Lawns: A Dog Owner’s Guilty Pleasure

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I think it’s been pretty well established that lawns are environmentally unfriendly. They require massive amounts of water. Fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides get carried off by rain (or overwatering!)  into storm drains and streams and can contaminate wildlife and environments many miles away. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, homeowners in the U.S. use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.

Worse: According to a 2013 study, “Detection of herbicides in the urine of pet dogs following home lawn chemical application,” the detection of lawn chemicals in the urine of pet dogs was widespread – and that lawn chemicals persisted on the grass for at least 48 hours after application, and even longer under certain environmental conditions. It’s been established that exposure to herbicide-treated lawns has been associated with significantly higher bladder cancer risk in dogs.

And yet: What’s better than playing with a dog, or watching a dog or dogs play by themselves, on a blanket of nice thick green grass? Especially in the heat of summer?

I just read an article in the New York Times (“America’s Killer Lawns”) that provided some helpful ways to make lawns less toxic.

Here’s my so-called lawn. It features quite a variety of plant species 😉 It looks fine now, but by mid-summer will be looking much more patchy, thin, and brown.

No beautiful lush lawn at my house…

For what it’s worth, I’ve never had a gorgeous lawn – probably because I’ve never engaged the services of a lawn-care company, not used fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides on my grass. I wouldn’t feel good about using any of those things, even though I’ve certainly enjoyed playing or exercising on publics lawns and sports fields that almost surely DO use those chemicals. Every home I’ve lived in as an adult came with an existing crappy lawn, one containing as many weeds as grass species (my husband insists on using air-quotes when discussing our “lawn,” because he doesn’t think the collection of plants that dwell in front of our home constitutes turf in any way). At our last home, we stopped watering our “lawn” during the worst summer of California’s drought, and neither restarted nor, I have to admit, replaced it with alternative landscaping. It looked perfectly Dust Bowl-esque in the summer, just awful.

A nice lush lawn at a local park.

Like our past homes, our current home came with a front yard featuring lots of grass, as well as lots of other weeds and clover. It’s partially sun-baked and partially deeply shaded. Some species of plants thrive in one location and not in the others. But for the two summers we’ve lived here so far, we have kept it watered and mowed, and both the dogs and I really enjoy it, even if it’s not thick or lush or smooth or even. It’s cooler and softer than anything else outside in the summer! Also, it covers a wide swath of space; if we removed it, I have no idea what we’d plant or how we’d begin to landscape or hardscape it. For now, anyway, it is what it is.

Lately, I’ve been watching videos of a trainer I know working her young puppy on a smooth green carpet of permanently installed artificial turf outside her home and have been coveting a training space like that. But I don’t know that I would ever pull the trigger on an expense like that, either.

What about you? Do you maintain a lawn for your family’s enjoyment? Or do you live lawn-free? If you have given up grass, do you miss it?

47 COMMENTS

  1. Oops like to correct you on the lawn issue .most people think their lawn should look better then their neighbours
    Us country folks don”t mind the dandelions if it is to dry to bad crops have to wait for rain to and might get us out of a few lawnmower trips

  2. We have 3 Golden Retrievers who love to play in our backyard. Although it never looked great, with lots of weeds and torn up areas scattered throughout, we could live with that. But after 20 years of muddy dogs for days after we had any rain at all, we had finally had enough. We decided to bite the bullet and pay the money for artificial turf. And I have to say that 3 years later we feel like it was the best money we ever spent. We have no more worries about chemicals on the lawn, and the dogs can play to their hearts’ content no matter what the weather or season. It truly has been life altering! I know not everyone has the luxury of spending the money. But if you do, I don’t think you will regret it. The only caveat is that the turf does get hot in the mid-day summer sun. Our grown dogs don’t seem to mind it at all – and in fact, they like to sunbathe on it!! But it is hot for us to walk on without shoes, and when we got a puppy shortly after the installation, in mid-July, we were very careful to keep him in the shaded areas during the hot part of the day.

    • Is it allowed to say the manufacturer of yours? I’ve done a little bit of reading and as I remember there can be issues relating to odor and/or the dogs urinating on it. It’s been a long time since I looked into it.

      • We have synlawn in our backyard. We had it installed 13 years ago and it still looks perfect. So nice for our rainy Portland weather. No muddy feet in the house from our backyard.

