Sensory gardens provide exciting areas to forage, exercise, explore and aim to enrich the lives of our dogs. They are designed to reduce stress and encourage our dogs to become more confident in themselves and their surroundings by using different smells, textures, sounds and tastes.
What is a dog sensory garden? An area explicitly designed to provide stimulation and enrichment for dogs through plants, materials, textures, shapes, colours, scents and heights. A sensory garden aims to reduce stress, anxiety and encourage dogs to be more confident in the environment.
A boring lawn isn’t very exciting for you or your dog, and that’s what I had. Just grass. You don’t have to start from scratch like me; a little bit of dog-friendly landscaping can help decrease boredom and encourage natural behaviours. I loved creating my garden for Dolly, the French Bulldog, so I thought we would share what we learnt along the way with you.
Getting Started: Planning Your Garden.
Whatever space and budget you have, you can create a great space. Even if you live in an apartment or have no garden, just hard standing, you can use pots, planters and, with a little creativity, build a fabulous space for you and your dog to enjoy. Start with small changes and just let your sensory garden evolve.
As I was faced with a blank canvas, I had no idea what to do. Yes, I’ve been ‘gardening’ over the years, but I’m more of a ‘grow it, pick it, eat it’ type of gardener, so I always had more vegetables than flowers.
I wanted to go for a Mediterranean theme to remind me of being on holiday as since I had a stroke, I haven’t been out of the country. This did present some challenges as although I live in Norfolk and the climate is pretty good, it’s definitely not warm enough for many Mediterranean plants. But with some careful research, I found plants that could create the right look and feel and were (mostly) dog-friendly.
I even took a garden design course to help me with the planning. This isn’t necessary, of course, but when I do something, I do go all-in and hyperfocus. Apparently, hyperfocus is a sign of ADHD, which I use to my advantage. Hence this article is likely to be a long, comprehensive read, so get yourself a coffee and settle down.
Design with your dog in mind
A sensory garden, as you can imagine, is designed to stimulate your dog through all five senses:
So when considering your design, try and make sure you have something in the garden for each sense.
Observe your dog and capture their behaviour
Spend some time watching your dog and learning their behaviour in the garden.
- Where do they like to go to sunbathe?
- Where is their favourite shady spot?
- What places do they like to explore?
- What do they sniff?
- Do they like to dig?
- Are they a fan of water?
It’s a lot easier than you think to add some sensory enrichment to your outdoor space. Here are some dog sensory gardens from around the world for inspiration.
Dog sensory gardens for inspiration
The Dogs Trust
The Dogs Trust launched its first-ever dog-friendly garden, designed by Paul Hervey-Brooks, at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in 2016 called ‘A Dog’s Life,’ celebrating their 125-year milestone. They won a Gold Medal.
Bath Cats & Dogs Home
In 2013 Bath Cats & Dogs Home built an innovative sensory and enrichment garden, which features 27 different textured surfaces and several medicinal plants for dogs to self-select. It is the first centre in the UK to incorporate self-selection as part of a sensory garden.
The idea came from zoopharmacognosy specialist Caroline Ingraham, who helped put together a list of plants to include in the garden.
Zoopharmacognosy is the process by which non-human animals self-medicate, using their sense of smell and influenced by their physiological and psychological needs.
Mayhew Animal Home
The Mayhew’s sensory garden was created by their Head of Kennels, Maria Markey, which is an outdoor run that acts as a safe haven, made up of numerous different smells, textures and sounds. The plants in the garden provide stimulation and enrichment, but each has also been specifically chosen for its healing properties and ability to reduce stress and anxiety.
National Animal Welfare Trust Cornwall Sensory Garden
Staff member Loz Payne put her thinking cap on and designed the Cornwall Sensory Garden, planting many different herbs and dog-friendly plants kindly donated by Hayle Plants. A ball pool, sandpit, hiding towers for treats and lots of different textures have been set into the ground to provide a stimulating area to keep the animals’ minds busy while they are in our care.
What to include in a sensory garden for dogs
There are many ways to design a sensory garden for your dog. If you know your dog’s habits and favourite things to do outside, then you can include them in your garden design.
- Textures and surfaces
- Water feature
- Play area
- Quiet area
Dolly is a bone burier, a big sniffer and sun worshipper. She doesn’t nibble on plants, so I have a few that are not dog-friendly (like lupins), but she leaves them alone.
