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Dogs & Lawns

Yes, pooches and grass can peacefully coexist!

Q. Mike: I moved into a new house last Thanksgiving. We ran out of time to have the back sodded, my dog had to 'use' the front, and now I have several spots that look burned and dead. Is there anything I can do or should I just reseed?  Thanks.

    ---Buddy in Fredericksburg Virginia

Mike: Is there a product that will protect my lawn from dog urine damage? I have a Great Dane and a half Dane, half Shepherd. Thank You.

    ---Susan in Greensburg, Pa. (30miles SW of Pittsburgh) 

Mike: Our VERY active poodle loves being outside—barking at cars and chasing squirrels—and has torn up all the grass. We have a lot of mature trees in our yard; they cool our house wonderfully in the summer, but make it really hard to grow much grass to begin with. Is there a lawn we can plant here that can stand up to Rocky the poodle? If the neighborhood didn't have rules against it, I would gravel it allover!  Thank you.

    ---Kate in North Wilmington,Delaware

Hello Mike! My puppy digs in my gardens. Is there a product to deter her digging without hurting her or the garden? Thank You.

    ---Debra in West Islip (LongIsland), NY

A. We always get LOTS of doggie questions—but I've always avoided them, fearing that there weren't many good answers. But now, thanks to a turf grass expert and an animal behavior specialist, we can (finally!) offer some help.

Iowa State University Professor—and YBYG's resident turf grass expert supreme—Nick Christians says that urine spots in lawns come in two forms. If the affected grass turns a deeper green than the rest, the lawn is underfed; the urine is providing the Nitrogen it craves—feed the entire lawn and the colors will even out.

Dead brown spots occur when dogs pee in the same place over and over and the Nitrogen in their urine burns the grass—just like overfeeding with a chemical lawn fertilizer. Nick says that if you water the spot immediately after the dog pees, it will dilute the Nitrogen and prevent burning. It also helps to keep the dogs moving around, he adds; use portable fencing or something similar to make sure they can't keep attacking the same spot.

Recovery? If the grass is a spreading type like Kentucky blue, any dead spots should fill back in naturally before too long, he explains. If it's a clumping grass—the kinds most often used in shady spots—it needs to be reseeded. Be very careful reseeding sod; make sure you get a grass that matches up well.

Dr. Ilana Reisner, Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine (, adds that 'grass burning' problems are going to be worst when the dogs haven't urinated for a number of hours—like first thing in the morning and when their owners return home from work—because this concentrate durine is very Nitrogen rich. Both male and female dogs will often squat in one spot to pee at such times, she explains, which further concentrates the—eh, 'deluge of Nitrogen', shall we say…

The best solution is to take the dog out for a walk at these times; it doesn't need to be a long one, she notes—when they're that full, they'll pee as soon as you let them. Or provide your dog with a dedicated spot somewhere out of sight in your landscape and train them to understand that that's where they should go. Use the same verbal cue very time, like "let's go pee," let the dog see and sniff a treat (dog owners should have treats in their pockets at all times, she wisely notes), lead them to the spot and give them the treat right after they pee.

If you need to, you can later modify this to the dog running out alone when asked to and coming back for the treat. But Dr. Reisner warns that it is very important that the treat be given "on location" while the dog is being trained. Later on, you can work up to the dog running back for their reward, but don't drop out of the picture entirely—an energetic "good dog!" should be called out while they are urinating.

She warns against an oddball tactic that's apparently making the rounds of using different foods to try and change the pH of that pee. "Urine has a fairly neutral pH in healthy animals", she explains, "and making it too acidic or alkaline could cause bladder stones or other problems." And both she and Nick agree that it's the Nitrogen content and not the pH that damages grass. So don't withhold water from your pets—its really bad for them in general and just further concentrates that nitrogen. Instead, give your dog extra water; it may dilute their urine enough that it doesn't damage grass. Add water to their dry food or some wet food to their dry food; maybe even add a touch of salt sot he'll drink more.

Ripped up turf? Nick says that in the North, the grass that can best take excessive 'paw traffic' is tall fescue; it does well in sun and shade, and is so tough, they use it at the University for overflow parking fields! Sow it thickly, reseed bare spots every year, don't over-fertilize—and, of course, keep dogs off until it gets established. Down South, the choice is Bermuda grass(St. Augustine in the Florida and Gulf Coast area).

And pay special attention to lawns that dogs run on a lot—mow high, fertilize as recommended, and keep it on the dry side. When you must water, provide a week's worth in one long soaking. And if none of this works, Nick suggests you admit defeat and replace the grass with a nice ground cover like English ivy, which dogs don't seem to damage as easily.

Dr. Reisner adds that if the dogs are mostly 'fence runners' (a very common behavior, she notes), consider replacing the area right next to the fence with smooth stone, gravel or sand. And she warns that if you have more than one dog, they're going to chase and play with each other no matter what—so if you want dogs and a lawn, get small dogs. Breeds that weigh less than 40 pounds are much more compatible with turf, she notes.

Digging? All dogs will dig in the summer, she explains, to create a nice cool spot to lie down in—so choose such an area for them; pick a shady place away from your plantings and till up the soil there to get them started. "Dogs love loose dirt," she notes; "they love the different smells in it; soft, freshly-worked soil is very enticing to them."  Or give them a sandbox to dig in; "they seem to enjoy sand even more", she explains; "it provides great play for them". Either way, hide some toys or treats in there, praise them when they go there to dig and they should leave your other areas alone. If they don't, simply fence off your nicest spots.


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