Designing a Pet-Friendly Yard

Posted on November 17, 2021


Designing a pet-friendly yard goes both ways: we must protect our pets from our yard, and protect our yard from our pets. Below, we share a few pet-scaping strategies to help you strike this balance.

Protect Your Pet

Safety first. Here are some tips for minimizing risks to your pets in your yard.


Boxwood, which is common in many landscapes, is on the ASPCA’s list of toxic plants for pets.

Avoid Dangerous Plants

To ensure pet safety, we suggest excluding any plant species that pose a risk to pets. Many popular landscape plants are toxic to pets, including Boxwoods, Sago Palms, Rhododendrons, Oleander, and bulbs like Tulips. Lilies are extremely dangerous to cats. Even some fruit trees, including Avocado, Apple, Peach, and Plum, pose a hazard. 

The ASPCA plant list is the gold standard for information on plant toxicity to pets.


A front yard fence in a Yardzen yard

Real, Secure Fences

Make sure your fence will contain your pets – they’re safer at home. Inspect your fence for holes or other escape routes, and patch them up before turning your dog loose in the yard. If your dog is a digger, bury chicken wire under the base of your fence to create a sub-grade barrier. 

We strongly recommend a real fence, and discourage “invisible” electric fences that emit a shock to dogs who cross a buried electrical wire. Invisible fences are linked to upticks in dog anxiety, stress, and misbehavior, and are counterproductive to the goal of ensuring your dog’s well-being.

Any fence with openings narrow enough to contain a dog are viable for dog-friendly designs. For front yards, we suggest visually permeable fences to allow you and your pup to see the world outside. Popular light-permeable styles we recommend include basic black metal fences, wood-framed hogwire fences, or vertical board fences with extra-wide 4” – 6” gaps between boards, colored to match wood detailing in the yard or home.

Whatever style you choose, build the fence to a height that your pup cannot jump over. 

Check out our Guide to Fences to learn more!


Blood, Bone, and Birdseed

Avoid fertilizer derived from animal products like blood or bone. Dogs often eat these products, leading to a host of illnesses. If your yard has bird feeders, opt for seed blends without raisins. Raisins are highly toxic to dogs, and seed commonly falls to the ground beneath bird feeders, where dogs can gobble it up. 

Say No to Cocoa

Mulch makes for an excellent pet-scape material (more on this below), but do not use mulch made from cocoa. Like chocolate, cocoa mulch contains chemicals that are toxic to dogs.

Avoid Toxic Products and Pest Traps

Pesticides and herbicides can pose an even greater risk to our pets than toxic plants. These chemicals can be ingested by eating or even through simple physical contact, and are linked to a range of severe illnesses. 

It’s preferable to avoid chemical treatments entirely, but if you need them, opt for organic products. If using liquid pesticides, confirm they are dry before pets can access areas in which they’ve been applied. If using granular pesticides, dissolve them with water before pets are allowed in areas where they’ve been placed. If physical traps for rodents are placed in a yard, be sure to keep your dog physically separated from them.


Careful with Compost

If you make your own compost, we salute you! That said, don’t let your dogs near your compost pile. They can’t resist eating the decomposing materials, and are likely to ingest dangerous toxins in the process. 

Mind the Sharps

Avoid metal edging or other sharp landscape features that could cut a dog. 

Hanging Items

Injuries can occur when heavy hanging items fall on cats who’ve jumped on them (hanging items, particularly swinging ones, are pounce-bait to cats). If you hang things for storage, be mindful to hang them securely and/or out of reach of your cat.


A shade sail in a Yardzen yard. A fantastic option for creating shade for a pet.

Shade and Shelter

Dogs, especially those who spend a lot of time outside, need shade and shelter to escape heat and inclement weather. 

Trees are our favorite source of shade, and generally a great addition to any landscape design. Include trees in your yard, leaving space beneath for dogs – or people – to enjoy shade. The hottest sunlight comes from the south and west, so shade areas should cheat to the north and east of tree canopies. If trees are not possible, we recommend a shade sail or some other permanent, reliable source of shade to protect your dog from prolonged sun exposure.

Dogs who will be outside in the rain should also have a dry, wind-sheltered place to ride out storms. If your home does not have covered outdoor areas to fit this bill, a simple doghouse can do the trick, just bring your pets inside when the weather starts to get too chilly.


Protect Your Yard

Now let’s turn our attention to the yard. How can we design to avoid damage from our pets? 

Lawns

Dogs cause lots of damage to lawns, be it from digging, frolicking, or doing their business on the grass. You can improve your lawn’s survival chances by opting for a tough species like Kentucky Bluegrass, Bermuda Grass, or Zoysia, but expect to water them heavily.

For a more drought-tolerant solution, replace lawns (or parts of a lawn) with a dog-friendly material like artificial turf, chipped-wood mulch, decomposed granite, or rounded gravel.


Choose a Designated Bathroom Zone

You can alleviate some of the risk to your lawn by training your dog to relieve themselves in a designated area. Choose a spot that is convenient for the dog, or they won’t use it. Try to pick a place that is also distant and downwind from outdoor hangout areas, veggie gardens, and exterior doors.  

Artificial turf is fine for use as a dog bathroom, just give the turf a weekly cleaning with an antimicrobial solution (a 50/50 vinegar/water solution or an enzyme cleaner are popular options). 

Many pros swear by bark mulch as the best material for a dog bathroom, just be sure that it is free from any dyes. We suggest wood chips, which create a soft surface but won’t easily cling to longer fur. 

Gravel is also viable, just stick to decomposed granite (often used in dog parks) or rounded pea gravel (angular gravel hurts some dogs’ paws, and they’ll often avoid it).


Low-lying ornamental grasses are a hearty option.

Plant Appropriately

In addition to being non-toxic, plants in a pet-scape should be selected and planted strategically. Plants in high dog-traffic areas should withstand damage from urine, and tolerate some trampling. Look for perennials and shrubs with soft but durable foliage – ornamental grasses are a good option.

For more delicate plants, plant them densely, with the most fragile species positioned deeper into planting areas, and surround them with an elevated wood, stone, or fence border to discourage dog traffic. 

Follow their Lead

If a dog has established paths in your yard, embrace them – better to provide a comfortable path where your dog already runs than to stubbornly plant over dog routes and watch new plants get quickly destroyed.

Avoid using lawns or groundcover plants for high traffic dog paths. Instead, we suggest paths surfaced with mulch, smooth pebbles, or decomposed granite.

Pro Tip: Expand existing dog paths into a looped running track. Looped paths give dogs space to run wild when the zoomies hit, while steering them away from more delicate parts of the yard.

Pass on Perfection

Pristinely manicured gardens may not mix well with Labrador retrievers, but you can still have a fabulous yard as a dog owner. 

Set reasonable expectations, train your dog to respect key boundaries, and design to maximize pet safety while minimizing mess. 

Do this, and you’ll have a yard that makes you and your dog happy!

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