The sun is shining, the grass is growing, and the garden centers are open. It’s glorious! I’m spending lots of time outside with my dogs and coming up with plenty of projects to do. My yard goals usually are pretty basic: repair and re-seed my dogs’ excavation sites, set aside some level ground to play fetch and agility, and expand my flowerbeds. This year, I was inspired to dig deeper (see what I did there?) and make my yard even more dog-friendly after learning about sensory gardens for dogs.

A sensory garden engages the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. With a little planning, it’s easy to incorporate a variety of sensory elements that will transform your yard into an oasis of relaxation and recreation for you and your dog.

Getting started

Start by observing how your dog behaves in your yard. What is the preferred path from back door to potty area? Does your dog have a favorite spot to dig or nap? Does your dog love to run along the fence line, jump over logs, or perch on boulders?

Next, think about how you want to use your yard, and what works or doesn’t work for you. Do you need a place to dine al fresco? Read a book? Entertain guests? Decide whether you have (or want to create) any dog-free areas within your space.

Survey your yard, making note of sunny and shady spots, dry and wet areas, and existing trees and plantings that you want to preserve. Map all of this out on paper.

Choosing plants for color and scent

Research what plants will thrive in your yard, given your climate, sunny and shady areas, and soil conditions (testing can help determine whether soil amendments are needed). Be honest about how much maintenance you are willing to do on a regular basis. Choose plants that will bloom at different times throughout your growing season and that offer a variety of colors, scents, and heights. Look for plants and ground covers sturdy enough to handle romping pups, and use fencing to protect more delicate plantings.

Consider potted plants for patios and along walkways (potted and hanging plants are less likely to be urinated upon, too). Tasty herbs like chamomile, parsley, oregano and thyme are fragrant and provide safe opportunities for nibbling on plants. 

For plant selection advice, I highly recommend the book Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs by Cheryl S. Smith, an avid gardener and dog trainer. My well-worn copy is filled with notes, highlights, and a few muddy fingerprints.

Transform your yard into an oasis of relaxation and recreation for you and your dog.

For your pet’s safety, choose plants that are non-toxic. The ASPCA website has a comprehensive list of toxic and non-toxic plants (and you can click here to learn about poisonous mushrooms). Plants that attract bees should be placed outside of the dog area, if possible. You’ll also want to avoid cocoa mulch, which contains theobromine, the same chemical that makes chocolate toxic to dogs.

Keep your yard dog-friendly and eco-friendly by using natural products and avoiding chemicals. Gardens Alive! carries a wide variety of natural lawn care and gardening products. I’m a fan of their WOW! all-natural weed killer and lawn fertilizer.

Places to walk, sit, and play

Tactile enrichment can be added by incorporating different surfaces into your yard. For example, paths made of gravel, sand or brick offer textural variety, direct traffic flow, and add beauty to your space. A designated digging pit, primed with outdoor toys, provides an outlet for normal dog behavior while preserving the rest of your yard (along with a little training and supervision, of course). Garden ornaments should be placed where dogs cannot run into them during playtime.

Logs, stumps, benches, platforms, and low decorative walls can be used for canine exercise and confidence building, and you can even add dog playground equipment items like ramps and tunnels. Many dogs enjoy splashing in a small kiddie pool, if you have room.

Create some shady spots with seating for humans and dogs to relax together. An outdoor dog bed provides a comfy spot to snooze after playtime.

Peaceful sounds

Sound elements such as running water, wind chimes, and plants that rustle in the breeze offer additional mental enrichment, provide a buffer against traffic and other external noises, and create a peaceful haven for humans.

Get more dog-friendly yard inspiration from these articles in Barks from the Guild, Australian Dog Lover Magazine, and Whole Dog Journal. Happy planting!