Dog-gone Gardeners Present: Wonder Dogs and Training Tips

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If your dog is good, we may help you make it better. If it's a garden terrorist our training tips may help you limit the damage. As for top-notch Wonder Dogs, owners of such pets tell us they are born rather than made. They said: "We can't take credit for our dog's good behavior. Mostly, we reinforced what the dog wanted to do on its own." So it was with our dog, Kolme, shown here handing Janet a potted perennial. Our training simply gave focus to her innate drive to help and an outlet for her ability to carry, drag and fetch. 

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We're currently training a new puppy to attend us in the garden. It reminded us of this article, waiting in queue to be posted and bearing very useful information for dog-owning gardeners.


Gardeners like to share their gardens with others. Often, they extend their welcome to the family dog, too. Whether the result is fun or friction rests on the dog's garden manners -- is it a wonder dog, or a dog you wonder how to control?

Here's a chance to rate your dog,
learn some tricks of training, or
inspire it to follow in the paw-prints of Wonder Dogs:
        Lab-mix Paige
        Dachshunds Amelia and Rollie
        Lovable mutt Cody
        Greyhound Mariah and Doberman-mix Leila
        Black Lab Kolme

Rate your dog

Answer the following questions. Award your dog the number of points preceding each answer and keep a running tally to check against our rating.

A. When I'm in the garden and find I'm missing a tool:

            3 - I send my dog to fetch it for me.

            2 - I look for it where my dog stashes things.

            1 - I hope it hasn't become a chew toy.

B. My dog notices how I relate to the garden and:

            3 - Mimics me, respecting my plants and beds.

            2 - Knows to be ashamed after trampling through a bed.

            1 - Views all plants with jealousy, as rivals for my affection.

C. If there is digging going on:

            3 - My dog is my right arm.

            2 - My dog comes to stretch out in the cool soil.

            1 - I try to stop the dog before too much harm is done.

D. When it comes to pest control, my dog:

            3 - Pitches in to help kill or scare off the bad guys.

            2 - Hasn't got a clue.

            1 - Is at the top of my list of troublemakers.

E. In the vegetable garden, my dog:

            3 - Guards it and also helps with the harvest work.

            2 - Runs down woodchucks, other varmints... and my plants.

            1 - Waits for his/her favorites and beats me to the harvest.


13 - 15 points: Wonder Dog! Send us a photo of your dog and a few words about his or her contribution to your gardening, and we'll add it to our Wonder Dog line-up.

8 to 12 points: Mixed blessing. Try reading this article to your dog for inspiration.

5 to 7 points: Wonder how to control this dog? Check the Training Tips section.


The Wonder Dog Gallery of Stars


Wonder Dog #1: Paige


Right: Paige, a Lab-mix, takes a water bucket to the rain barrel to be filled.

Paige, like all of Susan and Jack McLarty's dogs before her, is expected to help in the garden. She carries water buckets to the rain barrel to be filled, fetches gloves and small tools, and hunts mice. Just three years old, Paige is good but hasn't yet equaled one of her predecessors in this Waterford garden, a golden retriever named Sassafras who could pluck chipmunks from a garden without stepping on a single plant.

The McLarty's say they won't be surprised if Paige eventually surpasses Sassafras, since 'Paige works with less handicap. Sassafras had to overcome the influence of a corrupt kennel-mate' who instigated incidents like a raid on a neighbor's grapes, where both dogs ate fruit until they were intoxicated.PaigeSusan02.jpg














Wonder dogs 2 & 3: Amelia and Rollie, Slug Catchers


AmeliaRollie05.jpgLong haired miniature dachshunds Amelia and Rollie seem to enjoy their contribution to pest control in Marlene and Art Rofe's garden. "We send them out to sweep through the flower beds, fur dragging and picking up slugs. All we have to do is dispose of the slugs they collect for us."

As helpful as they are, even Amelia and Rollie may improve. They could step up to the level of dogs like the black and white mutt, Puffy, recalled by Nancy Van Ophem. Puffy caught on while watching her owner pick off tomato hornworms, and began patrolling the vegetable bed on her own. She would sniff out a hornworm, pull it gently from the plant and then give it a sharp shake to kill it.


