How can I stop my dogs from stripping our tree? And how can I save the tree?
October 16, 2004 6:43 AM   Subscribe

How can I keep my dogs from pulling large strips of bark off our tree, and how can I keep said tree from dying now that it's missing much of it's bark?

We have a cypress tree in our back yard. It rained for like a week straight here (Dallas Texas) last week and so a) the dogs were all cooped up all week and b) the tree's bark was soft and pliant. The dogs discovered what fun it is to tear off 4 foot long strips of bark and play tug-of-war with them.

So now the tree is missing about a 2' wide by 5' long patch of bark. it's about a 20-30 year old cypress (just a guess, may be older). I'm afraid this will kill it.

Is there something I can treat the tree with to protect it's insides without the bark? Will this thing, or something else, keep the dogs away?
posted by RustyBrooks to Pets & Animals (19 answers total)
People used to paint tree wounds and cut limb ends. You can still buy tree paint for that purpose. The consensus among tree people, however, is that painting does more harm than good. Whether your tree will survive depends more on how far around the trunk the bark loss is than how far up it goes. If the tree is five feet in circumference, for example, then it's probably a goner (and also probably more than 30 yrs old). A tree that large and old is very valuable so it'd be worth it to get a professional arborist in. And by professional I mean someone very experienced, not a landscaper with a chain saw and chipper.

I have experience with a product called "Ropel" to keep rodents and rabbits from chewing fruit tree bark. The stuff is so intensely bitter and incredibly potent that I'd imagine it'd work for dogs as well (and is non-toxic so it wouldn't hurt them). I've had to wear a mask when using it because the tiny bit that gets in the air and then in my mouth leaves a bitter taste for hours.
posted by TimeFactor at 7:19 AM on October 16, 2004

It's nearly half way around the tree now. Circumference, I'd estimate, is more like 2 feet. Just an estimate though.

I guess the important thing at this point is to keep the dogs OFF if I can. Not going to be easy though, as they have lots of unsupervised time out there.

I'll look for ropel. I'm going to a nursery today as well to get some suggestions. Is Ropel a powder, spray, etc?
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:36 AM on October 16, 2004

I just can't believe how quickly they decimated this tree. Damn.

I don't know if the tree is worth much or not. Around here cypress doesn't sell for much but it depends on quality. For example you can get fence grade material for around 50 cents a board foot or less, or something more along the lines of furniture grade for more like $4-5/bf.

More than anything though, I *like* this tree. It provides shade for the side of the house, it's attractive, it's a good, well established tree, which is fairly common in our neighborhood but rare in the suburbs I live in. Around here they usually clear cut and then plant trees when houses are built.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:38 AM on October 16, 2004

Do not leave your dogs outside unsupervised until you solve this, since this is a VERY rewarding behaviour for them and every time they do it they are reinforcing the behaviour and it will get harder to stop it (frankly, I don't agree with leaving dogs outside unsupervised anyway, but that's a different discussion).

I'd think that chicken wire wrapped around the trees should work, especially if you pick up some outdoor "Bitter End" from Petsmart or another pet store and spray the trees thoroughly.
posted by biscotti at 9:39 AM on October 16, 2004

Also, supply them with other things to chew on and rip up, like raw meaty bones and Kongs stuffed with meat, peanut butter and other dog-goodies. You can't expect them not to chew, but you CAN make it so that chewing the right thing is preferable to chewing the wrong thing.
posted by biscotti at 9:41 AM on October 16, 2004

When I wrote that the tree could be valuable, I meant as a feature of your property, not as potential lumber. Around here (New England) large trees can add thousands to the value of a property even if they have negligible value as lumber.

And the tree might not be doomed if only the outermost part of the bark is missing/damaged. Cypress aren't native and are rarely planted here (I've only seen them at the arboretum) so I'm not really familiar with how their bark grows. Again, a local arborist would know.
posted by TimeFactor at 11:36 AM on October 16, 2004

The bark is stripped off down to the wood. It's all gone. I was thinking diameter earlier, also, the tree coudl easily be 5 feet around. Cypress is a fairly slow growing species but I have no way in particular of guaging it's age. Anyway, other than the missing bark it's pretty healthy. Not to post-rationalize bit it's possible we'd have to take it out at some point anyway. We're combatting it, but the roots are growing towards the house. Cypress are very thirsty trees (they usually grow *in* water) so we try to give it as much as possible, to prevent it from developing broad, shallow roots.

