Creating an Outdoor Space for Your Dog - What is a Sensory Garden?

By: Debbie Neese
July 29, 2022
Creating an Outdoor Space for Your Dog - What is a Sensory Garden?
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Are you always in a hurry when you take your dog for a walk, constantly pulling on his chain to stop sniffing and instead walking at attention so you can get your exercise? Stop! You may want to run with the big dogs, but your dog wants to stop and smell the roses!

Surprisingly, your dog's physiological and psychological depends on those sniffs! A positive outdoor sensory experience is great for your dog's mental health, and can help them be happier! Some experts suggest that creating a specialized outdoor space that helps stimulate your pets, called a sensory garden. These outdoor spaces can help pets with anxiety, lack of energy, and confidence. It even can help those with the zoomies to slow down and smell the flowers!

Why Dogs Sniff & Taste

Sniffing for a dog is a way to investigate, kind of like getting all the hot gossip. It's their way of communicating and receiving information about their surroundings. They use this sensory of smell to gather information about who's been there last and what may be coming. For example, if your dog raises his nose in the air, you can be sure he smells something close by that may be familiar.

Dogs sometimes self-medicate, too, by sniffing and chewing on specific plants. For instance, you may notice your dog is munching on grass. This activity is a natural way to settle their tummies if upset.

Alleviate Stress & Increase Stimulation for Dogs

You can set up a sensory garden for them to alleviate pet anxiety levels, lack of exercise and build their confidence while giving them stimulation.

When a landscape designer starts a project, they ask several questions to the homeowner about what they want like what kind of plants they like, colors, textures, and make observations about pathways. Since you can't ask your dogs these questions, observe where your pet most loves to spend time. Watch where they sunbathe or where is their favorite shady spot. Where do they like to sniff the most? On your walks, is there any one place they ponder longer? Are they diggers and explorers? Do they see the first mud puddle and roll around in it? Knowing your pet's "favorites" can help align your garden with the same stimuli.

Stimuli to include in your sensory garden for pets have smell, touch, textures, sounds, tastes, colors, and heights for viewing. This is similar to the idea of a therapeutic garden for people! Pet-friendly plants are ideal for smelling and tasting. Some great options include Rosemary, Basil, Catnip (great for cats and dogs!), Mint, Thyme, Oregano, and Sage.

A lot of these herbs have health benefits for your pets too, and are used by people who cook their pets' meals themselves! Rosemary can help with digestive issues, is antimicrobial, and is a natural flea repellent in the landscape! Mint is another natural flea repellent; bonus, if your pet has bad breath, it can temporarily eliminate the odor! Soak a few leaves in his water bowl for a refreshing taste.

Suppose your old dog suffers from arthritis and can't seem to get up on her hind legs from sitting as easily as she used to; try some basil mixed in her daily intake. This herb also calms your dog. Chop a leaf up into tiny bits or use kitchen shears and cut, then mix into their food little by little.

Please remember that all of these herbs should be taken after consulting with a vet. Not all herbs are going to be right for your pet and its health, and too much can cause tummy troubles or harm them!

Adding Smells & Taste to the Sensory Garden

Catnip aids digestion, calms nerves, helps aid in sleep, and repels infected mosquitoes that cause heartworms! This herb is rich in nutrients, including Vitamins A and C, iron, manganese, potassium, and selenium. A great use of this herb is to use it as a tea in their bathing routine and rinse with the tea to help repel mosquitos.

Oregano, Thyme, Rosemary, Basil, Mint, and Sage are all other herbs that can be planted in your sensory garden that are Dog-Safe. Remember, these plants shouldn't be eaten in large quantities or without consulting a vet. With that being said, some people make teas or ice cube treats with herb mixes as diet supplements for their dogs, or use it in homemade pet food!

Adding these pet-safe plants has health benefits and can add texture, smell, and taste to your sensory garden.