Grab a pencil and paper and draw the rough shape of your garden. Pencil in any fixed features that you have or want to keep, like trees and patios.
Draw outside the shape where the sun rises and sets in an arc, so you know where the sunny and shady spots will be. Although this changes through the seasons, and if your garden faces North like mine, then from about November to February there is little to no sunshine at all, but that’s fine. It’s pretty cold, so not really a time to be sitting outside for long periods of time.
Mark on your drawing your dog’s favourite places from your earlier observations.
Now drink your coffee and read through these ideas. Doodle any on your plan that you like the look of.
If you fancy a go at designing online then this free garden planning tool from Gardena is great fun.
Provide Textures and Surfaces
A variety of textures in your garden will provide great sensory experiences for your dog. Patios and paths are a common feature in gardens and are great for wearing down your dog’s claws as they play and explore.
Textures for paws
Textures like grass, sand, wood chippings and large cobblestones provide different surfaces for your dog to walk on. Do not use gravel as this can be swallowed ( Dolly is a terrible gravel muncher) and can cause intestinal problems. Plus, it’s really tricky to pick up dog poop on gravel!
Create different viewpoints for your dog
Railway sleepers, steps, benches and logs can all provide brilliant garden features as well as natural vantage points for your dog to enjoy the view.
Wooden tree stumps make great places to survey the world ( and great stools). You can often get them from a Tree Surgeon; just make sure you know what tree the stump is from and that it’s a dog-friendly one like these:
- Cedar Trees
- Conifer Trees
- Palm Trees
- Yew Trees
Make it fun for your dog with dedicated play areas
Dogs and humans love to play. It’s fun and rewarding and excellent for both of you. Creating specific play areas in the garden for your dog keeps the space interesting and full of variety.
Depending on your dog’s breed, age and abilities, you might like to include steps, ramps and even a homemade agility course in your garden. You can use lots of natural materials to do this, like logs, rocks, and grassed over earth mounds.
Dogs will love to climb, jump, go under, over, through and search for scent in the obstacles you create. This builds confidence in nervous dogs and slows down speedy dogs, creating better focus and control.
It’s Dog Parkour at home!
What is dog parkour? Urban agility for dogs. A challenging but fun physical activity in which dogs learn to interact with their environment.
Create a Digging Pit
Dolly loves to help with the digging. She likes nothing better than to get her nose and paws in the hole as soon as I’ve dug it. That’s one of the reasons I have adopted the ‘no-dig’ way of gardening.
‘No-dig’ gardening method: This is where you dig in organic matter the first time you dig over the round, then leave it. Nature’s bacteria and organisms do the rest for you. Just cover it with mulch at the end of the growing season.
To give your dog somewhere they are permitted to dig, you can create a specific digging pit. The easiest way is to bury a child’s sandpit (one of the hard-sided ones). Fill it with loose earth. Then you can bury a toy or bone in there for your dog to find.
Breed Tip: Terriers love digging pits
You may consider filling your digging pit with sand, but if so, make sure it’s the soft children’s play sand, not builders sand, as that will be too sharp. You’ll also need to cover your sandpit when not in use as neighbourhood cats will think you’ve just created them a giant litter tray, and dogs have been known to eat cat poop. Yuk!
My friend has one of those brilliant mirror ball water fountain features in the garden. It’s self-contained, plugs into a standard outdoor electrical socket and easy to clean. You can even get solar-powered water fountains too. Watching the water cascade down and listening to the gentle splashing is an excellent calming feature for you and your dog.
You could create a shallow water feature in your garden either as a permanent structure or simply pop a paddling pool in and fill it up on sunny days. If you have built a digging pit, you can empty it in the summer and fill it with water instead. Dolly only likes water when it’s smelly, muddy, and in a field, so we don’t have one in the garden for her, just the hot tub for me!
When mowing your lawn, why not leave a long patch of grass so you can throw dry food or treats in there for your dog to go foraging for or just for them to roll around in and play. I like to leave a long stripe and make it a sniffer trail – like a large outdoor snuffle mat!
I love bamboo and created a bamboo forest for Dolly to fight her way through along the fence line. I chose a clumping variety ( Red Panda) so that it didn’t spread too far. Bamboo also has the advantage that you can trim it to look more like a hedge if you wish. I don’t. We love it’s natural waving poles which turn red in the summer and the soft leaves to brush up against.
