Backyard Ideas for a Dog-Friendly Landscape

One of the key aspects of creating a successful landscape design for your home involves understanding how your family uses your outdoor space. When your closest family members include dogs, it’s important to consider how they use your landscape, too. Don’t believe the naysayers. Lawns, landscapes and healthy, playful hounds can coexist. With a few simple considerations, you and Fido can enjoy the ideal dog-friendly landscape.

Getting the Big Dogscaping Picture

Before you launch into the nitty-gritty details of petscapes designed for canine comfort, step back to consider the space as a whole. Colorado-based landscape architect Kristin Heggem, an expert in pet-friendly landscape design, explains that approaches may vary significantly based on the size of your dog. “Large dogs need space to run, while smaller dogs use space differently,” she says. Retrievers and terriers, for example, differ in their backyard needs.

Heggem suggests watching your dog’s route when you let them out. They may run straight for the fence line to check for intruders, or they may shoot for the back corner where their favored potty area lies. By watching their movements, you can discover the spaces they’ve already chosen for dog paths and other purposes and work those into your overall plan.

Make Dog Paths Easy on Paws

“All dogs like to patrol the perimeter, so you’ll want to accommodate that and set plants back away from that path,” she says. “Three feet is about normal.” Smooth, paw-friendly hardscape surfaces, such as light-colored, heat-reflecting pavers or flagstone, may be better path choices than pea gravel that gets strewn in lawns, or sharp-edged wood mulch that gets stuck in hair and paws.

Heggem also advises against using “eco-friendly” mulches made from recycled tires. “They’re a big no-no for dogs,” she says. “They’re toxic to dogs and can contain ground-up woven steel, which can be really damaging.” Cocoa mulch is another option to avoid. Like chocolate, cocoa hulls can be toxic if dogs ingest them.

You’ll also want to watch for areas where your pet likes to rest. That’s often a spot that lets them keep an eye on you and the back door. Make sure they have a shaded area, whether doghouse or plant-covered pergola, to get out of summer sun. A water feature designed to provide fresh, pet-safe water is essential, too.

Select Dog-Friendly Landscape Plants

Typical landscape designs put a lot of emphasis on plant size, shape and color. Your dog-friendly yard design should do the same. But, in addition to those attributes, you’ll want to zero in on their resilience to dog activities and safety for your furry friend.

Heggem recommends using sturdy plants that stand up to dog play. “Avoid brittle plants that may break easily,” she says. Avoid plants with sharp holly-like foliage, thorns or spines, especially at eye or paw level, which can cause pain for your pooch and heart ache for you. Ornamental grasses can be a good alternative to create designated areas or protect flower beds off-limits to dogs.

Steer clear of plants that are toxic to dogs if eaten. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that includes common plants such as aloe vera, yews and azaleas. Instead of poisonous plants, opt for ASPCA-approved plants, including camellias, coreopsis and nasturtiums. “Dogs naturally chew on things, including plants,” Heggem says. “Using non-toxic plants is very important.”

Plants that tolerate drought and salt sprays, including road deicers and ocean sprays, also hold up well to dogs that mark their territory. The reaction that dog urine produces in soil and plants is very similar to salt sprays. Coastal natives adapted to strong winds are excellent dog choices that hold their own against bounding pups and wagging tails.

While pollinator gardens are worthy endeavors, large plantings of bee-attracting plants in dog landscapes can backfire. Many dogs naturally snap and bite at insects, and stung doggy lips and tongues are no fun.

Choose Dog-Tolerant Ground Covers

Deciding which grassy ground cover suits your dog-friendly backyard starts with being realistic about your tolerance for dog damage. You’re probably familiar with the dreaded brown spots, those burn-like areas caused by concentrated nitrogen in dog urine, but wear and tear from dog traffic is an equal concern. Not all grasses are up to the challenge, but your dog probably enjoys a cushy lawn beneath its feet as much as you do.

In the past, dog owners relied on research showing that grasses such as tall fescue and perennial ryegrass withstand dog urine damage better than others, but those grasses may lack the traffic tolerance demanded by playful or patrolling dogs. Heggem says that Kentucky bluegrass and Bermudagrass, both aggressive spreading grasses, fare better under heavy dog traffic.

More modern choices also exist. Dog Tuff Turf, a new grass variety developed in Colorado from an African grass, boasts dog-spot and drought resistance. Drought-tolerant Buffalograss, a native North American grass becoming increasingly popular as a lawn alternative, also holds up to dog urine, but not to traffic. Fast-growing, resilient clover is another option used by some petscaping landscapers.

Beware Artificial Turf

Many dog parks have turned to artificial turf to keep dog runs green and spot-free. Heggem says they stand up well, but a lot has to go on underneath to prevent problems. Artificial grasses, even those designed for dogs, retain some urine and remnant dog poo until it’s cleaned away. That means not only putting your pooper scooper to use, but disinfecting, deodorizing, and washing artificial grass to prevent bacteria and nasty odors.

In addition, artificial turf has added risks for pets and humans. While natural grass has a cooling effect, artificial grass heats up. Penn State’s Center for Sports Surface Research reports that synthetic turf is typically 35 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than natural grass and has been measured as hot as 200 degrees. That can mean burned paws, heat exhaustion or even worse.

By focusing on dog-friendly landscaping, with Fido’s well-being in mind, you help ensure hours of safe outdoor enjoyment for your pet and you. From hardscapes to plants and dog-tolerant ground covers, your local lawn care pro or landscape designer can help you navigate the choices on your way to a beautiful yard.

Jolene Hansen

Jolene Hansen

Jolene Hansen is a lifelong gardener who parlayed a passion for plants into a horticulture career. She has been helping lawn and landscape lovers learn and grow for more than twenty years.