Animal care and behaviour: Dogs

Designing and using a dog garden

dog garden


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It is much more fun for your dog to have access to a garden then be cooped up indoors. Dogs tend to be calmer and better behaved if they can keep in touch with the outside world, checking out sounds and smells. Even apartment dogs like to watch the world from balconies. Here are some ideas of how to plan and make best use of a dog garden, whatever its size.


Some dogs live happily and safely with little or no fencing, while others escape from what might seem quite secure gardens, and get into trouble. There are no hard and fast rules about fencing, it depends how far you can trust your dog to stay within the boundaries of your garden, and how safe the world is beyond your garden. Dogs vary enormously in their desire and ability to escape. Puppies, bitches in season, and individuals from independent breeds that tend to roam, such as huskies, need secure gardens. What is also very important is how often the dog is walked. Dogs walked at least twice a day are more likely to stay in their gardens, even when they have the opportunity to escape, while dogs that are rarely walked are more likely to take themselves off for walks. But, however well-behaved a dog is, fencing is necessary near busy roads and in densely populated urban areas.

The safest fencing is a brick or stone wall with foundations so the dog cannot dig underneath, and high enough so the dog cannot scale it. How high depends on the dog. It's safer to add a couple of feet to the height you think your dog can scale, because dogs can be very athletic in pursuit of a cat or a squirrel. You can top a solid wall with see-through fencing that lets in light, for extra security. Remember that dogs use anything you provide by way of ladders, such as jutting out stones in stone walls, and the tops of brick walls where they meet wire fencing.

Sometimes it is too expensive to build brick walls. Solid wooden fences are another option. Their weak spot tends to be at ground level. You need to check the base of a wooden fence for rot, and install below-ground barriers using materials that do not rot, in order to deter digging dogs.

See-through fencing can work well for very large gardens, especially in rural areas, so long as the gaps are too small to allow pups and skinny dogs to pass through. If you use see-through or wooden fencing, it is especially useful to plant tough shrubs alongside the fence, to increase the buffer zone between your dog and the outside world.

Invisible fence (IF) devices are marketed in the US. They are not a good idea, whatever the salesmen tell you. They work by shocking the dog when it reaches a boundary. Firstly, owners often forget to switch them on. Secondly, they tend not to deter dogs crossing them in pursuit of squirrels or other prey, but do deter them from going back home. Rescue people say they often find dogs wandering around with their IF collars still in place. If regulations don't allow you to put up a fence, then there is no option supervision backed by training.

Solid fencing is especially useful in smaller urban and suburban gardens, partly because it creates a more peaceful environment. Dogs can get very wound up in small enclosed spaces with a lot going on around them, like heavy traffic, children running and shouting, and other dogs approaching their territory. It all adds up to sensory overload. Solid fences help cut down noise, as well as visual stimuli, especially if they have shrubs planted in front of them. Shrubs are also useful for creating a calmer environment if you have to use see-through fences.

It is said that good fences make good neighbours, and this is especially true for people with dogs. Lucky owners have dog-loving neighbours, and neighbouring dogs that get on with theirs. Solid fencing, and shrubs in front of fences help to keep the peace if you are less lucky. However, training your dog to get on with neighbours is also very important. Greeting your neighbour in a friendly way sends the right messages to your dog, ie 'I have seen this person you think is an intruder, and it is a friend'. Calling your dog to you at the first sign of a hostile move towards the fence helps to nip trouble in the bud, and reassures your neighbour.

Fence fighting can be very dangerous, especially if you have children, or more than one dog. Dogs can get so wound up barking at dogs and even humans behind a fence that they bite any human or dog next to them. A child can be injured trying to pull back a fence fighter, and weaker dogs can be attacked just because they are there. There is no animosity, the dogs just get so wound up that their aggression spills over onto whatever or whoever is next to them.

Solid brick and stone walls, and dense shrubbery alongside fences can greatly reduce the risk of fence fighting, but remedial training also helps enormously. You can take the dog into the garden and go through obedience routines using a long line to reinforce recall. Friendly neighbours can help by providing different levels of temptation, until your dog is well-trained enough to tolerate the neighbour or their dog right by the fence, and pay attention to you rather than to their old 'enemy'. Dogs can also learn to tolerate one another if they are walked together on leash away from their home territory, and may get on perfectly well after a few tantrums. Long-line training can also help you control your dog's predatory interest in your neighbour's livestock - even adult dogs can learn that some animals are 'not prey'.

Solid fences are important if you have a nippy dog which could bite fingers poked through see-through fencing. Children sometimes delight in winding up dogs. Of course, they shouldn't, but it is in the nature of children to do this, and solid fencing both helps protect children from your dog, and protects the dog from children. Solid fencing also helps to protect your dog from opportunistic thieves. Small, friendly pedigree dogs in particular look like money on four legs to some people.

