September 28, 2021

Enroth: Dealing with dog-damaged lawns

As our 2020 quarantine puppies have grown into adult dogs, our lawns might be seeing more wear and tear in 2021. The question of dog-damaged lawns is a popular topic this spring. Let’s start by examining why and how 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 — that is, a tether, physical fence and so forth — and you leave your pet outside for extended periods then your lawn is seeing a lot of four-legged traffic. 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 No. 1 issue when it comes to lawns and dogs. Dog urine is very high in nitrogen. While nitrogen is your lawn’s 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.

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

Train your dog where to do its business. This follows a basic reward training system. Take your dog out on a leash to a designated spot in your backyard to do its business. Reward with a treat. This is a training exercise so it requires persistence.

Create a non-turf area where your dog’s urine will not damage any plantings. This could be a wood mulched area with no other plantings.

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.

Dilute spots where your dog urinates. This means having a watering can on-hand and following your dog around watering where it urinated. Female dogs usually create more lawn damage as they do not lift their leg like male dogs tend to do.

Rotation. Just as a rancher rotates 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.

Supply your pet with plenty of water. A dehydrated pup’s urine has a higher concentration of nitrogen; therefore, let your dog drink water as it needs it.

Take care of your lawn correctly. We call these cultural practices and they include maintenance items like mowing. Cool-season lawns should be mowed often and no shorter than 2 inches and they should be cut, not shredded, so sharpen your mower blade at least once a year.

If you have a dog, you should have a leash — use it. Take your dog for a daily walk. Plus walking with your dog is great exercise and a wonderful bonding experience.

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.

Chris Enroth is a University of Illinois Extension educator.