water or small garden tools.  Bigger dogs can carry larger items in a backpack or you can train your dog to pull a cart with a specially designed dog harness.
If you garden organically, you can create a scavenger hunt for your dog by hiding healthy dog treats in areas that you are comfortable having your dog explore.  Avoid areas with delicate plants and be sure to provide plenty of acceptable chew items for your dog to find and enjoy.


Long nails can change how your dog walks, cause joint problems and are basically tools without a purpose.   Plan to dremel or clip your dog’s nails weekly.  Many dogs will prefer alternative paw activities if you spend a little time teaching a few tricks like shake, high five, wave or paws up.    But if you leave your dog outside alone in the garden without a plan or activity, expect him to do some gardening on his own.
Dogs dig to release interesting smells from the earth, provide escape from boredom, carve out a cool place on a hot day or create haven from wind when it is cold.  Some breeds were created specifically to dig and go after prey animals that live in the ground.   Terriers often dig for prey, Nordic breeds for entertainment and hounds dig shallow holes in the shade for comfort.

Exercise can keep your dog entertained and physically tire him out, which helps keep him from digging.     Walks can provide mental exercise as dogs safely explore the world but dogs generally need a quicker pace than humans do to provide physical exercise.  Not all vigorous exercise is healthy for your dog so check with your vet before starting an exercise plan.  Consider jogging or using a specially designed bicycle leash to bike with your adult dog.  Play with appropriate dog playmates can be a great way to exercise your dog, but choose your dog’s playmates carefully. Dog parks are another popular outlet but as you have no control over the other dogs, many dogs develop behavior problems there.  Getting a second dog is not the best option for all dogs and it can lead to increased canine behavior challenges.
For some dogs, especially breeds like terriers that were bred to dig, you may want to come up with an acceptable digging spot or design a doggie digging pit.  Choose a shady area, clearly define its borders and add in a generous mix of soil and sand.  Sand retains heat and is less attractive to your dog, so be sure the area is not reminiscent of a beach.    Hide goodies for your dog and help her find them the first couple of times.

If your dog digs in an undesirable area, clap your hands.  Clapping will interrupt your dog’s behavior and you can redirect to a more appropriate activity.  If your dog digs mostly in one spot, fill in the hole and cover with a paver and a heavy planter.  Alternatively, you can put your dog’s feces or gravel in the hole to discourage digging.  Stones around plants not only discourage weeds, but also discourage digging.  If digging is already a habit, get the help of a canine behavior expert.
If digging is a recent occurrence in an adult dog, look for other behavior changes and any recent stressors.  Any sudden behavior change may have a physical cause so it is good to consult your vet to rule that out.  Behavioral changes also happen as a result of changes in your lifestyle or environment such as increased stress around holidays, chronic illness in family or recent additions to the family.  Digging could also be a result of something less obvious like someone taunting your dog through the fence.

Bathroom Spots
Praise your dog for toileting in a preferred potty area.  If he is using an area that you’d prefer he didn’t, calmly remind him “not there” and go with him to a more acceptable spot.   It is simple to teach a preferred potty area.
If your dog paws the ground like a miniature bull he is scent marking.  It will work best if you have a designated potty area that you don’t mind him scuffing up.  A hearty choice of ground cover is also advisable.   For dogs who like to mark their area by peeing, have a tall post or a tall decorative planter specifically for this purpose.

Dog urine is high in nitrogen and left undiluted will burn your lawn and damage your ornamentals.  If you water down your dog’s elimination spot within 8 hours, the nitrogen will make your lawn greener.  Pick up solid waste promptly and put in the garbage, not the compost.   Alternately, you can teach your dog to eliminate on rocks or mulch.  This is very simple to teach a puppy.  Because dogs develop substrate preference, it can be a time-intensive undertaking to train an adult dog to use alternative surfaces for elimination.

Garden Dangers

Plants that can be irresistible to dogs include the bat face plant and Valerian so if you want these plants to live, don’t put them in your back garden. Valerian is the canine equivalent of catnip, but dogs prefer the ROOTS!  Avoid plants with stickers or trim sharp points.  It may be best if you not allow your dog to eat seeds of any fruits as they can contain cyanide.
One of the most dangerous plants in our area is the Sago Palm.   The entire plant is toxic including the root ball.  The seeds are the most toxic.  Cycasin, a chemical in the plant, causes permanent liver damage as well as neurological damage.  An estimated 75% of animals ingesting this plant will die in spite of aggressive medical treatment.  You can find other plants that are harmful to your dog at ASPCA or ANSCI .

High on the list of things to avoid in the garden is cocoa mulch and dyed mulches, both of which contain substances that it’s not safe for your dog to ingest.  Dogs also tend to be interested in bone meal, blood meal and fish emulsion.  Alfalfa based fertilizers seem to be the canine equivalent of crack cocaine.  It is best to keep dogs (and children) away from recently fertilized areas for at least 24 hours.  For dogs who have a propensity for excavation, I would wait about 72 hours before your dog spends any time exploring the new work.    Chewing sticks or swallowing pieces of a garden hose can cause intestinal obstruction requiring immediate medical attention.  Be sure your dog has his own safe chew items and toys.

The single biggest factor in having a happy dog in your garden is training of the dog.  This is especially true of young dogs.  But with a little time and energy, your entire family will enjoy your garden.

Article Type: How To