Access to the garden is sometimes a weak spot. Gates have to be lockable from the inside to deter wandering children, delivery people, and anyone who might leave the gate open. Gates are also safer if they are solid rather than see-through, though you can improvise with wrought iron gates, and just cover them with board on the dog side.  Working out what you need in the way of fencing, then, depends on your dog and your circumstances. It involves using common sense, and thinking ahead, and the same applies to protecting dogs from plants.

Protecting dogs from plants

It is easy to find online lists of plants that are poisonous to dogs. When I checked these out, I disocovered that my dogs, and those of friends and gardening clients had been happily existing with poisonous plants for decades. Furthermore, many poisonous plants grow in the wild places where we let our dogs off the leash. So, while it makes sense to avoid choosing garden plants which are highly toxic, it is also worth thinking about when and why dogs might ingest toxic botanicals.

Puppies will try eating virtually any greenery. With luck they sick it up before it does them any harm. The first rule of safety is to ensure that pups only eat plants that you know are safe. This either means close supervision of all garden outings, or building a puppy run which only gives access to grass.

Adult dogs are generally more discriminating, and prefer grass, except when they are out of sorts and need an emetic. Then they will eat anything to hand, including geraniums, asparagus fern, whatever. Though they usually sick it up fast, there is some risk to the dog, and you may want your favourite plants unchomped. So a good safety precaution is to ensure that your dog has access to longish grass. This 'dog grass' preferably includes a clump near the back door, because desperate dogs may chomp on the first bit of greenery they encounter. Fortunately, it is very easy to grow grass in a pot, and if the area outside your back door is paved and decorated with plants in pots, it's easy to have a couple of pots of 'dog grass' among them.

Serious recreational chewers are also at risk. If your dog chews TV remote controls, socks, and other household items, there is more of a risk of indiscrimating plant-eating in the garden. Toxic berries may be a particular temptation, as are the woody stems of shrubs, which may contain toxic sap. It's safer to avoid plants with highly toxic berries, and to clear away prunings, just in case. Non-rotting chewing items, like nylabones can be left in the garden for chewers to have access to a safe alternative. Dogs vary in terms of how sensitive they are to certain toxins,  so checking out lists of what might be risky in your garden certainly helps, as well as knowing your dog and his or her habits.

Protecting plants from dogs

Many dogs are keen gardeners, and love to dig up your freshly planted bulbs, or carry out a little landscaping with their front paws. Raised beds are very attractive to certain dogs which like to lie on a high point and observe the world, sometimes after having dug themselves a nice, comfy lying-down place first. Dogs also like to dig to hide special treasures, or to unearth small rodents, or to explore under fences. So how can you protect plants from digging dogs?

Fencing off sensitive areas, such as raised beds, is one solution. It is also possible to train dogs that, just as indoors there are no-go areas, like table tops, so too there are places in the garden that you want them to steer clear of. The younger the dog, and the more time you have to supervise, the better chance you have of getting this message across. You can also build features just for the dog, such as a sandpit for canine digging, and a high vantage point where they are allowed to lie. Some breeds are particularly fond of digging shallow depressions to lie in, and this often does no harm. Again, dogs can be trained that a bed in one place is OK, while another is not, a message that you can reinforce by leaving attractions like bones in permitted areas, and by obstacles blocking no-lie areas.

Freshly moved earth is very attractive to most dogs, and many dogs will imitate you if they see you digging' Leaving a dog outside with freshly planted bulbs may be just too much temptation, and a little supervision may be needed.

Young, active dogs love to create racetracks round gardens. It can be great fun to watch two dogs playing a game of chase, though not if treasured plants are battered. Here, raised beds can help, as can barriers using canes and wire, to steer the racetrack away from tender plants. Canine-designed racetracks often take the form of figures of eight, and incorporating garden features in their design, so it's best if items in the middle of the garden are solid and dog-proof, like large shrubs, and very big pots. Shrubs, and tough plants like lavender, are generally quite dog-proof, and big pots are always a better bet than small pots, because they are more stable and are too high to be peed into. Young dogs preferably need off-leash exercise outside the garden. A good run every day helps to take pressure off your garden.

Preventing lawns from becoming barren patches, or mud baths!

