The concept is simple.
“In its most basic form, dogscaping is landscaping with your dog’s needs in mind,” said Tom Barthel, a Michigan-based master gardener and author of “Dogscaping: Creating the Perfect Backyard & Garden for You and Your Dog.”
Conscientious pet parents who consider their dogs’ habits (both good and bad), potty preferences, general comfort and the like probably already have yards that are somewhat dogscaped.
“The most important features for any dog-friendly yard are shade, shelter, fencing, space for exercise, clean water and, of course, a place for them to do their business,” said Julie Orr, a landscape designer who has experience creating pet-friendly yards in Northern California.
“You want to make a list of all the things they would do naturally, including any behavioral issues and special health needs.”
Behavioral issues, as it turns out, can prove to be a big motivating factor when it comes to how to set up an outdoor area for your dog. Working with, instead of against, your dog’s natural inclinations can save you a lot of energy and frustration.
Designated Digging Areas
Pet parents can discourage their dogs from ripping up this spring’s daisies by providing a designated digging area.
“Choose an area where you don’t mind digging up about two feet of ground,” advised Eugenia Vogel, i Love Dogs’ Ask a Trainer, who has more than 20 years’ experience as a dog trainer and behavioral consultant.
“When your dog isn’t watching, dig down at least three feet and start planting goodies for him to discover. Pack the dirt tightly over each item, leaving just a few inches between. When you get close to the top, have something really good and smelly, like a piece of chicken, be the first thing he discovers. Make sure it’s a few inches below ground so he has to dig a little to get to it. He’ll smell all the other goodies then, too. Be sure to replenish the stash when it gets low.”
To discourage your dog from digging in off-limit areas, Barthel also recommends putting chicken wire down and securing it with landscaping staples.
“They’re giant staples and they’re really long, and they slide right into the dirt very easily,” he said. “Fill in the holes where your dog’s been digging, lay down the wire, fasten it with staples and cover it with mulch. When your dog goes to dig, he won’t get any farther than the wire. That discourages a lot of dogs right away from digging in those places.”
Digging isn’t just an aesthetic issue: Determined dogs can dig out of a yard and escape.
“Walk the perimeter of the yard, closely inspecting any small gaps in containment, and fix them so your dog doesn’t find them and make escape tunnels,” Vogel said.
“Fences should be at least 3 feet into the ground, so your dog doesn’t dig under them. If your fence doesn’t meet these criteria, you can have cement poured along the bottom, three or four feet out from base of the fence. Also be sure there aren’t any picnic tables or other items that your dog could use as a springboard over the fence for a spree around the neighborhood.”
Some dogs dig holes simply to cool down. “They might dig a hole and lay in it because they’re just plain hot. It’s cool against their skin and it’s refreshing,” Barthel said. “Make sure your dog has enough shade in the backyard and has opportunities to cool down. Maybe there’s a wading pool you can fill up, or give your dog a squirt with the garden hose to make him more comfortable and relieve that desire to be in the cool dirt.”
Pathways for Patrolling Dogs
“For most dogs, it is easy to note their favorite running paths – look for the worn patterns on soil – and then mimic that path with stone pavers or wood mulch, because it’s going to get really worn down if the soil is left bare,” Orr said.
She also recommends taking plant placement into account.
“Patrolling dogs need a wide berth along the yard’s perimeter to allow them room to do their job of protecting you,” Orr said. “Planting shrubs and trees several feet away from fences and keeping them pruned up from the ground will allow your dog damage-free access.”
A Place to Potty
Providing clean drinking water and a potty place can be closely related topics; one leads to the other. Where to place the drinking water in relation to the potty area is important.
“If your dog pees all over the yard, just choose one spot to keep free of toys and food, and he’ll start going there; he won’t want to be peeing all over his water or food,” Vogel said. “Do keep the area on the lawn, however. It’s a dog’s natural instinct to go on a softer surface to avoid the pee splashing back on him.”
“Some say it’s the pH in the urine. Others say that it is the nitrogen waste as a result of dogs’ high-protein diets, and the nitrogen burns grass,” he said.
There are a couple of things you can do regardless of the cause.
“Offer your dog as much water as possible,” Barthel advised. “Dogs should always have a source of clean drinking water. It helps dilute all the metabolic waste. Dogs that have to retain their urine all day or that are not well-hydrated often have very concentrated urine. Even one dose of that urine can burn an entire path of grass quickly. Make sure your dog is getting lots of opportunities to go to the bathroom and getting lots of fluids to help relieve those metabolic wastes, and you’ll start to see fewer incidents of burning.”
A designated potty spot – away from your dog’s water bowl – can also eliminate unsightly burns in areas of the lawn regularly used by your family.
“A lot of dogs make a habit out of marking or urinating in the same spot, especially male dogs,” Barthel said. “So you can train your dog to go in the same area and make sure that area is out of the way. Or you can conceal the area with some planting.”
“All dog owners want a safe, non-toxic environment for their pets,” Orr said. “To keep lawns green and healthy, I suggest topdressing with compost, lawn trimmings or organic fertilizer. Because fertilizers need time to dissolve, always spray irrigate immediately after application. Secondly, because many dogs, especially puppies, like to chomp on plants, I design my dogscaped yards by avoiding thorny, spiny, sappy and toxic plants that can be harmful to your pet.”
If you’re not hiring a professional designer to help, Orr recommends you be aware of plants that are toxic for dogs to avoid any accidental poisonings.
“My vet once told me that pets age like humans do,” she said. “We both start to lose muscle mass, our skin starts to sag and joints begin to hurt. If your dog’s breed is susceptible to hip dysplasia, consider the future possibility of needing smooth walking surfaces and wide corners for dog wheelchairs, just in case.”
Professional designers can help pet parents balance the needs of both dogs and humans. They can also help with large-scale projects or structural changes to a yard.
Orr recommends finding designers through the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) and interviewing a couple of them before selecting someone with whom you’re comfortable. “Ask to see examples of their work, especially as it pertains to pets,” she advised.
For those who prefer the do-it-yourself approach, dogscaping your yard doesn’t have to be terribly complicated.
Here are some basics:
- Shade – Make sure your dog has a cool place to retreat from the heat, such as a comfortable, shady planted area, a doghouse or another sheltered area.
- Shelter – Just like humans, dogs don’t want to get wet or cold, so your dog will need shelter to stay safe from the elements.
- Water – Whether it be a simple bowl, an anti-ant water dish or a dog-drink spigot, your dog needs water to stay hydrated and cool.
- Potty area – Your dog has to do his business somewhere, so make sure it’s in a place that’s acceptable with you and comfortable for your pooch.
- Fencing – Walk around your fence and make sure there are no gaps or holes. Also make sure your dog can’t dig out from underneath or jump over the fence to get out.
- Exercise area – Your dog needs to stretch his legs, run and interact with people for his optimal health and happiness.
The most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to sacrifice your own wants and needs for a beautiful backyard. With some compromise, both you and your dog can be happy.
“You don’t have to give up on all those plants that you’ve always wanted to have in your yard,” Barthel said. “You can put up some barriers or little fences. You can use raised flowerbeds to get them out of your dog’s way so he won’t mess with them. You can still get what you want out of your yard and a nice space to entertain and enjoy. It’s just a little bit of consideration and a little bit of planning, and some careful observation of your dog. You can make it work.”