Sensory Gardens for Dogs: Sniff, Sniff, Hurray!

Is doggie boredom leading to destructive behavior inside and outside your home?

Does your couch potato pup need a reason to get up?

Whether you’re trying to calm your Corgi or stimulate your Shih Tzu, a sensory garden just might make, well, perfect sense. 

Sensory Garden for Dogs |Vego Garden

Also known as enrichment gardens, these spaces give dogs of all breeds, ages, and activity levels a place to explore, relax, play, and satisfy their canine instincts.  Originally designed by animal shelters interested in improving the lives of cooped-up pooches, sensory gardens include elements to engage all the senses: fragrant and safe-to-eat plants, hardscaping for tactile experiences, wind chimes and birdsong to stimulate hearing, and things like digging pits and DIY agility equipment to keep life interesting.

Sensory gardens are fun to create, generally easy to maintain, and can be as big as your backyard or as small as a spot on your patio.  Regardless of the garden’s size or scale, you’ll probably get as much joy watching your dog as your dog does frolicking and sniffing around.  

From the ground up

The first step:  consider things like your dog’s energy level and physical condition, the climate where you live, and your existing landscape (are there trees for shade? Are there sections that get muddy when it rains and should be avoided?). This will help guide you to the right activities or elements for your pet, environment, and budget.

And while the goal is to pique your pet’s curiosity and give her a reason to romp, if she’s always been afraid of the water or he’s prone to tree or grass pollen allergies, you may have to edit your plan a bit. 

But don’t worry. The list of things to include in your garden is so long that cutting a few won’t detract from your pet’s satisfying sensory experience. 

A garden for all senses

Sensory Garden for dogs can include chamomile | Vego Garden

Sense of smell. Because a dog’s nose is tens of thousands of times more sensitive than a human’s, aromatic flowers and herbs are a must-have. 

Many of those plants serve a particular purpose: There’s evidence that dogs exposed to lavender and chamomile bark less while those who sniffed mint and rosemary become more active. Other plants that stimulate a dog’s sense of smell include catnip (yes, dogs like it too), valerian, yarrow, thyme, clary sage, and marigolds. 

Of course, no matter how great they smell, you’ll want to avoid plants that can be toxic to dogs, including: azaleas, begonias, morning glory, milkweed, day lily, butterfly iris, daffodils, oleanders, lily of the valley, tulips, peonies, and foxglove. 

Is your dog food-motivated? Stimulate their sense of smell (and taste) with a scent game. Drill holes in a log, a plastic container, or even a large-diameter piece of pipe and let your dog root around for treats you’ve placed inside.

Sense of touch. Activate your dog’s sense of touch with a digging pit. Hide a few toys inside a kiddie pool or raised garden bed filled with clean sand and let your dog find buried treasures. (Make sure to cover the pit when it’s not in use to keep neighborhood cats and other animals from burying their own “treasures.”).

Or how about laying down a path of cedar chips, which are fragrant while also feeling good underfoot, or other textural materials, such as pea gravel, hay, or even pet-safe artificial grass. Growing a patch of barley grass or native prairie grass gives your dog something soft to roll around on. (Bonus: Eating barley grass aids in dog digestion). 

Sensory Garden for Dogs include visual stimulation | Vego Garden

Sense of sight. Attract birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies to your garden with feeders and a variety of seasonally blooming plants. Remember, though, that milkweed, which Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat, is toxic to dogs. Adding solar lights will also be a visual treat during night time potty breaks.

Wind spinners and other yard decorations are also sure to catch a canine’s eye.

Sense of hearing.  The same sounds that soothe humans — a flowing fountain, splashing birdbath, or well-tuned wind chime — can help your dog relax, too. 

Even plants that rustle in the breeze, such as ornamental grasses, Boston ferns, nandina, and bamboo, can be music to a dog’s ears.

Sense of taste. While you have to be careful to avoid plants that can harm a dog if eaten, there is no shortage of dog-safe flowers and herbs, including camellia, dill, purple basil, and some types of polka dot plants.

Let’s not forget the sense of adventure!

An agility course is a great way to keep your dog’s mind active, but you don’t have to break the bank buying a ready-made set. Even something as simple as ramps or slides can keep your dog on her toes. Or set up some cones and have your pup weave in-and-out around them. Have an old bike tire or hula hoop laying around? They’re perfect for teaching your dog to jump through. And though you can buy a tunnel for your dog to run through, draping sheets over a row of chairs can have the same effect.

Whatever form your sensory garden takes, it’s sure to make your dog happier and healthier — and spark an even stronger sense of connection between the two of you.

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