Lawns can rapidly become muddy, rutted eyesores, especially in small gardens in winter. You can put together a moveable wooden frame topped with wire netting, to cover and so protect parts of the lawn in winter. This especially helps if you want to protect a lawn repair - usually best done with turf so it takes less time to be ready for use. It also helps to have a quite wide path, or paved area for retrieve games in winter - dogs tend to create ruts when they skid to a halt, or do neat about-turns. Yellow areas often appear in dog lawns during dry spells, especially if you have a bitch. Dog urine is a fertiliser, but lawns can have too much of a good thing! Rain dilutes urine, and in dry spells, you can use rain water collected in a container from the roof. The best way to protect small gardens, though, is frequent walks. Many frequently walked dogs refuse to pee in small gardens, apparently seeing them as an extension of the house, their 'den'.

Greenhouses, sheds and other potential hazards

Sheds, greenhouses and garages can contain many potential hazards, especially if your dog likes chewing. Many toxic chemicals come in nice, chewy containers, so high shelves are essential, to keep dangerous items out of harm's way. Dogs can raid shelves when they are bored, so the shelves do have to be high, and you may want to play even safer by using lockable cupboards.

Some sorts of mulch, such as cocoa mulch, can be toxic for dogs, especially when they are first put down. Dogs may also chew fence posts and other wood items impregnated with toxic preservatives, so it is safer to ensure they do not have access to them. 

Recreational features

Even small gardens can be turned into interesting recreational areas for dogs. Sandpits for digging, and high vantage points for watching the world, are appreciated by many dogs. Shrubs planted round the edges of gardens offer shade in summer, and somewhere for you to hide items, for games of find and retrieve.

You can fit part of an improvised agility course into a small garden. Weaving poles, or a jump take up little room. Dogs can also learn better balance by using a small see-saw, or by walking along a plank set on boxes. You need a big garden for a whole agility course, but can do a lot through improvising in a small garden. Agility can make a dog a better escape-artist, but dogs have less desire to escape if they are doing interesting things with their owners, and agility also gives your dog the confidence to negotiate obstacles like fences on walks.

Many dogs like paddling or lying in ponds in summer, and they relish drinking pond water. Shallow dog ponds can offer a lot of enjoyment, if you have the time and energy to build one. They need to be kept clean - check especially for mosquito larvae in summer, and remove dead leaves in the autumn so the pond does not become stagnant. Dog ponds may be used by hibernating frogs in winter, and breeding frogs in spring, during which times you can protect the frogs with wire netting.

Dogs and wildlife in your garden

Many of the strategies that you can use to make your garden safe and pleasant for dogs, such as using toxic chemicals sparingly, or not at all, can also help to make your garden safe and attractive for wildlife. Slug traps can be as efficient as poison. Keeping vulnerable plants, like hostas, in raised pots helps to protect them from snails. In any case, you can decimate your garden's snail population by collecting them on wet nights. An artist's paint brush is a handy tool for removing aphids from rose buds. Both dogs and wildlife prefer plants to concrete and gravel, and both like the shelter provided by large shrubs and trees. Dogs also like to watch other living creatures in the garden. Luckily, dogs are compatible with most forms of wildlife you are likely to want in your garden. Dogs do tend to deter rats, which can spread disease, and rabbits, which can damage young plants. Dogs are less of a threat to tree-dwelling wildlife, like birds and  squirrels, which are more at risk from cats. Likewise, cats are more likely to catch and kill amphibians and fish, which dogs tend to leave alone.

Hedgehogs are creatures that many gardeners are fond of, because they are entertaining, and provide natural pest control. They are also under threat from pesticides, and habitat destruction, and numbers of wild hedgehogs in the UK have been falling. Untrained dogs can injure and even kill young hedgehogs, but it is quite easy to train dogs that hedgehogs are not prey. Use every encounter with a hedgehog as a training opportunity, and keep the dog on a leash at first. Let your dog know that you don't want him or her to get too close to the hog by saying 'leave', or 'chsst', or 'tssk', and then you can give the dog something more interesting to do. Hog training is also a good way of 'proofing' stays - in other words, making sure your dog will hold a stay despite a temptation that makes him or her want to move. It helps to let the dog know that you are aware of the hog, or the response to a 'stay' command may be 'but you can't see that the strange creature  is uncurling and walking away'.

Helping disabled dogs in the garden

Some dogs have mobility problems, from traffic accidents, or the aches and pains of old age. The same sorts of measures that help humans can also improve the mobility of wobbly-legged dogs, for example, a dog ramp can help a dog negotiate steep steps.

Other dogs may have little sight, especially older dogs. Dogs which cannot see well get to know their gardens, and like the feeling of familiarity, of knowing where landmarks and obstacles are, so be careful of introducing changes. If you have to change the location of furniture, such as a garden bench, take the dog to the bench and let him or her investigate. Even so, an elderly blind dog may forget the bench is there, on the next outing, and it is kinder to keep the layout of a garden as stable as possible if your dog is blind.

