Designing a dog friendly garden

Steve Lewis specialise in natural, wildlife and dog-friendly gardens.  He joins us here to give some fabulous advice on creating a garden that suits both human and dog.

There are probably few areas of life where expectation and reality diverge more markedly than realising your Spaniel doesn’t view your Chelsea inspired bijou courtyard in the same way that you do!

Seeing your garden from the dog’s point of view is the essential, but often overlooked first step in designing a garden that both of you can enjoy. Like all other areas of dog/human relationships there will be compromises – on both sides, so now is the time to crouch down on all fours and see the world at their eye level – which unfortunately for Dachshund owners involves a higher degree of suppleness than for those with the foresight to buy a Deer Hound!

Dogs are not good horticulturalists. Try as you may, they are unlikely ever to distinguish daffodils from dandelions. If there happens to be something more interesting the other side of a plant which you consider to be valuable don’t be surprised if your dog feels differently!

Firstly however, regardless of how friendly you think your dog is, you need to make sure your garden complies with the law; which in summary says that anyone with a legitimate reason to come to your house; be that postmen, gas metre reader, the Vicar or children asking if they can retrieve their ball etc, should not come into contact with your dog. If the visitor feels ‘threatened’, regardless of how friendly you perceive your dog to be, you could end up in front of a magistrate!

Good, well-planned fencing is the simple and obvious answer to ensure that the route to the front door is dog free. Now is also the time to check boundary fences. In general, you want them solid so that your dog can’t see out and prying eyes can’t see in. The type of fence will depend on the type of dog – a 3-foot high fence may be fine for a Yorkshire Terrier but will do little to deter a Border Collie. Equally, a one-inch gap underneath a fence may not be an issue for a St Bernard but a Jack Russell can widen and squeeze through an inch in no time at all! That’s an important difference that you can’t necessarily expect a fencing contractor to be aware of, and it is up to you to know your dog and to be clear about what your requirements are.

On the subject of fences, there are several versions of ‘electric fence’ on the market that give a dog a ‘shock’ through a collar when they get close to a wire hidden near the boundary – simply No, No and No again … don’t be tempted by the manufacture’s guff, the low cost compared to proper fencing or the people that claim they work – just don’t ever, ever, ever consider them!

We now have a safe and secure garden – which, if you own an average sized suburban garden, is forever destined to become a sea of mud if the design process is delegated to your dog. Part (or most!) of the answer is to not treat the garden as an exercise yard or toilet and it should never be an excuse for not taking him for a decent walk first thing in the morning before the day’s activities begin. This way when he does go into the garden it will hopefully be to potter, lie down or sleep rather than a place to burn off energy and poop.

How to proceed from here is inevitably a personal choice. Decide what you want in a garden; including all the unloved but essential items such as sheds, bins and washing lines and routes between them. Then decide what your dog wants out of the garden; this will have a lot to do with breed, age and personality, but ensure it is what your dog wants – not your idealised view of what you would like him to want! Visualise all these ideas by sketching them out on a piece of paper – if your dog always runs from the back door to the squirrel that sits in the tree accept that this is unlikely to change and include this route in your sketch.

So, what does your dog want? As mentioned, it will be very breed specific and depend on age and personality. Is it a sensory garden for rehabilitating troubled dogs or is it simply somewhere for a well-stimulated dog to have a snooze? The former could incorporate different textured surfaces, moving water and scented plants for stimulation, yet if your dog spends most of the day on a farm or running around the woods the requirements will differ.

All dogs enjoy sniffing, so an area of long un-mown grass is always welcome; sand pits for digging terriers, raised areas with a view for sunbathing, paddling pools for labradors etc. If a kennel, or indeed any feature is to be placed in the garden try to incorporate it as part of the design – not as an afterthought plonked in the middle!

The most prominent feature in most gardens is a lawn. Do you need a lawn? Do you want a lawn? Does your dog need or want a lawn? If your passion is for a top quality bowling green then you will need to keep the dog off and plan this in your initial layout. If you are happy with a rough area of grass than fine, go ahead, but beware that areas where dogs are ‘funnelled’, such as through gates, will become muddy – grass is a living plant and despite being hardy it does have limits. There is also the option of artificial grass – much of which has a 10-year guarantee against wear.

Ponds are another feature of many gardens and it may be difficult to keep some dogs out which may, or may not, be desirable. Beware however that pond liners are not designed against dog’s claws. They are also very slippy and it may be impossible for a dog to scramble out, so designing in some sort of ‘slipway’ or ‘beach’ is important.

At this stage, the general layout of the garden should be taking shape and decisions about what hard landscape materials can be put in it can be made. The choice is endless. Paving can be expensive, gravel can move around and wood can be slippy – all of which are factors that need to be considered and which will depend on your and your dog’s needs. An important point to be aware of is the use of cocoa shells as a mulch which can be both highly tasty and highly toxic to dogs!

When it comes to planting the general rule should be ‘don’t plant anything poisonous’. However, it’s not that straightforward. Charities such as The RSPCA and Kennel Club produce lists of plants toxic to dogs – over 200 on the Dogs Trust list. Whilst technically accurate they do however assume a worse case scenario and that your dog is simply going to go into the garden and eat everything – yet In reality, most dogs, most of the time, don’t – know your dog!

Traditional herbs such as Lavender, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme are always worth including and can tolerate the occasional trampling – more delicate plants will need more careful siting. Being non-toxic many dog-friendly gardens include bamboo which and can be used to create shade and ‘secret’ paths. However I would use with caution as many varieties readily sucker and cutting unwanted stems back to ground level invariably leaves sharp ends that can cut paws – and anything cut to eye level is equally dangerous.

The most important thing, however, is to keep an eye on your dog and not to simply give him unsupervised free reign. Over time his needs will change and your garden will need to reflect this. You will not get it right first time and there will be many failures and squashed plants. Living with a garden is an ever-changing journey, just make sure the dog has an enjoyable but safe ride.

Steve Lewis provides gardening services and consultancy in Somerset and Wiltshire. You can learn more about his services here:

Along with his dog, Dingo, he is supporting the fantastic work of Street Vet and completing the last of their ‘3 Peaks’ challenges.
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