Adding Sight & Height to the Sensory Garden

Add colorful sculptures and build vantage points for sight and height to jump up and see the views. Havanese, amongst other dogs, like to have a higher vantage point to see out. Setting up leftover tree trunks on end at different heights can make it fun for them to hop from one to the next. You can also mound up soil and cover it with sod or use boulders short enough for their little legs to jump on. Steps to a doghouse structure can give them a lookout view. Building an agility course can increase training and exercise opportunities too. Height helps their inquisitive nature and builds confidence for more activity.

Another way to add interest is to include flowers! These not only are great for sniffers, but add color to the space! Dogs aren't completely colorblind as is often though, but they can see different shades of blues and yellows. Including pet-safe flowers like African Violets, Sweet Pea Shrubs, or Coneflowers and make a space come to life!

Adding Sound to your Pet's Sensory Garden

Sounds get anyone's attention, and your pet has a different alert mechanism that can hear distant sounds before you detect them. For example, your dog can hear sounds four times the distance than you can hear them! Plus, they can notice twice as many frequencies as the human ear.

So add some soothing sounds to your garden. Try a water feature for sound and refreshment! Build a small water feature or use a pet pool with misters that can cool their paws and give off a slight trickling sound. Setting up a lawn sprinkler is always a fun option. To keep things lower budget, get the garden hose out! Many dogs love to run through the spray and drink from the water hose. They can sun themselves afterward on one of your boulder rocks and keep a lookout for other creatures in the garden!

If you have trees nearby, add some wooden chimes to give deep hollow tones as they blow in the wind. Grasses blowing in the breeze can offer sound stimulation, sight, and texture. Mexican Feather Grass is a good option for slopes as it helps with erosion! As your pups run and play, they'll enjoy the soft feathery feeling against their fur.

Add Textures to the Sensory Garden

Your dog rubs up against objects in the garden, sniffs, lays, and plays and touches them with his nose and paws. Creating different tactile areas breeds investigation, curiosity, and breaks boredom as they roam and play. Add places to play in the garden, such as pathways framed with interesting greenery.

If your doggy is a digger, set up a sand pit, hide his toys and a few treats to find. Be sure to have a cover over to protect it from roaming animals in the neighborhood! Use play sand in this area instead of builder's sand to protect your pup's paws from the sharper edges of rough sand.

Adding pathways to different areas in the garden help keep their paws clean and give them tactile stimulation. Try planting softer texture plants like our Maidenhair ferns in shady spots where they may flop down to rest. The texture and delicateness can be a cool contrast to gravel or mulch. Paths can be rounds of pavers, smooth wooden decking, and rock. But when using stone, some smaller pups like to put them in their mouths, so make sure it's not too small for them to swallow. Other rocks may be hard to walk on, so go to a rock quarry or your local stone center and investigate the best materials.

Often, even wood mulch is something young puppies will put in their mouths, which can splinter. If your dog isn't susceptible and inclined to chew, then pine nuggets, cedar, hardwood, cypress, and pine straw are all excellent choices to keep down the weed competition and retain moisture in the soil. Keeping a close eye on your pup in his new garden environment can give you a clue about what he will pick up and try to eat. A clicker training method can reward him with positive affirmations and keep him out of trouble and safe from the environment.

Cleanup and Safety in the Sensory Garden

No one likes to live in a dirty environment, so when your dog is out doing their business, go behind and pick it up! Additionally, hose off areas where they urinate or gravel areas in the garden where they may defecate.

Keep your dog safe and you from chasing your tail by protecting your precious vegetable gardens adjacent to the sensory garden with sturdy and secure fencing. Remember to treat any lawn or woodland areas for fleas and ticks to protect your animal from an infestation. In addition, several organic lawn care companies use essential oils to treat pests.

When setting up a water feature, make sure it's a place your dog can take a dip so that he can get in and out easily. Ensure it's not too deep that he would struggle or have an accident.

All this sensory talk and the dogs will be barking to let them out to run with the big dogs, play, and investigate! They'll all be tired and sleep like a dog at the end of their busy day!