How to Create a Sensory Garden for Dogs

Dog holding flowers in yard

Whether your canine friend is super energetic or is more of a couch potato, a sensory garden will encourage healthy exercise and rest. Our guide will help you turn a regular landscape into a pup paradise. 

What is a sensory garden? A sensory garden is a garden taken to the next level. It amplifies every sense — touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight — to increase your dog’s sense of play, exploration, and relaxation. 

Assess your needs

Before you get started with design, you’ll want to assess your particular dog and landscape. This will help you determine the best layout for you and your furry friend. 

Consider these questions about your pet:

  • Does your dog prefer being in the sun or shade?
  • Is your dog likely to need ramps in the future?
  • Is your dog food-motivated?
  • Does your dog mostly need to be calmed or energized?

Answering these will help you pick the most useful elements for your dog.

Consider these questions about your yard:

  • How big is your yard?
  • How much sun does it get and what part of your yard gets direct sun?
  • What kind of climate do you live in?

Answering these questions will help you determine the layout of your landscape and which plants will work best. 

9 ideas for the perfect sensory garden for dogs

Dog digging in sand
Laura Stanley | Pexels

1. Digging pit 

Is your dog always digging unsightly holes in your precious landscape and tearing up your lawn? Give them a digging pit. Fill a paddling pool for kids with sand and let your pooch loose. Make sure the sand pit has rigid sides so the structure holds up to curious paws, and bury some toys or treats in the sand to get your dog interested.

You also can use a raised garden bed filled with soil, but this can be a messier option and you’ll have to teach your dog to distinguish his/her play space from the rest of your flower beds. 

2. Water features

Water features are a great addition to your backyard, especially if you live in a warmer climate. Not only is it an opportunity to play, it also helps cool off your pets in hot weather. If your furry friend suffers from joint pain or other injuries, paddling can be a safer form of exercise. 

For small backyards, try a temporary paddling pool that you can deflate as necessary. For a more permanent structure, a shallow pond with a soft bottom will give plenty of chances to splash. 

Swimming isn’t the only way water can help a sensory garden: A fountain or waterfall creates a soothing sound to keep your dogs calm and interested. Not to mention, it will be pleasant for the humans, too. 

Beagle sniffs in garden bed
Albina White | Pexels

3. Scent game

If you have a particularly clever pup, you know the kind of trouble they can get into when they’re not occupied. It can be a problem when you need to leave them alone for a bit, but creating a scent hunt with hidden treats can provide plenty of self-directed fun. 

There are a couple ways to craft a scent game. One is to take a log, drill holes in it, and stuff a few treats inside. Logs smell great on their own and provide an interesting tactile experience as well. Just be sure to reward your pet after a sniffing session if they can’t access the treats themselves.

An easier way is to leave a patch of your lawn tall, then toss treats or food throughout the area for them to forage for. Collect anything that might attract bugs, since unmowed grass can be a breeding ground for insects. 

Dog on trail surrounded by vegetation
patiencenova | Pixabay

4. Trail

It’s not always easy to get your dog in the car and get to a nice walking path, but you can create a stimulating nature trail right in your backyard. Design your landscape to include a pathway that loops through your yard. This is like a dog run taken to the next sensory level. 

Plant shade trees to create a canopy over the path, that way it also can serve as a cool refuge in the heat. Include shrubs and fragrant herbaceous perennials along the way to stimulate dogs’ sense of smell and encourage them to explore (see plants for a sensory garden below). 

Dog running off a ramp
SnottyBoggins | Pixabay

5. Ramps and tiered levels

Your dog doesn’t have to be best in show to enjoy an obstacle course. A simple way to get your dog in a playful mood and burn off some energy is to build different levels into your yard. An elevated deck works perfectly, or even an elevated kennel. 

Incorporate ramps to support older or injured dogs. They can still benefit from playing with different levels, but a ramp won’t tire them out or cause pain. A tunnel can also be a fun opportunity for exploration. 

6. Bird feeders

This tip depends on your specific dog. If the slightest sight of a bird sends your pet into a barking frenzy, you obviously don’t want to add a bird feeder. For others, though, bird watching can be a stimulating activity that can keep your dog engaged for hours. 

If you’re interested in attracting birds to your backyard, hang a few different types of feeders with different feed in each.

Try two or three of these feeders:

  • Suet feeder
  • Tube feeder
  • Hopper or house feeder
  • Ground or tray feeder
  • Hummingbird feeder

When placing your feeders, choose spots high enough that birds aren’t in danger of snapping jaws. Trees with plenty of coverage and branches to retreat to are especially good options and will attract birds as sources of shelter. 

7. Soundscapes

As pet owners know, dogs are incredibly sensitive to sound. Their sense of hearing is four times stronger than a human’s, which is why they seem to be able to hear an ambulance from a neighboring city. Adding gentle nature sounds can be soothing for both animals and their owners. 

