A backyard is an enjoyable place for dogs and humans, but it’s important to make sure your space fits your needs as well as Fido’s. Dog-friendly landscaping and human-friendly landscaping aren’t automatically the same thing.
While you may view your outdoor space as a spot to relax or grow a vegetable garden, your pooch doesn’t think the same way you do. To them, the yard is a place to run around, sniff, dig (even if it’s in your rose garden), explore, and answer the call of nature.
That’s not to say you can’t have a dog-friendly yard that you can also enjoy just as much, but it does mean you can’t plant and landscape with only yourself in mind. Dog-friendly landscaping ideas are out there; you just have to know where to look and what you’ll need to pass the info on to a local landscaping pro to make them a reality.
Grass Alternatives for Dogs
While a lush green lawn is nice to look at, dogs may pull up your grass when running around and create yellow spots from urine. Consider alternative options like mulch, rocks or artificial turf that are sturdy and that won’t heat up too much in warm months. If you’re using rocks, make sure they’re not small enough to get stuck in your dog’s paws and make sure your dog won’t eat the pebbles.
Talk to your local landscape designer about the best setup, and consider using ground cover fabric under gravel, mulch, or stones, so the materials don’t settle into the soil. Also known as landscape fabric, this material will prevent weeds from growing up amid your ground cover.
Ground cover fabric is a woven fiber layer that’s perforated with holes so water can seep through. Some include UV protection to prolong the fabric’s life. If you use ground cover fabric, it should be secured so that dogs won’t dig or rip it up. Landscape pins are available for this purpose.
As you’re planning your dog-friendly backyard landscaping, consider the planting zone you’re in and how much your climate will impact ground cover. For example, if it rains a lot where you live, you may want to avoid dirt walkways, which can lead to muddy paws.
While you’re considering the alternatives, you’ll also want to think about the price of various options for landscaping and how they might affect your budget. Landscaping costs are a big part of any project, and you should know what you’re getting yourself into as you plan, whether you’re hiring someone or doing it yourself.
Green Ground Cover Options
While these are sturdier options than regular grass, they still can be pulled up, especially if you have a large dog that runs in the same area repeatedly. When choosing one, you’ll have to think about things like climate, durability, seasonal dormancy, appearance and lawn care.
Bermudagrass is a good option for big dogs that like to bound and romp around the yard because it has deep roots and does well in high-traffic areas. Bermudagrass will become dormant in winter if the weather gets too cold, so it grows best in areas with warmer and mild winters, thriving in hardiness zones 7 through 10.
If you’re not sure where your area falls, you can enter your ZIP code into the USDA’s plant hardiness website to find out.
Kentucky bluegrass is a relatively thick grass that grows and heals quickly, so it’s a good Bermudagrass alternative for people who live a little farther north. Kentucky bluegrass is best for cooler climates, can tolerate cold weather better than Bermudagrass and grows best in hardiness zones 2 through 6.
People sometimes call clover a weed (most herbicides kill it), but it’s generally considered to be attractive. And as an added benefit, clover can crowd out unattractive weeds. Clover can be a good alternative to grass if you want your yard to remain green because it won’t discolor the way grass can.
However, there’s a downside: it’s not as resilient in heavy traffic. Clover tends to get patchy after a while, and you may need to reseed it every few years. It will die off in the winter, but don’t worry—it will return in the spring. In the meantime, though, you may be left with a muddy yard.
On the upside, clover grows well in poor soil and can feel lush if you’re walking in your bare feet. Plus, it never needs fertilizer, and you don’t need to mow it. It’s also inexpensive: The average cost for seeds is $4 for 4,000 square feet.
Artificial turf made from synthetic fiber was developed as an alternative surface to grass for athletic events. It was first used on a large scale inside Houston’s indoor stadium, the Astrodome, built in 1966. The enclosed nature of the stadium meant rain and sunlight, typically needed to grow organic grass, couldn’t get in. Astroturf was the solution.
Artificial turf can also be a solution for dog owners if you use it correctly. It’s more durable than organic grass, and if it can stand up to 280-pound linemen wearing cleats, it can withstand whatever your golden retriever or Doberman can throw at it.