    • @Cathy Thanks! You saved me some time because I was preparing to write exactly what you just did! I have an Irish and a Gordon Setter who probably have as much energy as your three Golden Retrievers (wanna come over and play?), so we have similar usage.

      As to the other questions, yes, it does get hot in the summer, which can be an issue, especially here in southern California. I have two 10×10 canopies up throughout the summer, which helps during the hottest times. But for all the other reasons Cathy gave, I recommend it highly. It will last 15-25 years, so it pays for itself very quickly, plus there are no costs for water, fertilizer, or lawnmowers/gardeners. And no maintenance. I tried for years to have a decent lawn, once with seed, and twice with sod. Weeds and foxtails defeated me every time.

      The only drawback can be the urine smell. If that happens, you can wash it with soap and/or vinegar, or use various specialized cleansers, but if you hose off the spots regularly, it’s not a problem.

      Here’s another thought. I agree it would be costly up front for Nancy, but I’m green with envy (ha ha) over the size of her property! However, since she’s also in California, she might want to check for a turf removal rebate program. My utilities company paid $3.00 per square foot, which went a long way towards covering the expense. For those who asked, I used Artificial Grass Liquidators here in the L.A. area. They have discounts on recycled turf from football or soccer fields too, which is something to check out in your area if you’re in the market.

  3. We live in AZ and converted the front yard to rock and vegetable gardens. Our back yard has a small amount of “lawn” that receives minimal water and no chemicals. It is basically what Bermuda grass survives on rain alone which thankfully, is a nice covering so it’s cool for the dogs to walk on in the summer.

    • I like Bermuda grass better than dirt It’s so tough! And it responds beautifully to small amounts of water.

  4. Our lawn does not get watered. We use no fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides.
    So why do you say it is a :guilty” pleasure?

    • I do water the lawn in the front of our house. We’ve let the back area go: TOO much sun beating down on it all day. I water the front lawn with probably half (or less) of the water it really needs, and I think I still put more water on it than the rest of our household uses for everything combined. I water enough to keep it mostly greenish but it would look way better and be way thicker if it got twice as much water. Here in northern California, the summers are long, hot and VERY dry, so I feel guilty about the water i already use. We do have a greywater “system” (pipes, lol) that drain the water from the clothes washer out to one area of the lawn. If we ever renovate the bathroom (this house has no bathtub! unacceptable!) I want to install a system for being able to send the bath/shower/sink grey water onto the lawn, too.

      As to the clover comments: Yes, I love the patches of clover that make up part of our lawn!

      • Clover also feeds the lawn before the extensive use of artificial fertilizers lawn seed used to include clover seed as it produces nitrogen for the lawn Have always fertilized my weed lawn with clover

  5. Has anyone ever considered planting white clover in their yards? It is considered a “weed”, and needs little care. A yearly natural fertilizer, occasional water, and “poof” a beautiful area to play with your dogs, It does not produce “grass stains”, does not have to be mowed, and when in bloom, bees are more than willing to move to another flower if you are sharing time on it with them. Same applies to your dogs. The only problem I’ve encountered is that my dogs like to snap at bees and have occasionally (but rarely) been stung.

    • I love the clover in my lawn. Last summer, a neighbor asked why my lawn stayed so green during the hot, dry summer months. Clover, of course! Plus, I think it’s a natural source of nitrogen. Also read that grass seed sellers are starting to add clover to their mix. Love that it attracts bees, too!

  6. We put in good quality artificial lawn, but we bought remnants and did it ourselves. We don’t have a huge yard and we rent. The ground doesn’t need to be perfectly flat, we put down weed cloth under it. It’s been great and our dog loves it!

    I did get lucky and find someone selling zeolite granules (to put in the lawn) on Craigslist. In retrospect I don’t think you need them. Just order some Wysiwash and use that on the regular. It’s safe for your plants and your pets.

    If you can find a place local to you that is selling their remnants it’s a great way to save $$$.

  7. Used to have a lawn service but back several years got a pay cut and couldn’t afford it. Now seeing all the lawyer ads regarding lawn chemicals, it scares me. I have the worst lawn in the neighborhood, weeds of every variety, it doesn’t bother me but my neighbors hate me and call the authorities at every opportunity.