There are lots of ways to incorporate pleasing sounds into your landscape. Attracting songbirds is a great start, but consider adding these elements to your yard too:

  • Wind chimes (wooden ones are especially soothing)
  • Ornamental grass 
  • A waterfall or stream

8. Different textures

Tactile sensations are an important aspect of any sensory garden. While grass is great, your pup will appreciate having a diversity of textures in the yard for them to trot over. 

Try adding things like:

  • Pea gravel
  • Mulch
  • Dirt
  • Sand
  • Astroturf (a pet-friendly type)
  • Hay

9. Plants for a dog sensory garden

Here comes the fun part: choosing your plants! The plants you pick won’t just benefit your dog, they can help create your personal paradise, too. Choose ones you like the aesthetic of, that are appropriate for your climate, and (of course) are dog friendly.

These plants are especially enjoyable for dogs:

  • Catnip isn’t just for cats. Dogs also enjoy the sensations from eating this plant, including relaxation and playfulness. 
  • Chamomile has a calming effect and helps with stomach problems. A chamomile lawn is a great replacement for traditional grass.
  • Lavender helps reduce stress for anxious dogs (just like it does for dog owners, too) and high-strung nerves.
  • Marshmallow can ease upset stomachs and digestion issues.
  • Valerian is a well-known anti-anxiety herb both for humans and dogs. 
  • Yarrow is an herbal multitasker, aiding inflammation, urinary problems, and wounds.

Did you know cats and dogs seek out certain plants to self-medicate? The study of it is called zoopharmacognosy. If you’ve seen your dog eat grass, for example, it’s sometimes an effort to make themselves vomit to help ease their upset stomach. Your pet will naturally use the appropriate herbs for any discomfort. 

What to avoid

Toxic plants

Building a paradise for your dog that’s safe to thoroughly explore means avoiding plants that could be toxic to your animals. These common garden plants can harm your dogs, so be sure to remove them if they’re already planted. The American Kennel Club provides a full list of toxic plants. 

  • Daffodils
  • Lily of the valley
  • Tulips 
  • Oleander
  • Azaleas
  • Holly
  • Hydrangea
  • Ivy
  • Peony
  • Sago palm
  • Foxglove 

Overgrown lawn

A good gardener knows it’s important to keep your grass trimmed for your lawn’s health, but did you know it’s also important for your pets? Long grass is a home for fleas and ticks and often your pets carry them inside your home. Fleas can cause severe skin irritation and stress, and ticks can carry fatal diseases. 

Keep your lawn cut at its recommended mowing height, particularly around the edges of your yard. If possible, create a 3-foot barrier around your property that doesn’t contain any vegetation. This will reduce the chances of ticks and fleas making their way onto your lawn. 

Benefits of a sensory garden for dogs

The benefits of a sensory garden are endless and vary with the particular plants you choose, but they’re a popular way to make sure dogs receive the best care possible. In fact, many rehoming and rescue centres like Bath Cats & Dogs Home use sensory gardens for the enrichment of their residents’ lives. 

Here are a few pros for your pup:

Sensory gardens have plenty of benefits for people, too, including special needs groups like individuals with autism, seniors, and kids

FAQ about sensory gardens for dogs

What are the easiest ways to transform my garden into a sensory garden for my dog?

There’s no need to overhaul your whole landscape. You can make small changes to improve the experience for your pets. Here are some budget and time-friendly ideas for each sense. 

Touch: Add an area of mulch, gravel, or astroturf for different textures.
Taste: Plant a medicinal herb like lavender, peppermint, or chamomile. 
Scent: Incorporate a natural “snuffle mat” with pet-friendly ornamental grasses like tufted hair grass and wheat grass. 
Sight: Plant a few native plants that attract butterflies
Sound: Hang a set of wind chimes. 

Can I make a sensory garden for my older dog?

Yes! Include spots for them to rest that are shady and covered with soft grass or moss. Make sure any elevated entrances have ramps. Medicinal herbs are also a great addition for older dogs with inflammation or upset stomachs. 

What kind of sensory garden should I build for a rambunctious dog?

For dogs that seem to always be bouncing off the walls, you’ll need lots of physical and mental stimulation. An agility course with ramps and things to jump over will keep them engaged. Try planting a bamboo wall somewhere in your yard for them to fight through.

Get help from a pro 

Between walks, trips to the vet, and plenty of cuddling, taking care of a dog already requires a lot of work. Take something off your to-do list by hiring a team at Lawn Love to handle your weekly mowing, edging, and seasonal cleanup.

Main photo credit: Valeria Boltneva | Pexels

Rachel Abrams

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Rachel Abrams studied creative writing at the University of Virginia. She enjoys volunteering at her neighborhood community garden and growing herbs in her New York City apartment.