No idea how much value the tree adds to the yard. We have 2 other good sized trees out front so at least we won't be totally bare. The trees in the front mattered more to us than the one in the back, but we like that one also.

Regarding leaving the dogs outside: I'm not talking about long stretches of time, not even an hour. It simply isn't possible for me to hang out with the dogs all weekend, as much as I wish it was. We try to keep stuff out there for them to chew on and they've never attacked the tree like this, I had no inkling that they would (or even could). We've had them for about a year with no problems like this, although occaisonally they will uncoil the garden hose and play with it.

I haven't managed to catch them at it yet, although I disciplined our younger dog when I caught her carrying a piece of bark. It went right over her head, she's clearly quite proud of her achievment. Same thing happened when she caught a bird once. She plain could not hear me disciplining her.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:30 PM on October 16, 2004

"Discipline" won't help, as you have discovered, you have to look at this from a dog psychology point of view (your dog now knows that you get angry with her when you see her eating trees - this leads to secretive behaviour, not an end to the behaviour). Dogs are not moral agents, behaviour which works (as in reinforces them in some way) will be repeated, behaviour which does not work will extinguish. Your challenge is to make tree-eating stop working for them. Aside from the fact that punishment (which is what I assume you mean by "discipline") is an extremely ineffective means of achieving long-term behaviour change (this has consistently been found to be true in many studies), the reward the dogs are getting from chewing the tree is far greater than any punishment you might care to mete out (barring stuff that will get you arrested, and maybe not even then). Therefore, until you can stop the dogs from eating the trees (either by creating a physical barrier, or a chemical one like Bitter End), if you leave the dogs outside unsupervised they will continue to eat the trees, which will simply give them more and more reinforcement for doing so, which will in turn make them more and more resistant to your efforts to stop them. Allowing them access to the trees while the trees are still not yucky-tasting or very hard to get to is shooting yourself in the foot. Can you not change your routine temporarily so that the dogs are only out when you can be there to supervise them?

"Trying to keep stuff out there for them to chew on" is not what I meant in my earlier post. The issue isn't that they have alternate chewables available, the issue is that the alternate chewables available to them are better than the trees are. If I want to stop you from eating cookies, and I offer you broccoli, which you do not find as rewarding as cookies, where is your incentive to choose something other than cookies? You need to make chewing the trees less rewarding (by spraying with Bitter End or a comparable anti-chew substance and/or by making the trees hard to access), and you need to offer substitutes which are more rewarding. If they like chewing trees, why not give them branches, and smear them with peanut butter or something? Eventually, as long as they have something to chew which is better than the trees, and as long as they do not have access to the trees for a period of time, the habit should extinguish itself. But this will not happen as long as they have no good reason to stop eating the trees (either because the trees are inaccesible, the trees don't taste good anymore, or because there are better things to chew - and ideally you will make all three of these things true).
posted by biscotti at 1:29 PM on October 16, 2004

Looks like your dog barked up the wrong tree.
posted by AwkwardPause at 1:49 PM on October 16, 2004

I should also mention that there are some serious health risks to dogs eating wood. I retract my suggestion to give them branches to chew on.
posted by biscotti at 3:05 PM on October 16, 2004

I used to give my dogs branches. At first it seemed OK because the littler one would just prance around with them in her mouth sort of grunting. She does this with everything, has since her first heat. No idea why but I suspect it's some kind of puppy surrogate. Anyway it's real cute. I stopped doing that since I discovered they will demolish the sticks and that can't be good. When I'm doing work in the house she'll occaisonally steal a piece of molding and go to town. Anyway,

We try to keep the outside full of toys but clearly the tree is more fun. I covered it with a stiff chicken wire (actually it's not what you'd usually think of chicken wire, it's more like a square pattern of wires, with 1/2" gaps betweeen the wires). it's very stiff and was large enough to make a circle a bit larger than the tree. I wired it together. They could probably still stand on their hind legs and get to the bark but I think it would be uncomfortable. I'm keeping my eye on them.

