Q&A: Susanna Salk on living with dogs

May 31, 2018

Susanna Salk is a designer, stylist and author of a number of design books. Her latest is "At Home with Dogs and their Designers" for Rizzoli. She also hosts a monthly "At Home With" video series with the Quintessence blog, where she reports on visiting the homes of top designers around the globe.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 15 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Susanna Salk is a designer, stylist and author. Her latest book is "At Home with Dogs and their Designers" for Rizzoli and she features photographs and stories of dogs with their owners such as Jonathan Adler, Katie Ridder and Bunny Williams. She has tips for having a stylish home that allows dogs to enjoy homes as any family member would. She  hosts a monthly "At Home With" video series with the Quintessence blog, where she reports on visiting the homes of top tastemakers. 

Hello everyone! I am an owner  (or rather they own me!) of 3 dogs and 1 cat (all rescues) and while I am certainly not an expert, I am here to help share whatever I have learned along the way, both through trial and error in my own homes, or from my amazing designer friends who all live stylishly with their beloved pets.

We just got a new genuine leather couch, and I plan on allowing our dog-- about 25 pounds-- up on it. I don't mind leather that shows signs of use and wear, but what can I do to keep the wear even and prevent real damage?

I would consider getting a nice faux fur throw (a pretty white or grey one perhaps?)  and putting it on it to protect any real damage. The dog will get used to lying on it- instead of the leather- very quickly!

Hi Susanna- I need to replace my living room rug. What type of rug will be easy to maintain and stand up to cat scratching and hairball vomit?

I like rugs with a soft pile with a bold design and color that hide stains  and hair easily between cleanings. I also really recommend oriental rugs: they are so durable! Good luck I know it is a challenge!

What's the easiest way to clean dog drool (on the walls, shelves, ceilings)?

Dog drool on a ceiling? My word! A light spray such as Mrs. Meyers has a nice fresh scent. I live for the cloth wipes from Trader Joes. I keep them under my sink and lightly wipe down all sorts of drools and messes with them. I either wet them slightly first or use to wipe up after I've sprayed. Then throw them in the wash.

how can i keep my dog from waking up and whining to be let out at 3 am and not continue to whine until its fed. should i cut back on the water?

Don't cut back on water. Try to get it on a schedule. Does it sleep in your room? It might help to keep him/her with you so they'll feel cozy and part of the pack. Shut the door til its time to get up and then feed immediately at a decent hour. Maybe give a tiny snack treat before bedtime.

Aargh!!! My cat has scratched and marked every piece of custom upholstery in our home. Are there fabrics, sprays, or other tactics that work to keep the cat away from the furniture?

I feel your pain. My cat just scratched up a brand new rug within HOURS. You either have to love/gravitate towards your custom pieces less (I know hard!) or get rid of your cat which you don't want to do! SO: try to invest less in precious materials moving forward: wood or metal legs to sofas, velvets that are tough. A faux fur throw down on areas where they are scratching might help protect...good luck it's hard!

I live in a 95 year old house that has quite a bit of painted woodwork. When repainting woodwork previously painted with oil based paint, is it advisable to try the newer, nontoxic-odor paints in lieu of using the oil based paint again?

Sue I would if you can. Although if you don't have the budget or time to do that, just make sure the old wood isn't chipping onto the floor: I would be concerned about pets thinking it's a little treat and it being toxic. Check with your vet to feel confident that it's OK to keep in house. Often things are only toxic to pets if ingested in quantities more than what they weigh..

We moved last year to Europe where my dogs now are tracking in a fine reddish dirt. They never used to be in dog parks, but now they often are and they are like giant red-dirt sandlots. I can't bathe them every day! They never had to be kept off the bed before but they turn it brown if I let them lie on it! The sofa is covered with a beach towel. Any advice?

This is a tough one and I can completely envision this new problem you are encountering! C'est la vie but still...I know that in the winter in Manhattan I see many dog owners put booties around their dogs paws to protect them: could you consider buying booties for when your dogs enter those areas and then removing them before they enter the house again?

I love both of my dogs, but hate the odor in the room they sleep in. Short of removing all soft items (rugs, sofa, drapes) how do I keep the odor down?

I live for Zero Odor Eliminator: it's a spray that doesn't hurt your fabrics and its helps take away those musty pet smells. If I want a little scent I use Febreze Air Heavy Duty.

Hi - we have a houseful of pets, who we adore. We joke that we can't have nice things, since we have nice pets. I'd love a pretty rug someday, but.... I have one young corgi who, when he wants to come in from outside, will run at the back door and bang into it with great force. Needless to say, the back door is a mess of chipping wood and well-stained paw prints. We are getting new doors in a few weeks, and are trying to figure out how to handle this behavior, and keep an expensive new door intact... Thanks! Chris from MN

You can have nice pets and nice things but yes the struggle is real! Have you tried a dog door? It's hard carving a whole out of a nice new door but it is a LIFESAVER and we have done one on every house we have had. Both in our exterior door (garage, side door) as well as down into the basement etc. It takes the dogs just a few tries and they get it immediately! 

My cat has scratched and marked every piece of custom upholstery in my home. How do I keep him away from furniture? Are there fabrics cats will avoid or sprays that work?

I am so sorry. I am not sure how to answer this except to say stay away from investing in pieces that are too precious or custom as its just too heartbreaking being mad at your pet when they gravitate towards the most expensive pieces! Try wood and metal legged furniture and covering fabrics with faux fur throws or another layer of the same fabric it's upholstered in: you can then easily remove and clean that one whenever it needs.