Wonder dog 4: Cody


Ruth Jeffrey describes Wonder Dog Cody as "a three year old lovable mutt. He likes to help me weed. I pull the weed, give it to him and he shakes the dirt out of the roots. Sometimes he will also beat me to the punch and pull the weed out for me. You can tell he feels very cool. He doesn't pull out any other plants except when we're weeding together."

CodyWeedShake07.jpg CodyShakeWeed08.jpg

Wonder Dog 5: Mariah, with protege Leila


Barbara and Bernie Malburg of Livonia raise dogs to be good garden guests. "Right now we have an 11 year old greyhound, Mariah, and a 2 year old Doberman-husky, Leila. We train the dogs on a long lead to stay out of the beds and don't let them have free run until they get it. With all of our other dogs this worked but Leila so far hasn't been able to get it, so we put bamboo stakes through chicken wire and surrounded all of the beds. We let her have free run of the yard and we hope to be able to take down the fencing next year."

The Malburgs also train their dogs to use a latrine, an area they excavated, filled with eight inches of sand and keep topped with pea gravel. "We never had any trouble getting the dogs to use it by teaching with rewards. Take the dog to the area. When they do their business, praise them and give them a treat."



Wonder dog 6: Kolme


Right: Black Lab Kolme started bringing tools to us. Here she's presenting pruning snips to Janet. So we rewarded her and taught her tool names. Eventually she would bring tools on command to anyone who asked.


Kolme, our own black Lab, made it clear from the time she was one year old that she would best all of our previous dogs and achieve Wonder Dog status. She found and fetched tools for us on command and when we pruned, she worked alongside us to drag limbs to the debris pile.







Below: Dragging branches was a favorite activity for Kolme, so we encouraged her to help when we pruned. She accepted branches as we dropped them, and would drag her load to whichever compost area we pointed out.

Kolme17.jpg KolmeJanet18.jpg


But like every dog-gone gardener, we wished for better. For example, we tried but never fully succeeded in softening her grip, so accepting her help meant putting up with tooth marks on tools' soft rubber handles. (It helped to have an expert's assurance that we were not likely to change Kolme's grip.) As another example, this dog had occasional fits of unstoppable joy involving runs through the beds at top speed with ears flat and tail tucked. It took us two years to end the runs, a "success" that may have been a function of her maturity rather than our efforts.

The "tricks" this dog learned happened because we noticed, then anticipated, named and rewarded her own inclinations. To do the opposite and discourage her natural tendencies, we sought expert help. For that, read on!

Below: Black Lab Raven could stand to learn from Wonder Dogs the difference between helping and helping yourself. Says her owner, Joanne Hoey, "Raven is a lady of curiosity and an appetite wrapped in fur. Her favorite spot in the vegetable garden is where 'Grape 100' tomatoes are fruiting. She will eat all that have fallen and then if I don't catch her, help herself to the vines."

RavenJoanne10.jpg Raven09.jpg

Training Tips

For that help we turned to Jeannie Kunz, foster puppy raiser for the non-profit group Paws With a Cause. Kunz does the first 12 to 15 months of basic training, then turns the dog over to specialists for custom-training to meet the intended owner's needs.


Get out of that garden!

A dog needs territory training, to learn to stay out of a garden, says Kunz. "Take your dog on a leash up to the edge of the garden. Tap a focal object with your hand, something the dog is not to go past. Use a firm 'NO' command and a leash correction to move the dog away from that object. Do this with several focal objects around the garden."

"Leave a four- to six foot drag rope attached to the dog's collar when you are supervising him in the garden. If you see the dog getting into the garden, tell him 'NO' and give a correction."

Consistency and repetition are critical. "You can't tell a dog once, then let him do what he likes for three weeks and expect him to know what you want the next time you're with him," says Kunz. "Repeat territory training one to three times a day. You may be able to train for fifteen minutes straight, each time. Or your dog may need a break, to run after a ball or do something fun to break up the session."

How long does before a dog is trained? "One to four weeks. But it depends on the dog," Kunz cautions. "Some dogs catch on quickly, others take longer."


Why won't you fetch?!


