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Ask an Expert: How to Create a Dog-Friendly Backyard Landscape

Ask an Expert: How to Create a Dog-Friendly Backyard Landscape

Ask an Expert: How to Create a Dog-Friendly Backyard Landscape
a Labrador dog lays on a green lawn with a colorful garden behind him

Above photo by Keller & Keller, plant photos by Doreen Wynja

Our gardens are never solely for us, and we like it that way. We share them with countless insects, birds, pollinators, and other wildlife (including the pesky ones like deer). Not to mention our family and friends, who can find fun around the fire pit or hang out in a cozy outdoor room. Let's not forget some of our favorite backyard inhabitants — our pets. If a dog is part of your family, then it likely spends even more time in your backyard than you do. So, we think it's important to make your backyard just as dog-friendly as it is pollinator-friendly or family-friendly

(Above) Cooper the yellow lab lounges in the cool grass in front of the billowing border of Ellen Lathi's enchanting garden. Having a cool, soft place to lay and keep watch is an important part of a dog-friendly landscape. 

5 Questions with a Pet and Plant Expert

To help you make your backyard landscape as dog-friendly as possible, we teamed up with the pet experts at chewy.com. Their BeChewy blog is full of information about how to live a happy, healthy life with your pets at your side. We spoke with the plant and pet expert from Chewy, Kate Karam, to get a better idea of how we can make our gardens better for our furry friends. We asked Kate five questions about creating a beautiful dog-friendly backyard landscape, and she gave us some great ideas for making sure our yards are dog-friendly, beautiful, and full of fun for everyone. 

1. What are the most important elements of a dog-friendly backyard?

  1. Safety: Dogs are going to explore every corner of the yard because that’s what they do. It’s up to you as the parent to think like a dog and get ahead of potential problems. Does it move and warrant a good chase? Does it have a scent like bone or blood meal and invite dining? Is it a great place to hide, causing you to panic? Or worse, easy for a dog to get into but hard to get out of? Many dogs are amazing escape artists — can they get over or dig under fences? Take a walk around your entire property and get ahead of the issues.
  2. Appropriate plants: Fortunately, most plants are not tasty to dogs, but every dog is different so when in doubt, avoid those that have been proven to be dangerous to dogs.

Here is a list of all plants but the most common plants you might have in your yard to avoid include: hydrangeas, azaleas, rhododendron, hollies, yews, hosta, daffodils, daisies, peonies, and tulips.

  1. Provide for their creature comforts: Pets should be supervised outside but we know that is not always possible. Think ahead to their basic needs such as ample shade, a soft spot to rest and snooze, protection from the elements such as cold or rain, and always provide a source of clean, drinkable water.
  2. Manage your own expectations: Look, they’re dogs. It’s their job to dig, chase, mark turf and use the most inconvenient spots for elimination. Create areas that are super attractive to dogs with toys and a sandbox to distract them from your perennial border. Create paths that clearly mark where you prefer they go. Don’t want them in your tomato patch? Use dog fencing to close it off. As for fencing, any fence’s bottom rail should be just above grade. Consider burying chicken wire a foot below the bottom rail to foil a determined digger.

2. What are some dog-friendly landscape ideas that dog lovers can try in their backyards?

We like to think about what a dog needs in their daily life and think in terms of zones for activity: eat, sleep, play and create ways to engage them in all of these (more here).

Dog Run: A large fenced-in area where your dog can have free reign to run, exercise, dig, and lounge. 

Agility course: If you have an energetic and athletic dog, an agility course could be the perfect way to keep them occupied in the backyard. 

Shallow pools: Perfect for hot summers, a shallow pool allows your dog to cool off and play in the water with ease.

Sandbox: Some dogs love to play in the sand just as much as kids. 

Edible garden just for them: Yes, you can garden for your pet, too! Learn more here.

3. Do you have to have a big, grassy lawn to have a dog-friendly outdoor space?

If you have a large dog, you are going to need more room overall but no, you don’t need a big, grassy lawn. In fact, many lawns are chemically treated with substances that can be dangerous for pets. You can ask your local garden center for tough groundcovers that can withstand traffic (and lots of rolling!). You can also look at mulches, but avoid those that are color or chemically treated, and ALWAYS avoid cocoa mulches, which are as dangerous to dogs as any chocolate candy bar.

4. What dog-friendly hedges can be used instead of a fence?

Dense hedges make excellent green fences, but remember they can only do so much in terms of thwarting a dog who really wants out of the yard. Some of my favorite dog-friendly hedges are planted with camellia, osmanthus, shrub rose, fringe flower, arborvitae, cypress, and pyracantha. Plant them far enough apart that they have space to grow, but close enough that they will grow together to create a dense hedge. Learn more about mass planting for hedges here

6 dog-friendly trees or shrubs that can make a dense hedge

Grace N' Grit™ Pink
BiColor Shrub Rose

A gorgeous easy-care, dog-friendly option that creates a colorful hedge with pink and white bicolor roses on the fuss-free, self-cleaning, and disease-resistant shrub. Up to 5' tall, 4' wide. Zones 4-9.

