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  • Kevin Simons

Dogs in the Urban Landscape

There are many challenges for plants, shrubs and trees in the urban landscape, but in San Francisco, the biggest challenge is undeniably dogs.

There are more dogs than children in this city. Almost every new dwelling built in the city in the last 20 years has been in a multi-family setting, with means there's no backyard for Fluffy to use for her bathroom duties. Instead, the sidewalk outside the building is used. This creates some big problems for the landscape.

Here's how things work: Fluffy has been cooped up inside the apartment since her morning walk. You've been at work all day, and get home at 5:30 (if you're lucky!). First order of business? Take Fluffy down the elevator, get her outside, and let her drain her bladder ASAP. Poor thing's been holding it all day and she has to go! So, out you both go, and she relieves herself the first place she can - usually the tree planted closest to the front door of the building. And that's where the trouble begins.

Dog urine functions as more than just a way to eliminate waste. It also carries tons of olfactory (Smell) information that's important to every other dog that passes by. The information most important to the dogs is thought to be the chemical signature that says "I've been here". And no sooner does the next dog smell Fluffy's signature, that he feels compelled to add his mark to the mix, to let every other dog that comes by that he's been there too. Next dog that comes by, same thing. Think of it this way: we drop our business cards off in the fishbowl when we go to a business lunch or event - dogs do the same thing with a few drops of urine.

The problem here is this: The trees closest to the main entrances to large apartment buildings have to deal with gallons and gallons of liquid waste being poured on their roots every day. The chances of surviving the first year is extremely low. At Mission Bay Landscaping, we've tried many different ways to give the trees a break: signs that inform dog owners and dog walkers that dog urine kills trees; plastic barriers; Tree Gator watering bags (to help in diverting the urine flow away from the trunks of the trees, and to add more water than the irrigation system supplies), to name a few.

We've had varying degrees of success, but what we REALLY need to stop the tree mortality is to educate dog owners - who probably have no idea their dog is killing trees.

If you're a manager of an apartment building, please copy & paste this blog post and send it out to your residents. Ask them to give the trees closest to the front doors a break! Watch out for newly planted trees, and ask them to keep Fluffy away from these young, vulnerable specimens. Fluffy has been holding her bladder all day - another 30 or 40 seconds to get her past that tree won't cause her too much suffering, and will help immensely.

We've all heard the old saying "The solution to pollution is dilution", and that's what we're trying to encourage here. Rotate your dog away from the same heavily used spots. Most dogs are whip-smart and understand very quickly "my human doesn't want me to go there" (My dog Hank learns what's off limits after just 3 tries. He passes by those trees and ignores them). This means the next dog passing by might do the same!

Obviously our focus here is on plants, but this problem goes further than plants. Light poles topple over after the metal is eaten away by constant exposure to dog urine. If you see a light pole that's clearly rotting away, move your dog away and don't let him contribute to the problem.

Thanks for reading this - and thanks for your help!

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