You won’t need to water artificial grass, although it’s a good idea to rinse it off to avoid a build-up of dog urine smell. Make sure your pro sets it up to drain well. Deodorizing infills are also available to reduce pet odors.
If you’re considering artificial turf, know it can be an expensive option, typically ranging from $5 to $20 per square foot of coverage. Factor this into your decision before you commit.
Grass-Free Ground Cover Alternatives
If you’re OK with not having grass, you can consider hardscaping or even exploring low-maintenance options like mulch or cedar chips.
Technically, mulch isn’t a form of hardscape because it’s organic, and hardscape surfaces are made from inorganic materials like stones, bricks and concrete pavers. These surfaces require less maintenance than lawns, clover and other organic options because there’s no mowing and little maintenance involved.
It’s easy to pick up messes your dog leaves, too, and simply use a hose to wash them away.
Mulch or Cedar Chips
Unlike hard surfaces and gravel, mulch is forgiving on your dog’s paws: It doesn’t get as hot, and it’s softer, too. It absorbs dog urine and its smell. In addition, cedar mulch gives off its own aroma, helping to mask unpleasant odors. Just be sure your mulch and the ground where you lay it have proper drainage.
If you decide to use mulch, avoid cocoa bean shells because they can produce symptoms in dogs similar to those caused by chocolate poisoning. Side effects can include diarrhea and vomiting, and, when larger quantities are consumed, muscle tremors and neurological problems.
Pea gravel consists of rounded fragments of stone that are, as the name suggests, about the size of peas: typically one-eighth to three-eighths of an inch. You can get it in colors ranging from gray to brown to white, so it’s easy to complement the look of your yard.
Because of its smooth surface, you and your dog won’t have to worry about stepping on jagged or pointy edges, and pea gravel can be used for everything from walkways to patios to playgrounds and even bathroom areas.
Best of all, pea gravel is affordable, typically ranging from $300 to $400 for 200 square feet of coverage. Color variations may cost a little extra.
Although it’s not quite as smooth as pea gravel, crushed limestone can be layered so that it’s easy on your dog’s feet, too. It also repels odors well, and those it doesn’t, you can wash away easily because it drains well. The cost of crushed limestone can vary depending on the quality.
Like crushed limestone, decomposed granite is durable but not too hard on your dog’s paws. It’s also an affordable option, ranging from $0.30 to $0.70 per square foot.
Beware of Temperature-Absorbing Materials
While concrete, artificial turf and pavers may be fine if you live in a mild climate or they’re in a shaded part of your yard, it’s important to understand how hot they can get.
Humidity, wind, and other factors can play into how much heat a dog can tolerate. So can your dog’s size, age and breed.
Make sure your dog always has plenty of water and shade to retreat to. You may even want to add a water feature like a pet-friendly drinking fountain. Spraying ground cover with water can reduce its heat.
How to Get Rid of Dog Urine Odor
You may have noticed that the smell of dog urine can build up over time. The easiest way to counteract this is to rinse the affected spots with water or to turn the soil, but if that doesn’t work, try natural solutions like baking soda, vinegar or citrus.
Artificial turf is washable, as are hardscape materials.
Choosing Dog-Friendly Plants for Your Landscape
When choosing greenery for your landscape design, it’s important to avoid poisonous plants. For example, it’s popular to grow aloe for medicinal purposes: It contains antioxidants and can be great for treating wounds and burns, among other benefits. But it’s also toxic to dogs, as well as to cats and horses, so you should keep it out of gardens and elevate it in pots so it’s out of your dog’s reach.
You should also avoid some common and beautiful plants and flowers, like azaleas, yellow oleander and tulips, because they’re also toxic to dogs. So are some plants often used as greenery, like sago palms, along with many fruit trees (like peach), some vegetables (like tomatoes) and some herbs (like basil).
You might be surprised how many toxic plants there are: The ASPCA lists more than 400 of them. When in doubt, check ASPCA guidelines to find out which plants are toxic and which are non-toxic.
Dogs can also harm some plants. Dog urine can kill plants because the nitrogen in it dries them out and can alter the pH of the soil. Plants that consume more nitrogen are more resilient when dogs urinate around them, so consider these when you’re planting.