  8. I live in an old house with an old lawn. We are environmental devotees (you can say freaks if you like) who have not used any chemicals for 30 years or more. We have used organic fertilizer, but only a couple of times; we’ve top-dressed the grass with a little compost, but only a couple of times (since we moved in, 1985) We mow. Our dogs and we enjoy the grass. I would say our 2 acres of grass, with some “weeds” or native plants among it, are doing a lot for the environment here in floody Houston, with our rich organic soil doing its part to soak up rain as it falls and take some of the pressure off the bayous. It’s not the lawns, or the grass, that are the problem; it’s the chemicals.

  9. Artificial turf burns dog’s paws in the summer! I think it feels even hotter to my hand than the asphalt next to it. I would not install, unless you install a cooling system.

  10. Front lawn gets fertilizer/weed killer treatment. Back yard – where the dogs are – is fenced in and never gets any chemicals or watering. We live with mix of grass – weeds – clover – even wild strawberry plants that never get big because they get mowed. Every couple of years I throw some grass seed onto areas and then water that area for a week or two.

  11. Anyone think organic? It’s also expensive but an alternative.
    I’ve used those chemicals and my large shepherds have all lived to 14 years. None died of bladder cancer. I’ve read about the study. We can’t protect them from everything, but we can be informed and do our best in all areas of their care.

  12. We lived on a farm for 30 years and never worried abut our lawn. Our dogs lived way past 18 and our cat lived to 22. We recently moved to a neighborhood and I thought I would try and have a nice lawn. I put weed killer, and fertilizer on the lawn and kept the dog off the lawn for 24-48 hours. Our 7 year old German Shepard got Hermangioma Sarcoma and was dead in 7 weeks. I feel it was because of the chemicals. We now have a beautiful German Shepard rescue and we play happily among the weeks. No more chemicals on my lawn…ever!

  13. St Augustine grass here in HOA Florida. Hate my dogs being exposed to all these chemicals that are required to keep this high maintenance nightmare. I try to walk them in the street but that comes with grey paws from street soot ( guessing that can’t be good either).
    No playing in the yard & dog park is seasonally filled with weeds that have clingons Not the best. Lots of paw washing & playing in the house for my toy breed

  14. Hi! Yes, clover or check out Gardener’s World Series on BBC to see how to plant a wildflower meadow – low maintenance and wonderful for the bees! You could have a small grass area in the middle – Low maintenance – looks great and wonderful for the environment! Big Fan – SPM

    • I will definitely check out the series on wildflowers. I have been trying to get a patch of wildflowers going for several years without success. Thank you for sharing that tip.

  15. We have a lawn but it’s not pretty. It has a variety of weeds mixed in. We have never used a lawn service because 1) couldn’t afford it and 2) don’t trust their claim that it is safe once dry. On the occasions I do decide to spray or put something on the grass I section it off with a barrier. We wait the time the product states (usually 24 hours), water the next morning and then that evening, at the earliest, we open it up. It’s usually 2-4 days before we are back in that space.

  16. We have lots of sand, lots of weeds and a few areas of grass. Due to several large oak trees and various other kinds of trees there is a lot of shade so grass is sparse in those areas, however weeds do just fine there. I refuse to let my husband put out weed killer and try to discourage him from fertilizing what grass we have due to our little dog loving to spend her days outside. Apparently some of these chemicals say they are safe but I don’t trust them.

  17. For twenty years now, I’ve maintained an half acre of city property with a dose of corn gluten every three or four years in the front yard, and mowing for the whole plot. The lawn is filled with whatever grows and it seems to be a lot tougher than just grass. The dogs run the back yard, and except for a path that runs the perimeter of the fence, you couldn’t tell they were there. Water is never an issue because we’re in central Ohio. So far the worst draughts have never made a serious impact on the naturally selected lawn. And the dogs are joined by a diverse population of critters – insects, snakes, birds, and all our four-legged wild life. That makes for a lot of drama, but more importantly, we’re supporting the earth.

  18. We have a lawn but it’s not pretty. It has a variety of weeds mixed in. We have never used a lawn service because 1) couldn’t afford it and 2) don’t trust their claim that it is safe once dry. On the occasions I do decide to spray or put something on the grass I section it off with a barrier. We wait the time the product states (usually 24 hours), water the next morning and then that evening, at the earliest, we open it up. It’s usually 2-4 days before we are back in that space.