Planting willows in two lines and weaving them together makes a great tunnel for dogs to run through. As it grows and bushes out it also provides a shady spot to retreat from the heat of the midday sun.
The Log Scatter Game
Gather some large logs and pile them up like jackstraws which you can then scatter some treats under, on and around. Dogs love using their noses and bodies to hunt out food.
Hide and Seek Treat Log
If you have a dog bred for its scenting abilities, this is a great enrichment tool. You can use the natural holes in the log or get a drill out and make some extra holes to hide treats.
Logs smell great, are very tactile and if you have a big enough log, your dog can even hide in it! You might like to rub some essential oils onto the log for extra olfactory enrichment.
An open space to play games
Playing games outside is excellent for both you and your dog. Make sure to keep a space free that you can use to train, play fetch, and enjoy time together. This could be a patch of lawn or a hard paved area. It doesn’t have to be huge, just enough to play in.
Provide a quiet area to retreat and chill out
After all that play excitement, your dog will want a place to chill out and feel safe. Create a shady spot where they can lie down and rest. Some dogs like to lie on a large stone where they get an elevated view of the garden. Stones can also provide some comforting warmth when it has been basked in the late afternoon sunshine, so pick your spot with care so that it doesn’t get too hot and burn your dog’s paws.
Patio furniture can be a great place to cuddle up together on a spring day. Cushions and blankets will provide a soft, cosy space to chill out together. I created an outdoor living room on a shaded patio, complete with an outdoor rug that we can enjoy all year round.
Offer a Range of Self Selecting Medicinal Plants
Dogs and puppies use their nose and mouths to explore their world and are very good at chewing on all your plants. Providing a wide range of different dog-friendly plants in your garden will mean that not only will they be safe to nibble on, but they will also offer some health benefits to your dog too.
Many animals are self-medicating, which means that they can seek out plants to make them feel better when they feel unwell. Horses are well known for their ability to select medicines vital to their survival in the wild such as nibbling on bark, twigs, berries and flowers.
Dogs are great at self-medicating too. I’ve seen Dolly munching on long grass every now and then when she’s feeling a bit under the weather.
Planting a range of herbs, flowers and trees is a great way to offer your dog the opportunity to explore, nibble and help themselves safely. Most of these plants are also great for feeding other pets, like tortoises, which we also keep.
Planting tip: Put plants in worn tyres to contain them – but make sure the rubber isn’t crumbly.
Rosemary and lavender are two of my favourites. They are easy to grow plants and your dog will love to sniff them. They grow all year round in any soil, smell and look great and are very robust. Their woody structure makes them pretty hard-wearing and can survive many a zoomies outburst.
Mint and lemon balm are good for a sniffable pick-me-up. I love lemon balm. These plants are easy to grow but invasive, so unless you want them to take over, plant them in a pot at sniffable height.
21 Dog-Friendly Plants for your Sensory Garden
Now it’s time to think about plants. Here’s my big list of favourites for your garden.
|Birch||known to help with muscular and inflammatory pain.|
|Basil||Calms an anxious dog, and eases arthritis pain.|
|Catnip||This has relaxation properties and stimulates playfulness.|
|Chamomile||One of my all-time favourite plants. Fabulous scent and makes superb tea. It can help your dog’s anxiety and settle their stomach.|
|Clary sage||Another good plant for anxiety ( my pony loves this smell)|
|Hops||Easy to grow and not just for beer. Has calming properties for hyperactive and stressed dogs|
|Lavender||Lovely calming scent, attracts the bees to help pollinate other plants ( like my runner beans), helps to reduce anxiety.|
|Marigolds||Known for its emotional healing properties, this can be comforting in times of grief or emotional distress.|
|Marshmallow||A pretty plant and good for the relief of pain and inflammation of the respiratory tract|
|Meadowsweet||Suitable for dogs and horses used to help support and maintain ph balance in the digestive system and support optimum mobility|
|Mimulus||This is used as a Bach Flower Remedy for worrying about something that might happen.|
NOT English pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) it’s toxic.
