Wednesday May 2, 2012

Is your yard going to the dogs?

Muddy lawns and ankle-twisting craters are just two of the problems that frustrate pet owners each spring. But with some simple design steps, you can reclaim your backyard.

Begin by thinking about your dog's specific behavior and needs. Most dogs will take the shortest route between two points, creating a muddy trail in the yard and along property lines.

Other dogs are canine police, patrolling your yard for possible human or animal intruders. Rushing to the scene of the crime, they tear up grass and anything else in their path.

Owners may try to eliminate the mess by confining pets to a certain area of the yard. If that doesn't seem practical or attractive, "Try putting down prefab pavers or creating a flagstone path in high traffic areas," says Chris Lambton, star of HGTV's "Going Yard."

"A well-designed path will make your yard look more like a garden than a dog park."

A cheaper fix is cedar wood chips or mulch, which runs about $15 per yard. "Wood chips can be delivered and dumped, then easily spread with a rake or shovel," says Lambton. "You can use an inexpensive edging material to keep them in place."

Over time, however, wood chips can break down. They also can stick in a dog's fur or cause splinters in its paws. Worse, some wood chips, such as cocoa mulch, can be toxic if eaten, Lambton cautions.

A better option might be pea stone gravel.

"Gravel is a good solution because it will stay down and not get muddy," says Marty Rogers, a certified master dog trainer from Yorktown, N.Y. "It's so small that most dogs find it unsatisfying to dig or eat. Best of all, it soaks up urine and can be quickly washed down with a hose."

Rogers also recommends certain ground covers for lawn problems. "Pachysandra works really well for getting rid of water in muddy areas," he says. "It stands up to urination and grows like a weed."

You can try putting down bales of hay around the perimeter of your property. Then rake leaves up against the edge of your yard to minimize mud problems.

But what if dog owners still crave a real lawn?

"Try Bermuda Grass, Rye Grass or Kentucky Blue Grass," advises Lambton. "They are hardier varieties, but don't count on having a decent lawn if your dog is running or urinating on it."

Or there's synthetic turf.

"There's no mowing, seeding or weeding," says Mike Lehrer, owner of Home Green Advantage in Armonk, N.Y. "Dogs enjoy a clean, puddle-free environment."

Lehrer has been installing the turf in doggie day care centers and at residential properties for over 15 years, but it's a relatively pricey option, at about $9 to $16 per square foot.

And Lehrer warns against cutting corners by shopping for used turf online or hiring inexperienced contractors.

"You can't install on top of guacamole," he says. "You really need to hire someone who knows what he's doing."

Meanwhile, work with your dog to improve his behavior, says Rogers. Dogs who understand what you want are less likely to tear up your grass or ruin your heirloom roses.

Some of Rogers' suggestions for common dog problems:

Digging: Buy an electronic outdoor containment system. When your dog starts to wander into a "restricted" area, he'll receive a mild correction that will soon teach him to stay away. You might achieve the same goal with a vibrating electronic collar (www.Sitmeanssit.com).

Dog poop: If you want to designate a particular "bathroom spot" in your yard, leash your dog and take him to that same place every time. Create a few words that he will soon associate with that spot, like, "Go potty" or "Do your business." Stay with him until he goes, and then praise him lavishly.

Most important, "enjoy your dog, but remember to mentally and physically exhaust him," says Rogers. "Give him two or three short obedience training sessions every day. A tired dog isn't going to destroy your lawn. All he'll want to do is nap."

You may feel the same way.

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Online:

ASPCA: For lists of plants and shrubs that are toxic for dogs, www.aspca.org

GOING YARD with Chris Lambton. Premieres on HGTV in April

X-Grass for Pets: Home Green Advantage 1-800-788-8889

Marty Rogers, www.rogersdogschool.com