  19. For the first time ever we have a beautiful lawn. We put down sod last fall and it’s like green lush carpeting. The dogs are hysterical to watch as they love it as much as we do, rolling on their backs with big smiles on their faces. We are using pet friendly fertilizers and realize this may not be enough. The plan of attack is to get the weed killers our grass man recommends and put it down right before we leave on vacation, so no one will be on it for a week or more. Will it be enough? Who knows? I’m very aware of everything that goes in our yard, but also realize we can not totally avoid everything. I am trying to balance things the best I can, and pray that will be enough.

  20. I live south of Buffalo, NY in a residential, suburban community. I do not use any pesticides on my lawn because of my dogs. My neighbors on both sides do, but after doing a favor for one of them (babysat his 2 Yorkies for 6 months) he asked what he could do in return. I asked him to stop having his lawn sprayed, and thank God he did. Still working on the
    other neighbor, whose lawn, by the way, looks MUCH worse than mine.

  21. We live in Northern California where we had several drought years. Our Standard Poodle killed our backyard lawn with his urine. We replaced the lawn with new sod at considerable expense. In no time, it was full of dead spots from urine. I removed the lawn and planted from seed a new type of drought tolerant fescue that does not require mowing. It was beautiful until dead spots starting appearing. I decided to sow the dead spots with White Dutch Clover seeds. Now our lawn is fecue mixed with lots of clover. We use no chemicals or fertilizers and it does not require as much water as the old lawn. The lawn stays green and I don’t worry about my dog rolling in it and eating the grass.

  22. This has been a long-standing argument in our house. We are careful what we feed our dogs but when it comes to the lawn my husband thinks chemically treated grass is fine and doesn’t hurt them. I guess it will take one of them getting cancer to convince him. Lord knows I’ve tried.

  23. We live on 1and 3/4 acres in Metro Denver. As a hobby, I show my dogs and breed occassionally for the betterment of my breed and attempt to increase genetic diversity, do all appropriate health checks (hips, patellas, elbows, eyes) and genetic testing. I attended a 4 day Canine Health Symposium at CSU (2008) which was primarily about cancer. Dr. Ron Schultz gave a seminar on his research into vaccines. (He is behind the Vaccine Guidelines). What I learned from many of the top research vets throughout the country and through research/studies, is that lawn herbicides on individual properties are the biggest trigger for cancer, particularly bladder cancer (study was with Scottish Terriers), lymphoma and leukemia. I haven’t used herbicides/pesticides on my lawn for 25 yrs. The dandelions (which only last for about 3 wks) my dogs eat and they are good for the liver and other things. The lawn is Kentucky Blue Grass, taken over by lots of clover and various kinds of weeds. All we do is water and after the dandelions are gone, looking out over the “lawn” when you view it over our 6 ft horsey fence, all you see is a “sea” of green. This makes me happy and reminds me of one of the reasons that I have healthy, happy Norwegian Elkhounds that have longeavity.

  24. We live on an acreage and we avoid using chemicals for the health of the land, wildlife, our water (we have a well), our pets and our health. Once it is mowed it is green unless it has been a very dry summer. A lush lawn is nice and some summers we get enough rain that it thrives but we don’t water it. Sometimes, in the fall, we let the horses in around the house to give it a last trim before winter and a bit of natural fertilization at the same time:)

  25. We have lots of trees, including pines — no lawn! Ferns, mosses, other vegetation. I try to keep my dog away from the golf course and lawn areas that I know have been treated. That said, she loves the golf course pre-season and pre-treatment and it is a fun training area.

  26. I prefer to think of my Midwestern lawn as a “diverse ecosystem”. It looks decently green in the spring and fall, not great in the hot/dry midsummer, but that doesn’t matter! We have more wildlife and insects in our yard than our neighbors do, because much of the “green” is clover, moss and other plants. Even the tiny “weed” flowers feed something! I have never used any noxious chemicals on yard or garden, and we eat organic food. Roundup and the other chemicals are not just affecting dogs; they are known carcinogens for people too!

  27. NEVER put chemicals on the lawn….. my motto is “if it’s green – it’s grass” . Just keep it mowed and not manicured.
    Dogs first !

