Fido Goes Green

A dog-friendly yard allows you to reduce your best friend’s carbon pawprint.

By Kristen Stewart

June 2011

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You go organic, buy local and bring your own shopping bags. But is your dog included in your eco-conscious efforts?

It’s easier than ever to lessen your favorite canine’s ecological impact in his backyard kingdom. Linda Dupie, mother of two and owner of an eco-daycare and camp for children in Fredericksburg, Virginia, knows this firsthand. “The more I read about ways to cut my carbon footprint, the more I thought about how I could cut the footprint of my pets,” says Dupie, 41. Now her family has implemented changes ranging from how they care for their yard to the types of toys they give their pets.

In doing so the Dupies are keeping hazards out of the local ecosystem. But more than that, they have the peace of mind that comes with a reduced risk of exposure to toxic chemicals and accidental poisonings.

Regard Your Yard

Plant selection can go a long way toward discouraging weeds and pests—and keeping Fido happy. “Planting a native kind of grass is the best way to control weeds, instead of using a delicate grass that the weeds are going to try to take advantage of,” says Eve Adamson, author of Pets Gone Green (BowTie Press). Planting insect-repelling flowers such as marigolds and amaranth, and herbs such as mint, can help. Adamson says the right vegetation—especially native plants—can also encourage local wildlife to visit, which helps pets de-stress and get back in touch with their natural instincts.

Admittedly, planting species adapted to your area may only go so far in keeping out pests. But, before reaching for chemicals at the local garden store, consider the alternatives. “For every problem there’s a solution in a bottle and that extends into so much of our life outdoors with our dogs and in our gardens,” says Tom Barthel, author of Dogscaping (BowTie Press). “Let’s use good common sense and discover some wisdom that maybe our grandparents used to use before these chemicals were around. Those things work just as well.”

For example, Barthel suggests fighting lawn weeds by spreading corn meal gluten before they emerge. He recommends using ground cayenne and/or red pepper flakes on or around plants to discourage animals from chewing, while hot sauce sprinkled on leaves helps keep deer away.

Products with neem or citrus oils can curb pests, as can soapy water (use a vegetable-based soap).

To control fleas, Adamson recommends cutting grass short and sprinkling diatomaceous earth around the yard, especially in shady areas and under bushes and low trees. Spraying with a freeze-dried reconstituted nematode product (available through veterinarians) may help; the nematodes eat flea larvae.

As for fertilizer, Adamson says to forget the chemicals and go natural. Use bagged manure and other healthful soil amendments—or better yet, rich humus from your compost heap. Aeration can also help you maintain a healthy lawn.

Doggie Waste Disposal

Instead of grabbing a plastic bag when heading out on a walk, you can try biodegradable bags. Most are made either with a cornstarch base or with corn and corn byproducts (some have a corn logo on the package).

Your compost heap may seem like a reasonable dog-waste disposal option. However, Barthel says you should never put poop in compost that will be spread on lawns or plants; because dogs eat meat, their feces may carry parasites that can infect humans if transferred to the soil.

Instead, Barthel suggests installing a special dog waste digester away from commonly used parts of the yard. Drill holes in the bottom of a small trash can, dig a hole and bury the can. Load it up with dog waste, sprinkle some composting enzymes (and kitty litter or pulverized lime if odor is a problem) and let it drain into the soil without harming people or the environment.

Take the same eco-smart approach to Fido’s personal items. When building a doghouse, look for wood that is sustainably harvested and not chemically treated. You can even add a green roof with living plant material; Barthel notes that it makes for great insulation and adds oxygen to the environment. For bedding, Adamson suggests using old pillows or couch cushions (covered in weatherproof fabric) to keep these items out of the landfill. Straw and sawdust are other bedding options.

For playtime, tear an old item of clothing into strips and tie knots in it for a tug toy or sew stuffing inside old jeans and make a dog pillow. Just be careful if the cloth contains dyes and the dog is a chewer, as he or she could be exposed to harmful chemicals.

Helping reduce our—and our pets’—impact on the planet is a worthwhile goal, but don’t forget the simple pleasure of your pal’s company. “Being eco-friendly for many people can be more of an intellectual pursuit,” says Adamson. “There’s no better way to bring that lesson home than to go outside with your dog and let him show you what it means to be part of the natural world.”

Slimming Down an Overweight Dog

Here’s one way to put a dog-friendly yard to good use: Getting Fido to fight the flab through increased exercise. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (www.petobesityprevention.com), more than 55% of all dogs in the US are overweight or obese. As in humans, excess weight in dogs is associated with a variety of disorders including diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, joint and ligament damage, and certain types of cancer. The association also reports that being overweight can shave up to 2 ½ years off a dog’s life expectancy.

Another thing dogs share with their people is a lack of activity, which enhances more than just physical well-being. “We often think of exercise only as a health issue, but it has significant day-to-day effects on a dog’s behavior as well,” say the editors of www.dogtime.com. “If you’re annoyed at the holes your dog has dug, have headaches from his barking and have to replace pillows shredded into expensive fluff, your dog’s probably not getting enough exercise.”

A number of factors determine how much exercise your dog needs. Breed plays a role, as do age and health; a young Irish Setter will need more playtime than an elderly Pekingese, for example.

Breeds with high activity requirements include many of the sporting dogs, such as spaniels and setters. But the individual dog’s temperament is also important—a nervous, high-strung animal needs more exercise than an easygoing one. Your veterinarian can help you determine how much activity your dog needs, especially if your pal has been spent many years as a couch potato or has a pre-existing health condition.

If your dog has been completely sedentary, start with a walk around the block; monitor his or her breathing, especially in hot weather or if the animal is already overweight. An obedience class or a regular daily obedience routine at home will give your dog both physical and mental stimulation.
For younger and/or more active dogs, aim for 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise a day. (“Live by the philosophy that a tired dog is a good dog,” advise the Dogtime editors.) If your animal is the social type, a dog run at a local park or a doggie daycare facility will provide both exercise and companionship.
Remember, however, that your dog’s best friend is you—and playtime with you is the best time of all. “Set aside a block of ‘Wheeee!’ time with your pet every day for the sheer health of it!” says Andi Brown, director of a pet care company and author of The Whole Pet Diet (Celestial Arts), who recommends scheduling a 10-minute play session each day to start. And don’t limit yourselves to the yard, either; Brown suggests visiting a nearby beach or lake, or going for a run in the woods.

“Committing to a daily play date and making it fun for both of you is nurturing and nourishing,” says Brown. If your dog could talk, he or she would wholeheartedly agree.

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