Also, there are some hurdles that aren't training issues at all. A dog that isn't keen to fetch may be that way because of instinct or personality and never master fetching, or even want to. "We use golden retrievers and Labs in Paws With a Cause because they have a natural retrieve drive," says Kunz. "But every dog is different. I have a golden retriever right now with a mouth so soft, she could carry an egg without breaking it. I also have a black Lab like the one you mentioned, who just doesn't realize that she has very powerful jaws."

Another proof of Kunz' point about dog instincts and personality comes from an owner's solution to a situation involving a malamute.

Tha malamute's owner, Sharon Mattioli (right, with daughter Isabella, husband Brian and the culprit, Crystal), blamed squirrels for losses in the family's big vegetable garden. "Then we saw Crystal eating something out in the yard -- a cucumber plant! We let her have the cucumber and I replanted the plant. We started watching her more closely. Even though we have a split rail fence around the garden, she'd get in there to eat cherry tomatoes, and she and her pups all ate raspberries."

Resourceful, independent breeds like the malamute probably can't be convinced to stay out of a garden. Especially not once the dog learns it contains food. So it was wise of the Mattioli family to add another rail to their fence.



Stifle the laugh


A canine penchant for produce isn't unusual. We've learned of a cairn terrier that also likes cukes, another terrier that prefers radishes or broccoli to meat, and whole packs of tomato and fruit eaters.

A Sheltie named Holly (right) exemplifies the tomato eaters. "She'll come out of the garden, or from where we throw spoiled tomatoes, with red juice just dripping down her white ruff," says owner Nancy Henderson.










Below: Stifle that laugh, Nancy Henderson. While you weren't watching, Holly saw you smile and will repeat her action just to "please you" again!

HollyNancy22.jpg NancyHolly21.jpg


On another front, Susan Lackey reports a choosy, fruit-eating spaniel that, "nosed over the strawberries before he ate them and left behind t hose that had even a bit of green on them."

"You look at that strawberry-stained muzzle and think it's the most adorable thing you've ever seen," says Kunz, who had a strawberry eater herself. But if you ever want to have first pick in your garden, Kunz counsels, "take a picture! Enjoy that, don't encourage the behavior."

Below: The friend who owns these dogs agreed to let them be photographed as stand-ins for all bad-dogs-who-wish-to-remain-anonymous. He was careful not to laugh or praise the dogs as he posed them because 'it could encourage them to repeat the crime.' But, he says, he can laugh at the pictures.

BadDog25.jpg BadDogM24.jpg

Some garden owners are more indulgent than others, and some "bad dogs" are not really bad enough to warrant correction. Holly, a Labrador retriever who shares a garden with Marlene Murphy, "is my constant companion whenever I work in the garden." Says Murphy. "I have a habit of throwing weeds into a pile to collect later. Holly likes to bring back what I throw! She's so cute and amusing we just have to laugh and wait for her to get bored."

Holly's behavior is basically harmless, but if a dog does something more annoying, destructive or dangerous, Kunz advises that you resist any urge to laugh.


Be aware of your non-verbal cues to the dog

Dogs like to please us, and to win our approval. They read our body language as well or better than our words, and know when laughter means pleasure and approval. So the next time your Mixed Blessing shows up at the door with your new flowers in its mouth, hide that smile, put on your serious face, and say, "That is NOT how a wonder dog behaves!"

More Tips From Experts and Wonder Dogs

1) Have fun things in the yard for the dog, such as toys, balls, a kiddy pool or sprinkler. Take your cues from zookeepers who call it "enrichment" to add novel items to animal enclosures.

2) If a dog's digging is a problem, fill the hole with heavy bricks or soil laced with cayenne pepper, but recognize that as only a temporary fix. Then work on prevention, such as supervising the dog when it's outside or using fencing.

3) Be aware that boredom is a real and powerful influence. The smarter the dog, the more likely it is to become bored and do unfortunate things to alleviate the situation. To prevent boredom in the first place, give that dog alternate forms of exercise. Follow the examples of celebrity animal trainers, who turn bad dogs good in training sessions preceded by a brisk work-out.

4) Elevate prized or dangerous potted plants.

5) Accept the main paths created where paws wear out lawn or groundcover. Turn it into a mulched- or paved path.

6) Don't let a dog's age stop you from training. Age is not a firm barrier to training. Old dogs can learn new tricks.



Janet & Steven dedicate this article
to the beautiful and brilliant Kolme,
so she can garden with us forever.


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