  28. We live in AZ and have a beautiful lawn in the summer. We let it go dormant in the winter. I do not use any weed killers in the entire backyard except for a mixture of Vinegar, Dawn Soap, and Salt to kill the weeds in the rocks. We do have to fertilize the lawn once a month in the summer. I don’t let the dogs on the lawn until after it waters at night. I train and compete with my dogs in agility, so the lawn is important to us. The love of my life, Tigger, died in November 2019 at the age of 14 from bladder cancer. She was my first agility dog and I will miss her every day for the rest of my life. Although, I did what I could to keep her away from lawn chemicals, we trained and competed in public parks since she was 6 months old. I hate the idea that everything we loved to do together may have contributed to her death. I will always be heartbroken to live my life without her.

    • Sorry to hear about your loss 🙁 I don’t use any chemicals to my backyard but I have always wondered what to do when I’m walking my dog and he’s sniffing a neighbor’s yard. You can’t predict when and where they have applied any chemicals. I also train my dog in public parks and didn’t realize that they can pose a risk.

  29. We live in Arizona where natural turf does not do well. We discovered artificial turf that is made especially for pet use. Plus, charcoal is used below the turf. No urine smells & it looks beautiful! Our dog lies on it even when the weather is in the 100’s.

  30. Hi All, I live in coastal Connecticut. For the last 25 years, we have owned Long-coat German Shepherds, Currently on dogs #4 and #5. I have a small yard, 1/4 acre total. The backyard lawn is about only 50×70 feet, and fenced for the dogs. For all of these 25 years, I have struggled to create a decent back lawn for the dogs, albeit a small yard (compared to those described above). So, I’d like to share a few of my *organic* lawn discoveries. I have pursued an organic lawn for the health and well being of the dogs. (1) Weed killer – Corn meal gluten. Period. Safe enough to sprinkle on your breakfast cereal! Previously hard to find, now widely available in large bags. Corn meal gluten works as a pre-emergent weed killer; it prevents weed seeds from germinating. Use it repeatedly, and over time, you will conquer weeds. Corn meal gluten decomposes into Nitrogen, and turf grass loves nitrogen. (2) Lawn Gypsum resolves the salt problem in your yard, and much of that salt is from dog urine. Gypsum is non toxic, and chemically fixes a few soil problems – removes salt, adds calcium, and softens the soil especially in high clay situations. (3) Organic non-toxic fertilizers – Ironite, Milorganite, and… just discovered this year Sustane brand organic fertilizer. (www.Sustane.com) Sustane has a their own annual “4-step” fertilizer program and products.
    Hope that helps, if you trying to grow grass.

  31. My husband and I have always had a pact – the backyard is mine and the front yard is his. Meaning, nothing was ever put on our backyard where the dogs roam and he could treat the front to his heart’s content. However, that changed this year. Our pup, now 17 months, chases everything, including bees, wasps, etc. I loved my backyard full of clover but so do the pollinators and as a result, we have had several mishaps with the pup. So this year, the backyard was treated. I kept our boy off the yard for 7 days and fortunately it rained 2 of those days during that time. I weighed the risks and felt it was the best course for the current pup/lawn fight. That’s the only treatment the backyard will receive and I plan to use Mike’s discoveries from here on out as I don’t like using herbicides.

  32. Have you guys tried Dog Rocks? They are 100% natural and you put them in your dog’s water bowl. we have been using them since 2008 and have a really lovely lawn. They are defo worth a try, you have to have one pack in each water bowl and you HAVE to change them every 2 months but they are brill

  33. As Joni Mitchell sang, “Give me the spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees.” I agree! No pesticides on the “lawn” or the trees or the bushes in my yard–dandelions any day. I admit to spraying my ailing Virginia Creeper with a hand-held bottle of pesticide mixed with water, but the dogs have to go indoors till it dries.

    I am glad to say that in 50 years I have never lost a dog to cancer and hope to keep it that way.

  34. My lawn is fine; full of weeds but heck, they are green. I try to pull most of the broad leaved weeds but as far as I'[m concerned if it’s green, it’s lawn. I don’t fertilize but do leave grass clippings on it and use white clover as suggested above. So far haven’t had a problem with bees. They seem to prefer flowers in the gardens. My fertilizer for OUR veggies is our own compost. I used to make my own earth from vermiculite, bought soil, peat moss and and our compost, then fertilized with chicken and worm poop. I hate the smell of the other fertilizers. Why don’t they bag horse manure? It smells much better than pig, chicken, sheep and cattle.
    Anyway, now I guess I’m just too old and lazy to do all that work anymore and buy premixed soil, use our compost and I guess chemical fertilizer because I sprinkle it on.

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