How to Build the Perfect Backyard for Dogs

Learn how to design and what to plant for a dog-friendly oasis.

Designing your garden with your dog in mind will prevent an infinite number of headaches down the road. upixa/Shutterstock

A dog and a beautiful backyard don't often go hand in hand. The amount of wear and tear a dog throws at a garden can leave it in tatters. But it doesn't have to be this way! With a bit of planning and a careful selection of plants that are able to hold up to whatever dogs spray at them, your backyard can be both a haven for humans and a paradise for your pups.

Here are helpful strategies for planning a yard or garden with your pup in mind, as well as a list of plants to use or to avoid.

Tips for Dog-Friendly Garden Design

Build Raised Beds

This is a good idea for any of the more sensitive plants or fruits and vegetables that you may want to grow. Add in some fencing or netting around the boxes to protect them if your dog is still tempted to hop up and snoop around.

Build a Dog-Friendly Path

If you install this around the yard, it will help to guide your dog through the garden and minimize detours into the flowerbeds. You may want to start by watching where your dog goes on his own and create paths that follow the same route. Design them with curves, rather than right angles, as a fast-moving dog will always cut corners. By doing this, you aren't trying to train your dog to go somewhere he doesn't normally want to go, and you won't feel so frustrated when your dog goes where he wants to anyway.

a small dog bounds down a garden path
Providing pathways for your dogs will show them where they're allowed to run and will help keep them out of more sensitive areas of the garden. Julius Elias/Shutterstock

Discourage Digging Through Design

If your dog sometimes digs holes, you can help keep your garden beds safe by making them raised beds. However, if your dog is a relentless digger and no part of the yard is safe, then consider building an area where your dog can do anything he'd like within that space, including dig. This could be a fenced area that has a sand box, where the outlet of digging is welcomed.

Take time to train your dog to use this space through rewards and verbal reinforcement. Try hiding treats and toys and running there with your dog to discover them. To quote dog behavior expert Cheryl Smith, "Any time you see the dog dig anywhere else, encourage the dog to accompany you to the digging pit, and praise."

Build a Fence

A fence is the most common and logical way to separate a dog from the rest of the yard, and to contain any holes or messes he might make. If you have a large yard, you can fence off a "dog zone" within it, which saves cost and leaves you with the flexibility of having a dog-free zone. Be sure the space is of adequate size for whatever breed of dog you own.

You can install a low-lying fence and train the dog to remain on one side of it. He'll be happier to stay there if he can see you on the other side. Add features to create a dog "playground" that allow him to express natural behaviors. Instead of chainlink, see if you can use an attractive material like wooden pickets or wrought iron for a nicer look or install lattices with growing vines and perennials to creating definition. Box hedges work too if grown closely, though they may need a supplemental fence to protect them for a few years.

Your fence could even take the form of a low wall, build out of a solid material like cinderblock, brick, or stone. This can be an added visual feature to the garden and provide additional seating for guests, while creating a clear boundary for the dog.

Create a Designated Area for Bathroom Breaks

This will, of course, require training your dog to use it, but the time and effort spent in training will counter any time and money spent in replacing dead plants. It will also be much easier to clean up because you'll know exactly where his deposits are. If you see your dog urinating where he shouldn't, rush to the spot with the garden hose to dilute it as quickly as possible, to reduce risk of harming plants.

If you're concerned about urine spots, add some hardscaped areas in your yard, such as bricks, stone, concrete pavers, or even crushed stone mulch. Your dog's accidents won't show up as readily there, and the materials can withstand the regular wear-and-tear of a dog's presence.

Provide Places to Sun

Many dogs love to sunbathe and might pick the sunniest spot in the middle of your favorite bed of flowers. Avoid letting a dog select his own area by providing one for him instead. A small deck, or a few paving stones in a pretty design, or even an area with bark chips will be a welcoming place for your dog to lie down, out of the way of the plants.

Create Shaded Areas

Yards are the perfect place to hang out in the sun, but on hot days it can feel pretty miserable without relief from a little shade. Plant trees or tall shrubs where your dog can enjoy a cool break from playing in the sun. Build a doghouse so your pup has a place to escape scary noises like the lawnmower or hedge trimmer. Just like other animals, dogs like to be able to get away sometimes.