|A natural flea repellent and a breath freshener ( not that your dog cares they have smelly breath!)|
|Plantain||Tortoises love this plant. It contains dietary fibre and some anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.|
|Rosemary||A natural flea repellant and its antimicrobial properties can help with your dog’s digestive issues.|
|Thyme||One of my favourites. Good for skin, supports gastrointestinal health and brain function.|
|Valerian||Has a calming effect. It’s what’s in your herbal Nytol to help you sleep.|
|Vervain||Good for calming highly strung dogs|
|Violets||Good for the lymphatic system. In female dogs, mammary ducts can get inflamed and violet can be used externally as a poultice and inside as a tincture.|
|Wheatgrass||Cats and dogs benefit from this plant. It has antioxidants, organ cleansing, breath freshening, digestion support, helps with constipation, odour control, energy-boosting, and antiseptic properties. Plant it!|
|Willow Bark||Known as the natural aspirin for dogs. It will ease pain and reduce inflammation as well as reduce fever, antiseptic, and immune-boosting effects.|
|YarrowA really versatile herb with anti-inflammatory properties that relieve arthritis and dermatitis, decrease fever, ease cold, flu, pneumonia and respiratory infections, soothe upset stomachs, increase digestion and appetite, help expel worms, and repair kidney and urinary tract infections. Wow! Plant this!|
Well, is there enough room in the garden to plant them all, I ask myself? You don’t need them all, but pick some you like and mix them up for a variety of colours, scents and healing properties. Put some plants in pots, planters and the borders. You can even grow a lot of these on your kitchen window sill.
There are, of course, many other plants we love in our garden that are not so dog-friendly. Plants that are toxic to dogs (and cats) should be screened off, planted up high out of reach or removed from your garden altogether. Raised beds can work well to keep plants out of reach of small dogs and they have the added benefit of creating a seat for you too.
I have three tall planters where I can put some of my favourite plants that, if Dolly were to chew on them, could cause her problems.
29 Plants that are toxic to dogs you might have in your garden
|Daffodil bulbs ( flowers are okay)|
|Hemerocallis (Day Lilies)|
|Lily of the valley|
Calming natural sounds
Whilst the plants in your garden will stimulate your dog’s sight, taste and smell and the textures will stimulate their sense of touch, let’s not forget about your dog’s sense of hearing.
We love wooden wind chimes. I first heard them on a tropical holiday and that low muted, hollow, clonking sound will always take me back to that warm, humid, tranquil place.
A normal dog can hear a much wider range of sounds than you can. In fact, dogs can hear sounds between 40 hertz and 60,000 hertz. Humans, on the other hand, hear between 20 and 20,000 hertz.
Your dog’s hearing is much more sensitive than your own, which is why I guess Dolly sits in the garden and tilts her head side to side listening to the sounds of the world around her. I wonder what she makes of it all?
Ready to begin? Creating a Safe Place for your Dog to Explore
Now you have your plan, you can make a start in the garden. But the first thing to do is double check that your garden is safe.
Whether you live near a busy road or in a more rural area, you must check your boundaries and block up any holes under the fence and fix broken fence panels. Dogs are investigators and may try and wiggle through any holes they find.
If you have a hedge surrounding your garden then you will need to close up any gaps. You can do this quickly and easily with wooden poles and chicken wire to make a mesh barrier.
Invest in bolts and padlocks to secure your garden gates, not only to keep your dog in, but to keep unwanted visitors out.
Areas you don’t want your dog to roam in, such as your vegetable patch, can be protected with wooden trellis or decorative metal screens so they are still attractive, but deter your dog. Make sure the screen is tall enough that your dog won’t be tempted to jump over it.
Ponds and water features can also pose a hazard to dogs, especially puppies so these will need to be screened off too. As an extra measure make sure your pond has a shallow slope with a grip so that your dog can get out if they do happen to fall in. This can be achieved by adding large rocks into an existing pond at one end to provide something to grip onto and climb over.
If you want to let your dog use your existing pond then reduce the depth of the water so that it is just enough to splash about it in and cool off on a hot summer’s day.
We have all seen slugs and snails in the garden, but other unwanted pests like fleas, ticks and worms can also be lurking. Make sure your dog’s treatments are up to date and have a tick remover in your dog first aid kit, just in case.
Poop. It’s not nice anywhere so scoop up poop as soon as you can and dispose of it to keep your garden clean. Hard surfaces can be washed down with a watering can or a quick blast with the hose.
Now your garden is secure, you can begin the transformation!
Some careful planning and rearranging can transform your garden into a sensory haven for you and your dog. Hard landscaping can cut down on the mess and keep your dogs claws trim. Dog friendly plants and herbs that you can both benefit from will bring you happiness and peace of mind. Providing a space to play, explore and just chill out, you’ll enjoy making it together and love being in it for years to come.