Urban gardener, Cleve West: Barking mad

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Friends called recently to say they've got a new dog and my delayed enthusiasm may well have surprised them. The reason is that I designed his back garden a year or two ago, (a simple jungly affair), when their last dog was reaching for the Zimmer frame so there was no danger of the garden suffering unduly. Now, with a pointer puppy (Zulu, right), the mini jungle may be under threat and I might even have to take out an oldenader which could poison the pup if it gets over-enthusiastic in its chewing stage.

I know from experience that gardens and pets don't always work well together where space is tight. Dicken, a psychopathic Norwegian Buhund, enjoyed chasing joggers, men on their own and cyclists but he was never happier than when chewing shrubs or digging a hole. His propensity for violence outside his domain meant the garden was also a more convenient place to relieve himself. Needless to say it never flourished while he was alive, so excavations for his grave were extended to create terraced areas of reclaimed York stone and an altogether more respectable space for a garden designer.

When a rescue lurcher then wooed me into submission I worried for the plants, but all was well largely due to the granite raised beds and because lurchers, provided they get to chase a squirrel twice a day, are content to spend most of their time asleep. Turds on the terrace were also easier to spot and collect, although the lurcher would look disdainfully from the stone slabs to the grass roof on our shed before adopting a Ralph Steadman-like animation of a tortured squat to accentuate the indignity.

To actually stop a dog eating plants is a tricky one if you've adopted an older one with this habit. With puppies, however, you have a chance. I'm not an expert on this but I wouldn't even begin to consider using chemicals, pepper or chilli sprays that are meant to keep animals away from plants. First, it might actually harm either the animal or the plant and in most cases it probably won't work anyway. The best way to keep them from destroying the garden is to train them from an early age and establish yourself as the pack leader so that when you say "NO!" you mean it. This can be done with stern words and a tight leash and/or with a harmless but bitter-tasting spray that can be used on the dog when re-inforcing the command, "NO". The spray can also be used on the plants themselves to remind the dog by association that chewing plants is "BAD!". Most people are unwilling to put in the early work to train their pet and, of course, suffer the consequences.

For older dogs contentment is the only way to stop them vandalising your garden. The larger the space, the more content a dog will be, particularly if you can incorporate creature comforts such as grass to lie on, water to drink and a run that won't damage too many plants. For those of us with small gardens this may be difficult, and to scold a dog for being destructive when it's been locked in the house all day is plain unfair. Plenty of exercise will help keep a dog happy, but to give your plants a better chance you'll either need to plant those that can withstand a little abuse or protect them in some way. Raised beds or an uncomfortable gravel surface (for doggy pads to walk on) can act as a deterrent, although a dog will run on, up and through anything to get at the neighbour's cat.

Being without pets for the first time in 25 years we have wondered about getting another lurcher. The smaller ones (crossed with whippets) are better for urban gardens and are generally quieter (we actually had to train ours to bark at the postman), but not having to rush home to walk the dog has also been liberating. Maybe we'll take Chamois Rose-Wood's suggestion on these pages a couple of weeks ago and buy a stick insect. The only trouble with them is that they don't make much noise - unless of course you accidently leave your secateurs somewhere they can see them.