Roses, which use a lot of nitrogen, are one example. Others include sword ferns, Mexican sage, holly ferns, basil, oregano, peppermint and spider plants.
Dog-Friendly Landscaping Tips
There are many elements of dog-friendly landscaping that impact not only the beauty of your yard but also your pup’s safety.. Here are some things you may want to think about doing.
Create Walkways Along Traveled Paths
If there are a few areas your furry friend wears down, consider turning them into pathways with pea gravel or decomposed granite. These will hold up to a lot of foot traffic, unlike grass, which will get pulled up or worn.
It’s important to choose a surface that will be easy enough on your dog’s feet that he won’t simply go back on the grass and make a new path once you’ve laid it down. If it gets hot in the summer where you live, and the surface you choose absorbs the heat, your dog will probably opt for the grass instead.
Pea gravel is a good alternative if you go this route because it stays relatively cool in sunlight, and you can easily hose it down.
Avoid Sharp Metal Edging
You may want to create a barrier around your flower beds or walkways, but metal edging can cut your dog, and it can hurt you, too. Instead, opt for plastic edging, rocks or other safer materials.
Use Hedges to Hide the ‘Patrol Zone’
It’s common for dogs to patrol along the fence. As a result, this area can wind up looking worn and become an eyesore. Hedges or other plants can camouflage your dog’s preferred patrol route.
On the other hand, you don’t want your dog tearing through your shrubs to get to the fence, breaking off branches and getting sticks and leaves caught in her coat. A good solution may be to leave a few feet of space between the fence and the plants that run alongside or parallel to it. This will allow your dog to patrol the perimeter without damaging your plants, which can still act as a visual barrier between the main yard and the worn area.
One word of caution, though: If your dog likes to dig or try to escape, this may not be the right option for you.
Designate a Bathroom Area
You may want to train your dog to go to the bathroom in one area. You can do this by leashing your dog and taking her to that area, then staying there until she goes and offering a reward. The reward doesn’t have to be an edible treat or chew toy; it can be as simple as praise from you and the freedom to get off the leash and go exploring once your dog has done what you took her there to do.
Whatever area you choose should have good drainage and be easy to hose down. Pea gravel or similar materials may be good options. You might want to add some sort of “marking post.” Some companies even sell them in the shape of fire hydrants.
Add a Dog Run
If you’d like to have grass in your yard, but your dog tends to pull it up, a designated area where he can run back and forth could be a fix. Ideally, it would be long and narrow, with sturdy ground cover like mulch or gravel.
Dirt can work, too, but may be messy, especially in rainy weather.
Provide Shade and Water
This may seem obvious, but it’s essential to make sure you have shaded areas where your dog can beat the heat and have access to water to hydrate. If you have a lot of large trees, that’s great, but if you don’t, give your dog access to overhang areas like a porch away from the hot sun.
Having water readily available is also essential. As an added bonus, it may also help reduce your dog’s tendencies to dig in the dirt to create a cool space. Providing a water bowl for your dog is just one option. You can also add more permanent features like a doggy drinking fountain.
Used Raised Beds or Large Pots
If you have a dog that likes to lay in the plants, try using raised beds or large pots to elevate plants off the ground. This is also a good solution if your dog likes to dig. As a bonus, decorative pots can add beauty to your yard.
Fence It Off
While you want to create a dog-friendly landscape, they don’t have to run the whole yard. Fence off areas you don’t want your dogs to access, like your flower beds or vegetable garden.
Think of what kind of fence will work best for both you and your dog. Weigh the pros and cons. A solid barrier might keep your pup from getting curious about what’s on the other side, but it’ll block the view for you, too. Chain-link fences are more affordable, but not everyone loves how they look. And if your dog’s a digger, she could claw her way underneath.
If your dog is not a digger, an inexpensive wire fence and wooden fence posts might work, or you could always try a classic picket fence.
So-called invisible fences may be easy on the eyes, but they require training, and you should consider whether you want to subject your dog to the pain they can cause. Choose the best option for you.
The right dog-friendly landscape will be different for everyone depending on your space and your dog’s needs and personality. If you need help, it could be useful to consult a local landscaping pro.