Our dogs are part of the family, and our homes are their homes. They have free range of the living room and all the bedrooms, but what about the garden? The days of yelling at the dog to get out of the garden are long gone. Instead, pet parents are recognizing outdoor areas as excellent opportunities for canine enrichment. They’re called canine sensory gardens or enrichment gardens, and you don’t need a huge yard to make one. All you need is a little creativity, a willingness to get your hands dirty, and a curious pup ready to test your handiwork.
What is a Sensory Garden?
Sensory gardens aren’t a new thing. Traditionally, they’re used in schools, hospitals, and care facilities to stimulate a person’s senses. The concept works so well, animal shelters started making dog-friendly versions, and the results were incredible. Normally nervous dogs could spend time in a sensory garden and leave feeling calmer and more confident. At the same time, high-energy dogs have freedom to run and explore in a safe environment.
Shelter dogs benefit greatly from sensory gardens, and so do dogs that have already found loving homes. It helps break up a dog’s day and engages both his mind and his body. It gets him thinking about the smells and sights around him, and it encourages instincts that let him enjoy all the best parts of being a dog.
Make Your Own Canine Sensory Garden
Find Your Space
You don’t need a huge space, or even grass, to make your dog a great sensory garden. You can use your entire yard, a portion of your yard, or even a balcony. Set up a secure fence line or border to keep your pup from running off, and base your plans off of what you have to work with. Even a small sensory area will add enrichment to your dog’s life.
Observe Your Pet
The best thing about your DIY sensory garden is you can make it a perfect fit for your unique dog. Before you start designing, pay attention to how your dog spends his time. If your dog likes to run and play, you’ll want as much open area as you can get. If he loves water, you might want to consider adding a water element to your garden. If he prefers snoozing in the shady spots, you’ll want taller plants and trees to create cool retreats from the sun. Think about your dog’s personality and start planning your garden based on what he likes best.
Use a Variety of Pet-Safe Plants
Plants are perfect canine enrichment—as long as they’re non-toxic. Stay away from orchids, sago palms, azaleas, and autumn crocus, because these are all poisonous to pets. You also want to avoid plants that have thorns or invasive seed heads that your pup could choke on or get lodged in his ears.
Medicinal herbs with strong scents are great options for your dog’s sensory garden. Rosemary, thyme, and basil all have interesting scents and are safe for dogs. Chamomile and lavender have calming qualities and are good choices for dogs with nervous personalities. Choose plants in a variety of heights, shapes, and textures to keep things interesting.
If you’re utilizing a patio or another type of area that makes planting difficult, put your plants in pots or raised flower beds. As long as they’re not too tall, your pup will still enjoy them.
Mix Up Your Surface Textures
Different textures under his paws will keep your dog on his toes—literally! Grass is always an easy solution, but different types of surfaces will be interesting for your dog. Cedar chips have the added bonus of repelling fleas, or you could use crushed aggregate, sand, or mulch.
If you have the space, consider creating separate “environments” within your garden with the use of different textures. You can have a beach corner with sand perfect for digging, and a shady spot with mulch all in the same sensory garden.
Paths and trails add another element of potential enrichment, and water is a type of texture some dogs go crazy for.
Don't Forget the Finishing Touches
Your sensory garden has unlimited potential. Everything you add should provide your pup with an opportunity to explore and enjoy. When thinking about what else to include, go back to your basic five senses—sight, smell, touch, hear, and taste.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Sight: A window through the fence could give your dog something interesting to see (as long as he’s not one to get territorial or bark at people passing by).
Smell: The plants you choose will add plenty of scent-based enrichment, but you can also bring in outside elements like pine cones you pick up from the park, or handfuls of leaves collected from your favorite hike. You won’t be able to smell the difference, but to your dog, these foreign objects will be worth a good sniff.
Touch: In addition to your surface textures, add other elements to your garden like rocks or logs. You’ll want to make sure your dog doesn’t try to eat the logs, but climbing over these obstacles can be great fun and physical exercise.
Hear: Something as simple as a wind chime hanging in a tree will engage the part of your dog’s brain responsible for processing sounds. If your pup is a friend to small critters, a bird feeder that attracts songbirds will also be music to your dog’s floppy ears.
Taste: You don’t want your pup chewing on sticks or swallowing pebbles, but there are other ways to utilize the sense of taste in your sensory garden. The best way to do this is through your plants. Many herbs and some fruits are safe for dogs to eat. A blueberry bush could be your dog’s chance to express his instinct to naturally forage for food, and if you want the added bonus of freshening his breath, try planting mint and offering him a taste. Remember, however, only use pet-safe methods of keeping bugs away from your plants. You don’t want your pup consuming chemical pesticides.
Your canine sensory garden is something that will evolve with time. You’ll learn what your dog tends to ignore and what really gets his tail wagging. Dogs as young as recently vaccinated puppies all the way up to senior dogs with age-related health issues can find enjoyment in a sensory garden. Start planning yours today!