Fencing is critical for deaf dogs, which cannot hear traffic. They also have to rely on their eyesight much more than most dogs, so an open field of vision within the garden, ie keeping internal fences and vegetation low, can help you to communicate with deaf dogs by using visual signals.

Dogs that need to wee frequently benefit from having the back door open in summer, and from dog doors which allow them access to the garden without having to ask you to open a door for them. There are electronic doors which allow your dog to come back in, but not neighbouring cats or human intruders. Some people build a roofed dog run from the back door, so the dog can go out for a wee at night in a safe area.

Protection for outdoor dogs

Outdoor dogs need shade in summer, and somewhere dry and well-insulated in winter, as well as access to water. Kennels can heat up fast if exposed to the sun in hot climates, while floors can get damp fast when the ground is soggy underneath, so kennel design has to take local weather into account. There are dogs which are specially designed for cold weather, such as huskies, but even they can suffer if suddenly moved from a centrally heated home to an unheated kennel in winter. If your dog has to move from indoors to outdoors, this is best done before it gets cold, so the dog has a chance to get used to the new conditions. 

Outdoor dogs are common in the US, and southern Europe. Dogs generally sleep indoors in most of the UK, partly because it is densely populated and outdoor dogs bark more at night, annoying neighbours. However, many Brits have moved to Spain, taking their dogs with them, or acquiring new dogs. There are good reasons for keeping your dog indoors at night in Spain, even during hot summers. Dog theft also very common in Spain, one reason for keeping your dog in at night. Furthermore, an incurable disease, leishmaniasis, is endemic in many parts of Spain. This is not an illness to take lightly, and it can affect humans too.  It is carried by nocturnal sand flies, which pass the infection on by biting dogs. The most vulnerable dogs seem to be thin-coated breeds, like greyhounds. Spanish hunting greyhounds are often left out at night with no more protection than a piece of corrugated iron leaning on a tree or a wall. At the very least, dogs in endemic areas need to be put to bed at dusk in a shed with a door. If the windows are left open, they should be covered with mosquito netting impregnated with insecticide. The same applies to dogs living in areas where heartworm is endemic. Heartworm is a serious problem in the US, especially in the south, and is spread by mosquitoes. 

As if this weren't enough to worry about, another parasite, lungworm can be picked up by dogs in the UK, usually if they eat snails when chomping on grass, or experimentally as pups. Good hygiene helps to prevent this disease, eg washing dog toys left outside, and keeping outside water bowls clean.  

Dog sheds and kennels have to be kept free of fleas and ticks, especially in areas where Lyme disease is common, true of some parts of the UK. It pays to check dogs for ticks after walks, as well as checking sleeping areas, and using preventive treatments. From observation, long-haired dogs collect ticks more than short-haired breeds, and need checks on and round their ears, eyes, and under their 'armpits'. Cleaning and disinfecting sheds is easier if they have concrete, rather than earth floors. Good hygiene and parasite control are critical for both canine and human health, and of course, clean dog quarters smell much nicer. 

Keeping outdoor dogs on chains is, thankfully, less common in the UK than in the US and southern Europe. It is unhygienic, because the dog has to eliminate near where it sleeps, dangerous for humans, because a chained dog cannot escape, so is more likely to attack any human approaching, there is a risk of strangulation or collar sores, and chained dogs often go mad, developing stereotypic behaviour, such as repeatedly yanking at the chain in an attemopt to get free. Think fencing, with deep foundations and a roof if the dog is an escape artist, rather than chains.

English people often think it wrong to keep dogs outdoors, while people in southern Europe often think it wrong to coop them up indoors. Dogs are very versatile, and can happily live indoors or outdoors, so long as some thought is given to the their health, comfort and sanity.

Walks and time with you are still important

Even dogs which are exercised by their owners in large, beautifully designed gardens still love to go on walks. Dogs may have space to run off steam in the garden, but they do like to explore the outside world. Yes, physical exercise is important, and so too is contact with the outside world, which gives dogs mental stimulation, even if it's just a sedate daily walk on a leash.

Dogs were also designed to be with humans. A dog can be happier in a small garden with regular games, like 'find the object', than in a large garden, always left to its own devices. What really counts for most dogs is to be able to share activities with their owners.

 Alison Lever
Thank you to Sue Axtell for her comments on this article

Further Reading

Bush, Karen (2012) Dog-friendly Gardening: Creating a safe haven for you and your dog, Hubble and Hattie (A basic guide to setting up a garden that you can enjoy with your dog)

Smith, Cheryl (2008) Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs, First Stone This book is most helpful before you set up the garden. There's help with design, choosing plants, maintenance, and teaching your dog how to respect the garden)

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