This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Spots outdoors for lounging, refreshment, and sniffing the flowers: Sounds nice, right? Your dog thinks so, too. Adding these kinds of pet-centric areas to your yard, or reimagining existing ones with him in mind, means you can rest easy knowing he’s safe and stimulated while exploring the outdoors.
Sure, letting your dog out the back door and into a fenced-in yard is simple, but it won’t prevent him from ripping up flower beds and a well-kept lawn if he’s bored. Even worse, toxic plant material could make him sick if he munches on certain leaves or berries.
5 Easy Ideas to Create a Dog-Safe Yard
These easy-to-add upgrades will keep dogs safely occupied outdoors.
1. Lawn for Playing
Turf grass is a durable surface for you and your dog to frolic on, but treat it with your pet’s well-being in mind. “A lot of the health problems I see in pets stem from contact with grass that has been chemically treated,” says Florida veterinarian Jason Palm.
Switching to organic fertilizers or compost and chemical-free pest control is an easy swap. If you’re planting a new lawn for your dog, buy seed for a native turf grass that will thrive in your area. Buffalograss is one that grows slowly, requires little supplemental water or fertilizer, and will come close to resembling a typical lawn.
2. Sand for Digging
While all dogs dig, some breeds—like terriers, basset hounds, beagles, and dachshunds—were born for it. Providing these dogs, or others that dig when bored or anxious, with a spot to paw at means they’re less likely to rip up flower beds (or sofa cushions). A simple “sandbox” offers a safe outlet. To make one, excavate about a foot of topsoil, line the area with landscape fabric, and fill with play sand bordered by bricks, stones, or 2x4s. Cover it at night to keep other animals out, and clean the sand every few months by raking a 50/50 mix of water and distilled white vinegar through it to prevent mold.
3. Drinking Water
Remember to refill your dog’s bowl with cool water whenever she’s outside. “Dogs with impaired respiratory systems in particular, like pugs and bulldogs, can’t dissipate heat properly,” says Palm. “Lots of fresh water is important. A garden hose is fine, but reclaimed water is a no-no.”
If the bowl is to be on a deck, use one with a grippy rubber base to keep it steady. Stick with stainless steel—it won’t scratch easily, unlike plastic, so it resists hosting bacteria. As with indoor water bowls, sanitize ones used outside daily with hot, soapy water, and try to keep them out of the sun.
4. A Shady Spot
Providing an area out of the hot sun means your dog is less likely to want to go back inside to cool off. Under a shade tree is a natural choice, but if that’s not an option, set up a tepee or doghouse that has plenty of ventilation to prevent heat buildup.
Invest in an elevated dog bed for the yard—it promotes cooling under the dog, and it’s more comfortable than a basic pillow. It also means the dog’s main bed stays inside—and clean. To train your dog to use that shady spot, lead him there on a leash while using a phrase like “Go to your bed,” and reward him with treats to reinforce a positive behavior.
5. A Rest Stop
You could remedy urine spots in the lawn with a garden hose or by trying pet supplements, but synthetic turf is the pros’ go-to. “Pick an area away from the house to put down the turf, and make it part of the garden plan,” says New Jersey–based landscape designer Jody Shilan. Remove a 3-by-3-foot section of lawn grass, then use spikes to pin down the synthetic turf. “Design it in by continuing planting-bed lines along the area and it will look like another garden space,” says Shilan.
Walk your dog to the spot daily for at least three weeks until she adopts the spot, and reward with treats.
While most breeds of dogs benefit from having a spot of turf where they can play and an area to dig, some very active breeds need more exercise. Weimaraners, German shorthaired pointers, Jack Russell terriers, and greyhounds are just some of the popular breeds that benefit from running.
Others, like standard poodles, retrievers, Irish setters and spaniels, and Portuguese water dogs, are often more adept at swimming. If you have an active dog, you might want to add a way for him to work off some of that energy.
Room to Run
If you have enough space, consider constructing a dog run that’s 5 to 6 feet wide and runs the length of the yard. “You have to put mulch down or it becomes a muddy mess,” says landscape designer Shilan, adding that it’s best to avoid using gravel, which can get caught in dogs’ paw pads. While the run should be contained, that doesn’t mean you have to look at an unsightly chain-link fence. You can mask the fence with low evergreen hedges and shrubs, leaving spaces for your dog to peek through.
Take a Paddle
A pool can pull double duty as a fun spot for some dogs to exercise and cool off. Most dogs can learn how to enter and exit an existing pool with a staircase, but if you’re installing a new one for the family, Shilan recommends adding a sun shelf.
Little more than a flat, elevated section of the pool floor raised just below the surface of the water, this is a feature he says many dogs enjoy. “Your dog can bask in six to eight inches of water after her swim, plus it makes exiting the pool easier,” he says. Don’t assume all dogs can swim, however. Gradually introduce puppies to water to acclimate them, and outfit new swimmers in a dog vest to help with buoyancy.
Chlorine is also an issue. Veterinarian Palm warns that dogs shouldn’t drink the chlorinated pool water, which causes gastrointestinal upset. Before your dog takes a dip, make sure she’s already lapped up some fresh water from a nearby bowl. Pay attention to your dog while she’s in the pool and verbally correct her if she drinks pool water. Escort her to a water bowl at intervals so she catches on.
When she gets out of the pool, she may lick her paws, which causes the same problem. Grab a garden hose to rinse her off completely after a swim, which will also diminish the chance of skin irritation that some breeds experience when exposed to chlorine. If rinsing off your dog sounds like a hassle, consider the overall benefits of pool time.
Topping the list is the low-impact exercise of swimming, but Palm also points out that chlorine has some upsides. “Chlorinated water actually serves the purpose of drying out the ear and disinfecting, which is especially helpful for big dogs like retrievers, who have big ear canals,” says Palm.
TOH Pro Tip
“Skip treated or dyed mulch; it contains chemicals that can make dogs sick. Instead, find options at your garden center that are natural, organic, or native to your area. Avoid cocoa shells, which are as toxic to dogs as chocolate.” —Jenn Nawada, Landscape Contractor
How to Protect Your Pet Outside
These safeguards will allow you some peace of mind when your dog is outside on his own
- To keep a dog contained, any fence’s bottom rail should be just above grade. Consider burying chicken wire a foot below the bottom rail to foil a determined digger.
- Add springs and latches to entry gates so they close automatically and can’t be nudged open.
- These garden favorites are toxic to dogs and best avoided: hydrangeas, azaleas, rhododendron, hollies, yews, hostas, daffodils, daisies, peonies, and tulips. See a complete list at the ASPCA site.