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Good Growing

Dog Gone Lawn

yellow lab

It never fails. Every time I present a topic on lawns this question arises, “How do you prevent lawn damage if you have dogs?” Turns out, I really enjoy this question! Being a dog owner to two yellow labs for almost nine years, I have had my fair share of ragged lawns and muddy paw prints. Let’s start by examining the why and how in which our lovable pooches are so efficient at destroying our turf.

First is the traffic. If you have some type of barrier that keeps your dog confined (i.e. a tether, underground electric fence, physical fence, etc.) and you leave your pet outside for extended periods of time then your lawn is seeing a lot of four-legged traffic.  A typical suburban backyard is no substitute to what your dog’s range would be in the wild. Very often backyard dogs will wear down paths in the lawn from circling or pacing. Not only is this hard on the lawn itself but it also leads to compacted soils, making reestablishing turf in these locations even more difficult.

And then you have the number one issue when it comes to lawns and dogs. Dog urine is very high in nitrogen. While nitrogen is your lawns favorite nutrient, what your dog delivers is much too high and ‘burns’ the turf, much like an over-application of lawn fertilizer ‘burns’ the lawn. Often dead spots in turf caused by dog urine are bordered by dark green, healthy grass. This is because these periphery grasses don’t get hit by the high nitrogen but enjoy a good boost as it leaches over in the soil.

And of course when a dog defecates on the lawn it suffocates the grass beneath it, leaving yet another dead spot of turf which favors weed development.

So what is a dog owner to do? Here are my suggestions I often give based upon sound turf practices and experience with my own dogs and lawn.

  1. Train your dog where to do their business. This follows a basic reward training system. Take your dog out on a leash to a designated spot in your backyard to do their business. Reward with a treat when they go. This is a training exercise of conditioning their mind so it requires persistence. I can honestly say this technique worked for one of my dogs but not the other. Something about old dogs and new tricks; dog owners know what I mean. As an aside I inadvertently trained my dog to go on verbal command. What was my command? “Hurry up!”


  1. Create a non-turf area where your dog’s urine will not damage any plantings. I was able to train one of my dogs to go in an area of my backyard which I purposely covered in wood mulch.  There are no other plantings in this area that might become a target of a lifted hind leg. Though placing some type of vertical element like a wood post or bird bath pedestal can aid in encouraging male dogs to mark their territory on those items rather than your prized rose.


This season I discovered my oldest dog (which I could not train to go in a designated spot) prefers a bed of shredded fall leaves.  Perhaps this simulates a forested floor or allows him to cover his business, I honestly don’t know, but 90% of the time this is where he now goes.


  1. Clean up their mess. Use baggies to remove dog wastes or a rake to break up piles of excrement. Since I have small children I prefer to remove the feces using baggies and put them in the trash. NOTE: Canine wastes (or feline for that matter) should NOT be added to compost piles or used as any type of soil amendment.


  1. Dilute spots where your dog urinates. Yes, this means having a watering can on-hand and following your dog around and watering where they voided their bladder. It does work to reduce the burning of vegetation, but you will still get darker green patches in these areas from the extra nitrogen.


  1. Rotation. Just as a rancher rotates their livestock to different pastures to allow the grazed plant material to recover, so to can you rotate your pet around your yard to allow for lawn recovery. While this doesn’t necessarily prevent damage it does help keep portions of your lawn healthy and available for kids to play. I also use this technique in my own backyard. Using a 20-foot lead, I set the anchor in different locations over the course of the year when I feel one area needs some recovery.


To rehabilitate portions of damaged lawn simply rake out the dead grass and open up the soil for overseeding. Slit-seeders work great for large areas and are available from most equipment rental facilities. Overseed with a variety that matches your existing turf and water lightly each day until you see germination. After germination, shift to watering less frequently but for longer periods of time. Over a period of a week or two, transition to a normal lawn irrigation schedule which is about an inch of water applied once a week. Obviously, don’t water if natural rainfall provides it for you.


  1. Supply your pet with plenty of water. Dehydrated pups urine has a higher concentration of nitrogen, therefore, let your dog drink water as they need it. There are supplements that make dogs drink more water, with the promise this will help dilute their urine. While this is true, it also means more frequent trips outside for your pet to urinate and creates a good potential for indoor accidents. Consult your veterinarian before using these products.


  1. Take care of your lawn correctly. We call these cultural practices and they include maintenance items like mowing, fertilizing, and so on.  Cool season lawns should be mowed no shorter than two-inches and they should be cut, not shredded, so sharpen your mower blade at least once a year. Overseeding, fertilizing and hollow-core aeration is best performed in the late summer to early fall for cool season grasses. Check out our website LawnTalk for more great cultural practices.


  1. If you have a dog, you should have a leash. Use it! Take your dog for a daily walk. Be a good neighbor and make sure to pick appropriate spots for your dog to eliminate. Don’t just transfer your lawn problems to someone else. Plus walking with your dog is great exercise and a wonderful bonding experience.


  1. Spay or neuter your pets. This is a general good practice for a lot of reasons. As far as lawn damage goes, a dog that has not been spayed or neutered may attract additional dogs to your yard.

Most of these are simply suggestions as there is no magic bullet when it comes to our four-legged friends and damaged lawns- save not having a dog.