Dog Friendly Gardens

by Julie Orr on May 26, 2010


The increasing number of dog owners who wish to have gardens that suit dogs as well as humans, accounts for a new movement called Petscaping.

To have a successful dog-friendly space that you will enjoy, too, consider your dog’s behavior along with your personal needs and garden desires. Does your dog act out the callings of his breed by being a herder, hunter, patroller, digger, retriever or lounger? Observe these important characteristics over several days, even weeks.  Dogs are creatures of habit and prefer to patrol the same paths, enjoy the same sunny spots and deposit their waste in nearly the same areas each day.

When designing your yard for the herding or patrolling dogs, pay attention to the paths and plantings around the fence line since well-traveled paths will show wear if left bare. Instead, mulch heavily along their paths and plant shrubs and trees several feet away from fences keeping them pruned up from the ground to allow him damage-free access.  To the spaces under the shrubs, create a natural lounging spot by adding a thick layer of soft wood-chip mulch. Avoid cocoa and coir/coconut husk mulch which can be toxic or harmful if ingested.

Digging can be the most destructive behavior, especially to young plants; fortunately you have choices to consider. Some dogs dig to cool down, others to make escape tunnels. Many dig simply because they’re bored. Give her a digging pit to encourage her habit and relieve her boredom. Train her to dig only in her dedicated area by planting dog goodies like a Kong toy stuffed with pungent treats. Burry treats at incremental levels for her to uncover and be sure to repeat often.  Another idea that is fun for pets and their companions is to attend a doggie training or agility class. These types of programs keep your dog mentally focused and engaged in positive behaviors which you can encourage at home, helping to curb less than ideal habits.

In areas that you want to discourage and conceal digging, plant a fast growing vine that can be trained as a groundcover, like Star Jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides. But if you have an “escape artist” digger, you may wish to install a low concrete barrier under your fences. As an additional precaution, especially if you live on a busy street, consider a double entry system with auto-closers at the outer gate. In case one gate is left open, the other acts as a fail-safe. The enclosed area can double as a utility area, dog bathing station or even a temporary dog run. Once you have your dog’s habits noted on your landscape base plan, you can begin to plug in their basic needs. Always consider safety, sufficient shade, dry shelter, clean drinking water, adequate fencing, and a good potty and exercise area.

Safety is key to any people or pet space. Prudent plant choices in your landscape mean avoiding thorny, spiny, sappy and toxic plants. Small dog breeds and puppies are especially sensitive to toxins because of their limited body size. For an extensive list of toxic plants visit the ASPCA’s website at

Many people think a large lawn ensures dog exercise space. While most dogs enjoy a good run at the park, that is no reason for you to turn your backyard into one. As a water-wise alternative to traditional turf, consider a soft hardscape like decomposed granite or smooth gravel. Pea gravel with ample base rock underneath also makes for a great potty area. If you still crave the greenery of grass, consider a no-mow lawn that can be created with bunch grass like California Meadow Sedge, Carex pansa, which stands up to heavy paw traffic. Regardless of your choice, never use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. If you do use an organic method, rinse down the area immediately after application to allow soak-in time, before the pet uses the area.

Lastly, consider what special requirements may develop as your dog ages. If your dog’s breed is susceptible to hip dysplasia, think about the future need for smooth, level walking surfaces and wide corners for dog wheelchairs.

Now that you have considered your pet’s needs, what are you looking for in a garden? Will you entertain, grow edibles, read, or play ball with children? In other words, make another list of all the desired human activities.

There’s always a way to marry the needs of humans and dogs. For example, if you want to grow edibles, think about a raised planter bed that will be out of sight and at a height away from leg lifters and dogs that mark.  Petscaping is all about coexistence instead of forfeiting an attractive garden. When in doubt, hire a professional landscape designer. We can help creatively find solutions to balance everyone’s needs.


Julie Orr is a member of Association of Professional Landscape Designers, specializing in pet-friendly, water-wise, low maintenance gardens. Julie grew up with a petscape full of dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, chickens and a tortoise.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

hi ...i live in michigan and cannot find a landscaper who nows anything about dog friendly yards.have been looking for months now just no luck. i have asmall yard and big dogs who like to dig and run.I would also like awater feature for them to drink and July 2, 2013 at 8:12 am

Help with dog friendly yard…Please

Julie July 15, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Hello Michigan Dog Lover,

My recommendation would be to find your local APLD chapter to locate a designer in your area. Here’s their website:

Robin September 14, 2014 at 10:25 pm

Hi. Just attended a native plant symposium in Chico, CA. I’d love to turn the ‘dog park’ Greg and I created at the senior mobile home park we manage in Paradise into a lawn-free space. I don’t know anything about no-mow native grasses. Any recommendations for grasses that are easy to walk on for people and dogs alike?
Thank you!

Julie September 15, 2014 at 7:21 am

Hi Robin,

You can of course use bunch grasses to create spaces for dogs to romp and relax. This would not make an ideal ‘foot path’ for humans due to it’s height but it can be stepped on: Carex pansa.

Also, you may want to look into artificial sod since it would accommodate heavy traffic for multiple dogs and people.

To go lawn free, try decomposed granite paths, gravel or cedar chips.

A successful dog park will have a bit of everything and use different materials together (like the ones mentioned above): place for dogs to run, relax, drink water, relieve themselves and a place for their humans to watch and interact. I would recommend hiring a landscape designer for a quick consultation and pay them by the hour for their expert advise.

Best of luck to you!

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