Yes, I can vary the schedule until I find something to put on the tree to keep them from chewing on it. I really hope this isn't a long term problem. It may not be. Oscar, the older dog, when we first got him, would bite branches off the bushes. He's since stopped doing that, not sure why he did it or why he stopped.

I asked the vet today what he recommended but he said he'd never really heard of anything like it. He said there is something you can get to spray on trees to keep various animals around (his experience with it was with goats. He said horses have the same problem but it's usually solved with sort of a muzzle that prevents the horse from opening it's mouth wide enough to get around a tree)
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:05 PM on October 16, 2004

If you're near a Petsmart, they carry Outdoor Bitter End, it works on preventing most dogs from eating whatever you spray it on (you can also order it online). I've never heard of a muzzle being used on horses for tree-eating (and I've been around horses all my life - muzzles are occasionally used for other issues, but not this, that I've ever heard of). In my experience, to stop horses eating trees, you do exactly the same things I've recommended to you for your dogs: physically prevent access with chicken wire or fencing, and/or coat the tree with something sufficiently bad-tasting that the horse won't want to eat it.
posted by biscotti at 9:54 PM on October 16, 2004

I just came back from the San Diego Wild Animal Park and every tree they have is swathed in chicken wire. I would go that route, since you know it'll work and it wont hurt the tree one bit.
posted by dness2 at 10:07 PM on October 16, 2004

Um, biscotti, what about a thai pepper cooking oil painted on the bark of said tree or cayenne sprinkled on and around it ?
posted by y2karl at 10:30 PM on October 16, 2004

I'm not biscotti, nor do I play her on tv.

But. There's some chance that thai pepper oil or powdered cayenne or just that much capsicum in general might not be safe for Mr. Pup -- it might be more likely to get into his paws and then eyes, or to blow into his eyes or nasal membranes, etc.

Bitter End is tested to be safe, and cheap as dirt. I'd just get the Bitter End. The indoor version is also colorless and not strong-smelling. so you can spray it on more-or-less Whatever.

On the principle that one should rarely do to your furry compatriot what you're not willing to have done to yourself, I have tasted Bitter End.

It's like a bomb going off in your mouth. It is instant HOLY SHIT ARRRRGH GET IT OFF OF ME GET IT OFFA ME horrible.

I personally assure you that it is a Grade-A, Prime, Number One deterrent.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:29 AM on October 17, 2004

Yeah, what ROU_Xenophobe said. I prefer to use things which I know are safe and which are very likely to be effective. y2karl's suggestion might well work, but it seems like a much bigger hassle and mess and is potentially more risky than just getting a purpose-made solution. I've come across dogs who could tolerate Bitter Apple and a variety of spicy concoctions, but so far not one that will tolerate Bitter End (although I'm sure they exist), it's truly horrible, and they make an outdoor one specifically intended for the type of problem RustyBrooks is having.
posted by biscotti at 11:21 AM on October 17, 2004

From Biscotti's Bitter End link:

Bitter End is made of some of the bitterest herbs in the world,
as well as cayenne pepper.

Now I am curious as to whether Bitter End would put the squirrels off the peanuts I put out for the jays while leaving the jays unaffected. *Googles* Hmm, quite likely, according to them--Ropel appears to be similar to Bitter End in formulation. Hot Pepper Wax, according to their FAQ, might work for RustyBrooks's dogs as well.
posted by y2karl at 4:32 PM on October 17, 2004

Generally anything with capsaicin is good for bird food. Birds aren't sensitive to it.

The Ropel you link to claims to also be a bird repellent, so I suspect you'd end up with a whopping great pile of unwanted, bitter peanuts.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:01 PM on October 17, 2004

Generally anything with capsaicin is good for bird food.

This I knew--unfortunately squirrels seem to quickly develop a tolerance for cayenne in my experience. I may alternate between the Bitter End and the Hot Pepper Wax to see how the jays react. Depending upon, of course, if either stops the squirrels.
posted by y2karl at 11:11 PM on October 17, 2004

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