How to Landscape a Backyard for Dogs

For dog-loving gardeners, sharing the landscape with pets is integral to enjoying outdoor spaces. By considering your dog's preferences upfront, you can find harmony in pet and human needs. Dog-friendly layouts and landscaping choices help create outdoor environments that suit all family members, including beloved canine companions.

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Time together outdoors is important to people and dogs.
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Establishing Play and Private Areas

Purebred cocker spaniel
Planned play spaces keep pets happy and in bounds.
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Designated play areas go hand in hand with planned garden beds you may want off-limits to pets. Dogs appreciate a space where they're free to run and play, without interference from container plants or other obstacles. Setting aside designated play areas with your dog in mind simplifies establishing boundaries.

Play areas benefit from lawn grasses that tolerate the wear and tear of dog traffic. Self-repairing grasses that fill in damaged spots quickly are excellent choices, as are grasses suited to the drought-like conditions dog urine can cause. Warm-season Bermuda grass (Cynodon spp.) holds up well in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 through 10. Cool-season Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) and turf-type tall fescues (Festuca arundinacea), both hardy in USDA zones 2 through 7, can handle dog traffic. Drought-tolerant, durable tall fescue tolerates urine salts.

Dogs also like a private outdoor area they can call their own after playtime. Whether it's a doghouse or doggy awning, a spot to cool off on warm days and recover from play helps dogs feel at home. Choose a space removed from the action, but where your dog can follow your activities.

Choosing Dog-Friendly Plants

labradors in the flowers
Choose garden plants with pet and plant safety in mind.
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Plan landscapes to protect your plants and your pets. Rather than starting small, choose larger, more mature plants to help define and establish any dog-free areas. Plan on sturdy perimeter plants that stand up to occasional rough-and-tumble play that rolls out of bounds or exuberant tails of large, friendly dogs. Ground covers that handle human foot traffic handle paw traffic, too.

Drought- and salt-tolerant plants are excellent choices for dog-friendly landscapes. Tolerance to soil salts and salt spray is particularly helpful with male dogs that may use plants as markers. Dog urine, male and female, can burn plant foliage and roots just like winter road salts or sea spray. Use plants, such as trailing juniper (Juniperus horizontalis, USDA zones 3 through 7), that tolerate salt and dryness.

Limit plants with thorns, especially at eye level, that may snag passing fur or end up in tender paws. If your dog snaps at flying insects, keep plants that attract bees away from favorite dog areas. Avoid plants known to be toxic to dogs, such as azaleas (Rhododendron spp., USDA zones 4 through 9) (Ref. 2, 7, zones 8).

Accommodating Natural Instincts

German Shepherd puppy sitting on stone pathway
Let your dog's movements help determine permanent paths.
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Adapting garden plans and plantings in response to your pet's habits and natural instincts can enhance your shared garden spaces. Dogs often take the same path through lawn or garden areas -- a sign that the trail may be a good place for a permanent pathway. Resurface dog paths with pavers or flagstone to eliminate constant lawn repairs and keep pets happy.

Many dogs naturally seek to patrol and defend their family's territory. Allow space between fences and plantings so your dog has room to walk along property lines. Screening fences with tall shrubs is OK; just leave your pet traveling room behind them.

If your dog likes to dig, consider a section of their private space where digging is allowed. Create a sandbox, topped with a mulch layer that distinguishes this space from every other garden area. Eliminate confusion as to where digging is allowed. Similarly, a designated marking post or rock and diligent training can limit unwanted visits to nearby shrubs.

Using Chemicals Safely

dog
Rolling in grass is a favorite pastime for some pooches.
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Rolling in grass, licking paws, eating grass or sampling leaves are common canine behaviors. Plan your landscape and plant choices with chemical sensitivities in mind. Research at Purdue University established a link between herbicide exposure and cancer risks in some dogs.

Choose plants and grasses with known disease and pest resistance to reduce the need for frequent chemical use. Native plants from your growing region and plants well-suited to your USDA plant hardiness zone generally experience less environmental stress and adapt well to changing conditions. Better plant health and improved resilience reduce the need for intervention.

If you use chemicals, always follow label instructions closely. Keep dogs cleared from the area while you apply chemicals and at least until the product is dry. Follow product instructions for safe re-entry times for both humans and pets.

Planning Hard- and Softscapes

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Sharp stones and prickly mulch can injure paws.
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Rock, mulch and other nonplant landscape materials should also keep your pet in mind. Choose rock with smooth edges that won't be painful on tender paws. Smooth river rocks, for example, combine with smaller pebbles or pea gravel for dog-friendly surfaces. For flagstone, pavers and other hardscape surfaces, stick with smooth, paw-safe surfaces.

The same rules apply to softscape materials such as mulch. Large bark nuggets or finely ground mulches are easier on feet than sharp, shredded mulch. If your dog has a long coat, stick with larger bark pieces. They're less likely to cling to hair -- and get trailed around -- if your pet lies down in a cool mulched area.

Avoid cocoa mulch, which is made from cocoa bean hulls. The smell attracts dogs, which may mistake it for food. Like chocolate, the cocoa hulls contain substances toxic to dogs. If your landscape plans include water features, keep the water's depth and drinkability pet-safe.