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Romper room for dogs

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Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, if you heard someone singing the Burlington Coat Factory jingle from behind a garden fence, it was probably me. I began subjecting my dogs to it after hearing reports that the chain had been discovered trading in garments trimmed with dog fur. When I sang the jingle, it meant my dogs had destroyed a plant. It was a curiously effective way to relieve apoplexy. One of the few things that I love as much as my dogs is my garden.

But after a Marmaduke-size stray appeared on my porch, I needed more than an obnoxious slogan and bad singing voice. The dog was so gregarious and so clumsy that I named him Clunk and so destructive that friends implored me to take him to a shelter.

I already had a Labrador retriever, Parker, and another former stray, a shaggy terrier called Glancey. Often as not, these two were joined on weekends by my brother’s family dog, a raucous Labrador retriever called Tess.

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I soon learned that a garden can take only so much dog traffic, particularly a garden edged with a flat-top wooden fence more aptly described as Squirrel Run. I had reached that limit. As the dogs chased the squirrels blindly around the perimeter, they looked up, not forward.

The first plant in their path to go was a Meyer lemon sapling, then half a dozen 6-foot-tall Carolina cherries, part of an increasingly gap-toothed hedge. I began to wonder if the squirrels were not deliberately leading the dogs into wipeouts.

Destruction escalated when Clunk discovered that the most direct route from an alley lookout at the rear of the garden to the front gate was through a lavender bed and then through the salvia. Following this route, he could easily make it from the alley to the front in under a minute. When my two favorite corridors in the garden were reduced to dust, Clunk came very close to becoming cuffs and collar.

I responded by installing dinky little picket fences, the kind sold in rolls at Home Depot. Clunk took them for fun new hurdles. I upgraded by jamming expensive redwood trellising in strange places in the middle of beds. Looking back, it seems silly to have imagined that stapled strips of redwood would stop a charging 100-pound hound. The lavender and salvia beds were still, effectively, the 101.

That did it. I moved a cactus into the middle of the lavender. Next thing I knew, Clunk was going around the lavender bed rather than through it.

But he was still going through the salvia. My next-door neighbors helped by cutting a chunky 3-foot-tall garden fence into segments and setting these pieces as dog-breaks in the salvia bed. Spiny aloe plants taken from a building site were potted and strategically positioned to augment the fencing. More salvia was planted. This time it survived.

The success of the dog-proofing was almost too good to believe. Now, when the postman had the temerity to ring the bell and Clunk charged reflexively to front of the house, instead of careering through the lavender and plowing down the salvia, he went around both and stayed on the path. Moreover, he seemed to prefer the new route. It was as if the longer curving path made a more entertaining obstacle course.

The change in behavior made me wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to dig up large swathes of the central lawn and create a dog course there too. It would give me the beds that I wanted to grow salads, herbs, corn, squash and roses. I would have fun tending the beds and the dogs would have fun running around them.

But would they run around them rather than through them? I suspected yes. Many years ago, in another home in another city, I noticed that two of my former dogs, Harry and Spike, would venture into a grass-covered yard only to dig under the fence and escape to the park. Once I lined their getaway trench with chicken wire, they refused to go into the garden altogether. It was a case of park or nothing. Smart dogs.

But here in L.A., there is no park to hold out for. There are simply no safe parks, never mind dog parks, in my part of the city. My choices were to make the yard interesting or bust. It was suddenly obvious that a good start would be to create more courses for the dogs to run.

Deciding on the shape took months. I dragged the hose around, using it to outline imaginary borders of imaginary beds. I’d seen loopy-shaped beds in Kensington Gardens in London that were strangely magical. Small versions of these island-like beds could be curved, almost like kidney-shaped salad plates, around my central olive tree.

More recently, I’d seen plans by L.A. garden designer Melinda Taylor to use curving beds in the strolling garden around the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. That did it. If it was good enough for the Royal Parks of London and for Frank Gehry, it was good enough for Clunk and me.

As I began the backbreaking business of digging out lawn to prepare a bed, Glancey, Parker and Clunk began giddily fast chases around the emerging plot. Glancey had no problem. He’s small and corners like a Porsche. Parker is medium-size and corners like a Volvo. Clunk is huge and slides around like an Oldsmobile in a “Starsky and Hutch” car chase.

To gauge how wide to make the path, I studied their trails, which were soon clearly demarked in the grass. When Clunk wiped out too badly, I narrowed the beds and enlarged the grass run to give him more cornering room.

Once the beds were planted with bare root roses, herbs and vegetables, the trick became keeping the dogs out of them. This was a job for junk. I lined them with concrete rubble, and where I saw tempting direct runs across the beds, I stuck trellises, put in pots and planted things that were thorny. Now that they are conditioned not to go into the beds, the protective jumble around the first bed has now been removed, and Clunk has not set foot in it. An unexpected boon for me is freedom from hours of watering the lawn. For Clunk, clearing the bed has become a point of pride. He will take a fall rather than run through my flower beds.

Or hear me sing.

Emily Green can be reached at emily.green@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Safer yards

Dogs eat plants. There are dogs that will roll over for tomatoes, show their paws for carrots and jump through hoops for ears of buttered corn.

But if you really want to win a dog’s heart, give it fresh grass.

Why do they eat it? “No one knows the answer,” says veterinarian Jeff Werber, owner of Century Veterinary Group in West L.A.

“My personal feeling is that they like it. They find it soothing. It is usually cool. It’s sweet. It gives roughage.”

Though they will occasionally overdo it and vomit, Werber does not think grass-eating is a form of dog bulimia. Unlike people, dogs avoid discomfort, he says.

That’s why they coexist safely with a host of common and, for them, poisonous garden plants.

Another favorite garden dog food is avocadoes. But Werber recommends rationing these because of the fat content. Too many can lead to pancreatitis.

“But the biggest problem,” he says, “is not plants, it’s the chemicals that are being used by the gardener or owners. Snail bait is a killer. Herbicides are killers. Organo-phosphate insecticides are killers. Rat poison is a killer.”

When dogs come into emergency rooms, one of the most common scenarios, he says, involves pet owners who don’t know what their garden crews have applied.

Worse, snail bait pellets look like dog food, he says, and are tasty to dogs. His suggestion? Use bicycle ties to secure the lid of your garbage cans and encourage possums to take up residence.

They eat the snails.

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