Emerald Green
Arborvitae

The dense evergreen foliage and pyramidal form make this an ideal hedge for screening, privacy, and keeping dogs in bounds. Up to 15' tall and 4' wide. Zones 4-8.

Sizzling Pink
Fringe Flower

A bold and beautiful option for warmer gardens, this fringe flower has deep burgundy foliage that makes the profusion of pink fringed flowers pop. Up to 6' tall, 5' wide. Zones 7-9.

Asian Essence®
Osmanthus

A Dan Hinkley selection that features a blanket of small, fragrant, white flowers in spring. The dense, tiny, toothy, leathery, and dark green foliage and dense habit make it ideal for a neatly clipped hedge or screen. Up to 5' tall, 4' wide. Zones 7-9.

Yukon Belle®
Pyracantha

Hardy evergreen to semi-evergreen shrub prized for its mid-winter color. Perfect as a barrier hedge or screen, and tolerant of shearing for a clipped hedge. A backyard bird favorite. Up to 10' tall and 8' wide in natural form. Zones 5-8.

Emerald Isle®
Leyland Cypress

A graceful tree with a neat, uniform shape that needs no trimming when used in natural form. The fairly narrow pyramidal growth with soft, bright green foliage on flat sprays makes it an excellent tall screen or windbreak. Up to 25' tall, 8' wide. Zones 5-9.

5. What are some of your favorite pet-friendly plants that are safe for dogs?

There are a lot of gorgeous options for plants and trees when planning a dog-friendly landscape. Some of my favorites are camellias, magnolias, Japanese maples, bamboo, bottlebrush, ornamental grasses, sunflowers, organically grown edible herbs, crape myrtle, lavender, echinacea, fuchsia, pansy, and petunia. Below are 9 superior pet-friendly favorites from Monrovia. 

6 Favorite Dog-Friendly Plants

Colorburst™ Orange
Cape Fuchsia

A vibrant Monrovia exclusive with dark green foliage on a bushy, upright mound with a profusion of showy, dangling, tubular firecracker flowers that turn heads from midsummer into fall. Up to 3' tall, 2' wide. Zones 6-10. 

Karley Rose
Fountain Grass

Ornamental grasses like fountain grass are perfect ways to add structure and movement to the dog-friendly landscape. This variety has great cold tolerance and graceful, smoky rose-purple flower spikes that glow in the sun. Up to 4' tall and wide. Zones 5-10.

Nuccio's Gem
Camellia

Sparkling white, formal, double blooms contrast well with the glossy dark-green foliage. A mid-season bloomer that is a favorite of gardeners in mild regions. A great choice for creating a dog-friendly hedge, too. Up to 8' tall and wide. Zones 8-10.

Sunbelievable™ Brown-Eyed
Girl Sunflower

This non-invasive annual flower pumps out the blooms (instead of the seeds) from spring until first frost. Large, vibrant blooms smother this award-winning, multi-branching, heat-tolerant sunflower, adding color to the pet-friendly landscape in containers or in beds and borders. Up to 3' tall and wide. Annual. 

Evolution™ Colorific™
Coneflower

An enchanting green cone at the center of every bloom, framed by dense pink petals is held atop lush foliage and sturdy, upright stems. A beautiful, colorful perennial for dog-friendly cutting gardens and landscapes. Up to 20" tall, 18" wide. Zones 4-9.

Thumbelina Leigh
English Lavender

An extremely aromatic and compact selection that produces profuse spikes of violet-blue blooms up to three times per year. Prune back by one-half after flowering for best repeat show. Great for dog-friendly containers, borders, and rock gardens. Up to 18" tall, 12" wide. Zones 5-9.

3 Favorite Dog-Friendly Small Trees

Velvet Viking™
Japanese Maple

An exceptionally cold tolerant and tough Japanese maple with lacy, delicate leaves and a beautifully mounded, weeping dwarf form that looks great in a container or as a specimen in the landscape. Up to 3' tall, 5' wide. Zones 4-9.

Bracken's Brown
Beauty Magnolia

Lustrous, leather foliage is a rich, dark-green above and a cinnamon-brown underneath. Large, creamy white flowers are exotically fragrant. This hardy magnolia transplants well and does not lose as many leaves as other varieties. 30-50' tall, 15-20' wide. Zones 5-9. 

Muskogee
Crape Myrtle

A large shrub or small tree with panicles of light lavender-pink flowers that appear amid glossy green foliage, which turns red in fall. Up to 20' tall and 15' wide. Zones 6-9.

Learn More about Pet-Friendly Garden Design