I just got the Brittna Sofa Collection from Macy's. The furniture is a black and white weave, my dog is black. The fabric can be cleaned with a dry solvent cleaner. How much effort should I put into keeping her off the couch? If I vacuum/clean the furniture... once a month, every few months... will that preserve the life of the furniture? Keep it from getting smelly? She's less than a year, so she stays in her crate when I'm not home. I'm also going to get a semi-nice washable blanket to see if I can train her only to sit on that when we're on the couch.

You have to decide if you are going to allow her to go on it, or not. She is young so she can be trained. Every time she tries to jump on it, you say a firm NO and make her go down and be consistent. She will stay away soon enough and understand thats not her area.. If you'd like her to join you there, put a throw down thats cozy; chances are she will get used to lying only on that portion. Works with my dogs.

HELP!!! Im downsizing into a condo that doesnst have a dedicated pantry space the laundry room is just wide enough to fit a fullsize washer and dryer.. opposite the washer and dryer are byfold doors that contain the hvac ane water heater. Need some wallspace in order to open bifold doors to get access for maintenance. I do have the space above washer/dryer , but don't know if i should do closed storage, open shelving or what!? ! Would love to hear your suggestions for how i can get this small space to do triple duty ..

Go for open shelving: you can cram a lot in and make sure you ONLY display and use what you NEED. Baskets on shelves help contain the smaller stuff.

Hi, we currently have our cat's litter box in the guest room (which rarely gets any use), but for the long term I think I'd like to move it into the laundry closet so that when we do have guests, the smell won't linger in that room. What do you think about adding a cat flap to the closet door? I want the cat to have easy access, but I'd like to contain the smell. But I'm also a little leery of cutting a hole in our closet door!

Do the cat door: we have done with all our houses and it makes a huge difference! I have been so impressed how quickly the cat adapted too and understood how to use the door: just put a little cleaning solution containing ammonia into the box  once its been moved to its final place and hold their paw and do a scratching motion with it into the litter: then they get that it is THEIR place.

I've had cats (and a few dogs) my whole life, so my house is pet-friendly. I have miniblinds and window shades, no curtains. My living room sofa is leather, and not fabric. My two cats love to scratch (I have scratching posts for them) but they destroyed the sides of my bed's box spring. A month ago, I got a new box spring and a vinyl bedbug-resistant cover for it. It seems to be working - they aren't clawing the vinyl cover.

Great solution: I will remember that! So glad it's working.

I guess you've never had a bloodhound. At my house, visitors get towels for their laps.

It takes a village!!!

Crate? Our dog sleeps in a crate in the family room at night. During the day, when guests come over, he gets a yummy bone in the crate and then comes out and and can behave himself. Do you have suggestions for a way to disguise the crate?

A crate is a crate unfortunately. I feel like hiding it almost draws attention to it more? If you want you can get a pretty tablecloth to go over it?

My one person war on paper towels thanks you! Don't get me on my soapbox on how many we use in the US and also that they often just dry but don't clean so leave a sticky surface. And if you consider them more 'sanitary' then consider this: You don't know what goes on on the factory floor, but I do know by clothes have been through the washing machine. Rant over!

I have found that since I have been buying these wipes my paper towel usage is pretty much at zero.

Is there a list or a website which can help me plan for my kitchen remodeling. We are redoing everything, cabinets, countertops, floors, lighting. Thanks for your help!

Try Houzz! You can get inspiration there in every category and shop there too. And it offers FREE SHIPPING. I have bought everything there from faucets to lighting to rugs. Good luck!

We have a small dog (10lbs) who isn't too destructive, luckily. Our couch is a holdover craiglist purchase from years ago, so she has free reign. I see us replacing it in the next year or two. What would be the best material to allow her to continue getting on the couch? The one we have now is a microfiber, but I think I'd like something a little less casual. Thanks!

Maybe one upholstered in a nice sturdy fabric but honestly, the best way it to put down a faux fur throw or pretty blanket. My dog is really good about just lying on that and that way you pick the sofa best for your ROOM and not your dog!

My cats tend to lie on my good sofa and also guests sometimes spill on it. Where can I get an attractive throw to put on top of it? I like Suzanis or something tribal or colorful.

Try Etsy for vintage  suzanis. I find them a lot there. Pottery Barn has great faux fur throws as does West Elm and Z Galerie. Good luck!


I have Flor tile carpet squares in my living room. They are a paisley pattern in shades of lavender and gray and hide a multitude of sins! But you don't really need them to because you can pull up individual tiles and wash them in the sink! I love them!!

What a FABULOUS idea! Will remember this!

I used bitter apple spray to completely retrain a formerly homeless cat. It didn't stain a thing but the fabrics were gray. The dog sounds as if it has the beginning of dementia. It happens to them too. Stop focusing on the 'stuff', take a deep breath, talk to your vet and restructure your life a bit as you enter this new phase.

Words to live by!

Love this chat about living with our beloved pets and still keeping up appearances. Thanks Susanna Salk. Next week I'll have Washington designer Marika Meyer chatting about summer decorating and what you can do to spruce up. See you then.

Thanks for all your questions! Please reach out to me via my web site if you'd ever like a signed book plate (made out to you or your doggie) should you purchase my book "At Home With Dogs and Their Designers: Living A Stylish Life!" It's full of wonderful inspiration and tips. 

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius or follow her on Instagram @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

Home Q&A archiveFind Jura on Pinterest
Susanna Salk
Recent Chats
  • Next: