How to have a dog-friendly garden


23 July 2015

It is possible to create a beautiful area which you can both appreciate, even though you may have very different preferences.

Your idea of a perfect garden, for example, might include a nice lawn, some colourful flowers, and maybe an interesting feature or two, such as a piece of sculpture. From your dog's point of view, these are likely to rate low on his wish list; he'll be far more delighted by places to dig, somewhere to snooze, finding interesting things to sniff at, and places to scent mark, things to scavenge and eat, and smelly stuff to roll in.

Not all these activities will be acceptable to you, but it's perfectly possible to compromise so you both feel you have the best of all possible worlds.

Karen Bush writes:

My mum, my dad, and my grandad were all keen gardeners, but although I appreciated the results of their labours, I just didn't share their enthusiasm.

Then when my partner and I acquired our first dog, rescue Boris - entirely unplanned - everything changed. We soon adapted to a new routine with Boris, which included early morning and late evening walks, but there was also the matter of the garden. A neglected wilderness outside the door isn't much fun for a dog, or for us either as we discovered just how brilliant long grass is for concealing piles of poo.

That was one of the first laws of gardening with a dog we discovered: take your eye off it for just one second while you fetch a poo bag, and you can guarantee that it disappears into the background and you won't find it again until you have actually trodden in it. Failure to sweep up fallen autumn leaves all adds to the fun.

Reluctantly I started a bit of much-needed maintenance. A hitherto unsuspected flower-bed was revealed in a corner, containing some sorry looking plants. Dad helped identify them and I bought a garden fork to tidy things up.

One thing led to another. Before I knew it, I was doing the previously despised gardening thing, and what's more, I was actually enjoying it. As I walked Boris, I started taking notice of features and plants in the gardens we passed, and thinking about which ones might work in our garden. Boris was enjoying the improvements and having a lot more fun out there too, especially when he discovered our neighbour's garden - which introduced us to the second law of dog-friendly gardening: make sure your fencing is secure.

When Boris was joined by a tiny three-month-old puppy called Chester, who could jump like a flea, we found that a determined escape artist can not only scale great heights, but can also squeeze through the tiniest of gaps.

With the insatiable curiosity of youth, Chester also insisted on testing everything with his teeth. While learning to be tidy in the house was easy, this posed an entirely different problem out in the garden: which plants were safe if he decided to chew on them?

Slowly we learned about what was going to work in the garden, both for us and for our dogs, partly from books, partly from my dad, who was an inexhaustible supply of advice, and quite a lot through trial and error.

The garden now is anything but a show garden, but it suits us all very well. There are flowers and shrubs for both human and canine interest; a container-grown self-service doggy salad bar; and although I do keep the main area of lawn mown to a sensible length, I allow the edges to be a bit shaggy so the dogs can graze on the longer stems.

But if you prefer a neater and more formal look there is no reason why you shouldn't succeed. I have friends with both stunning and immaculately kept gardens and dogs. Just remember to take your dog into account in your plans!

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How to have a dog-friendly garden

Golden rules of dog-friendly gardening

Creating a garden which satisfies the requirements of both you and your dog is largely a matter of observing a few common sense guidelines:

  • Your dog always takes priority. When making any changes in the garden, consider how they will affect your dog; don't site things or incorporate features which may present a hazard or will severely limit his activities - remember, it's his space too! If you decide to really go to town and give your garden a complete makeover, design not just with the here-and-now in mind, but the future as well so your dog will be safe and able to enjoy being out there just as much as he grows older.

  • Your garden should do what you want it to do - so don't be bound by convention. Feel free to add features you like or which your dog enjoys, even if it isn't standard gardening practice; for example as well as my shaggy lawn edges, I have a few slightly wilder areas where I allow couch grass and cleavers to do their own thing. I have even been known to cultivate pots of cleavers to extend their growing season! It makes one of my more purist gardening friends blench whenever she sees it, but as I point out, my current doggy companions, Archie and Angel, love to nibble on cleavers - and I garden for their benefit as much as mine.

  • Always supervise your dog when he's out in the garden. Keeping an eye on him isn't just about making sure he's not getting up to mischief, although obviously that's part of it, but sadly because theft is on the increase. Even though you may be able to see your dog from inside the house, your dog may be a tempting target for thieves if he appears to be out there on his own and if they do go after him, you may not be able to do anything to prevent it.

  • It's okay to fake it. Not everyone has green fingers; or maybe you just don't have the time or energy to spend on maintaining the garden. There are artificial options for pretty much everything, from grass to plants. I've just taken delivery of some artificial flowers for my mum, destined for a couple of wall-mounted planters she finds difficult to reach. They look amazingly realistic. 

    Artificial grass can be just as deceptive; I got fooled by some at a garden centre recently. It's not as nice as the real thing, but can be an acceptable time and labour-saving alternative - although providing a couple of containers planted up with doggy grazing plants or some aromatic herbs will be a thoughtful gesture and only requires minimal care. If you don't care for artificial in any shape or form, try getting creative. Another friend has created a sandy beach-style garden that requires no weeding, watering, or mowing, and which her dogs love.
  • You may have grand schemes and ideas for your garden, but as well as ensuring they are dog-appropriate, remember they also need to be manageable, not just in terms of feasibility and budget, but maintenance too. If you love spending time pottering you probably won't have a problem, but if you aren't a dedicated gardener and find it eating into leisure time which you'd rather spend relaxing in the haven you have created, you will come to regret and resent it.

  • It's nice to encourage wildlife in the garden, and a lot of it can help in keeping control of pests, but dogs can be every bit as predatory as cats, and may chase, catch, and kill garden birds. A bell on the collar will help give some warning; falconry bells make a clear, reasonably loud noise, jingling at the smallest movement. 

    Birds aren't the only potential wildlife victims; apart from badgers, dogs are the only other animals that regularly attack and injure hedgehogs. Something about them seems to bring out the inner Mr Hyde, and small dogs can cause just as much damage as large ones. It's not all one way either, as we found out when Archie discovered a hedgehog on his patch one evening. After removing him, he had lacerations all over his mouth and face and was sporting a wreath of spines across his forehead - it was pure luck that he hadn't got one in his eye. Both he and the hedgehog (treated at the local wildlife hospital) survived the ordeal, but now I am very much more careful and take no chances. When it is dark I take them out into the garden on the lead, just in case.