Install a Water Feature

If you have a water feature of some kind, such as a decorative fountain, a doggy pool, or sprinkler system, make sure the water is drinkable and free from chemicals. Make sure a pool isn't too big or deep that a small dog could drown in it. Provide lots of water for your dog to drink on hot days.

Safe and Hardy Plants for Dogs

After figuring out the design elements that will make your yard a place where both dogs and humans can feel comfortable, it's time to review your plant selection. There are a number of plants that are resistant to dog urine. By placing these plants in the areas your dog frequents, you can reduce how much replanting you need to do, as well as keep your yard looking fresh and well-kept.

herb garden in raised bed
Many herbs are not only safe but also healthy for dogs. But you'll still want to protect them from your dog by growing them in a raised bed or pots. Jamie Hooper/Shutterstock

Luckily, the herbs you likely want to have in your kitchen garden are safe for dogs. If you like cooking with these savory staples, you'll be happy to know they're more than welcome in your dog-friendly garden. The five best options include:

  • Basil—antioxidant, antiviral and antimicrobial properties
  • Oregano—helps digestive problems including diarrhea and gas
  • Parsley—a source of flavonoids, antioxidants and vitamins
  • Peppermint—soothes upset stomachs, reduces gas and nausea, and helps with travel sickness
  • Rosemary—high in iron, calcium and Vitamin B6

Ground covers are a great alternative to a grassy lawn. Many varieties can withstand abuse from dogs better than any grasses. Great options include:

  • Carpet bugle
  • Elfin thyme
  • Kinnikinnick, aka bearberry
  • Miniature stonecrop
  • Silver carpet
  • Snow in summer
  • Winter creeper

Another staple for a dog-friendly yard are urine-resistant plants. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Bears breech
  • Burkwood osmanthus
  • Doublefile viburnum
  • Feather reed grass
  • Holly fern
  • Japanese spindle tree
  • Mexican sage
  • New Zealand flax
  • Redtwig dogwood
  • Snowball viburnum
  • Spider plants
  • Sword fern

Plants Poisonous to Dogs

Even if they look pretty, there are quite a few plants you should avoid having in your yard because ingesting them can mean illness or death for your pet. It doesn’t mean you can’t have these plants around; it just means you’ll want to plant them in areas your dog can’t access, such as fenced-off portions of the yard or in hanging baskets out of reach. These include aloe vera, daffodil, lilies, cyclamen, jade plants, anemone, cycads, lily of the valley, philodendrons and more.

The ASPCA provides a full list of plants toxic to dogs. Reviewing this list before planting will help prevent trips to the vet in the future.

small dog on a garden bench
Be sure to double check if the plants you're adding to your garden are harmful to dogs. While some dogs stay out of the plants, others may munch on anything they feel like, which could lead to a trip to the vet's office. Dora Zett/Shutterstock

Other Things Your Dog Could but Shouldn't Eat

Which mulch you select could be important to your dog's well-being. Cocoa mulch, made of cocoa bean shells, is a byproduct of chocolate production and can be harmful to your pets. Most dogs aren't going to eat mulch and, if they do, they probably wouldn't eat enough to cause a problem. However, if you have a dog that seems to dine on anything and everything, you may want to consider using something like shredded pine instead.

Much like eating mulch, ingesting large amounts of fertilizer can be harmful or even life-threatening for your pet. Be sure to use all-natural fertilizers, follow the directions, and make sure that your pet isn't allowed into the fertilized area within the suggested waiting period after application.

Compost piles are a great addition to any garden, but depending on what you're tossing into them, they can pose problems for pets. Coffee grinds, moldy food, and certain types of fruit and vegetables are harmful to dogs. In addition, fungal toxins can grow within the compost piles that cause problems for your pet's health and overall immunity if consumed. It's a good idea to keep your compost in a bin that is off-limits to your dog.

It is also a smart idea to ditch the chemical herbicides and pesticides. Not only are they terrible for the environment but they can also have disastrous effects on pets, including causing cancer.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.