Dogs are certainly valuable family members but they sure can wreak havoc on a yard.
Your best bet is to install as much hardscape, like pavers, as possible, but with grass-loving kids at home and a desire for backyard color, this isn’t always a realistic option.
We’ll address issues commonly faced by dog owners, recommend grasses and ground covers, as well as provide a variety of tips for maintaining a yard that doesn’t look like it’s a dog’s home, too.
Common Backyard Problems Faced by Dog Owners
Nervous or protective dogs tend to wear paths along fence lines as they pace.
Whether it’s just for fun or another reason, dogs can and do dig up prized plants in a matter of minutes.
Brown spots in grass or stains on concrete appear frequently due to urine.
An inability to grow grass, ground covers or other plants may arise in high traffic areas.
How to Find Plants that Are Safe for Dogs
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) maintains lists of plants that are toxic to dogs, cats and/or horses.
Check the list before selecting plants because if Fido started gnawing on a common calla lily, you’d find yourself with a hefty vet bill.
Dog-Friendly Ground Covers
Keep in mind that there is no truly pet-proof ground cover, but if you want one between stepping stones or in small backyard areas, these are good choices that will stand up to light or moderate pet and human traffic.
1. Silver carpet (dymondia margaretae)
The dymondia margaretae in the above photo gets trampled by children, adults, and a 70-pound dog on a daily basis in La Jolla, CA. It is also perpetually run over by scooters and tricycles.
This silver-green leaved ground cover sprouts yellow flowers in warm weather and grows low to the ground, so be sure to plant it exactly at the level you’d like it.
If planted in an area where the dog runs, expect it to look patchy, but it will do its best to survive.
2. Irish moss (sagina subulata)
This soft, mat-like ground cover can take partial or full sun and requires consistent watering that will need to increase with temperature.
Durable Irish moss grows about an inch tall and sprouts little white flowers in the spring and summer.
3. Elfin thyme (thymus serpyllum “elfin”)
This ornamental herb smells nice and is completely edible.
Elfin thyme grows to 2 inches tall and is a gorgeous addition to container gardens, where it cascades over the sides, as well as rock gardens.
Fido shouldn’t roll around in it, but it can handle some of his foot traffic due to its dense, hearty nature.
It produces pretty purple flowers in the summer.
4. Miniature stonecrop (sedum requieni)
This tiny, lesser-known sedum (hence, no photo) can take quite a bit of foot traffic and reseeds itself, if damaged.
Tiny leaves form a tight mat with small yellow flowers appearing in the summer.
Buy it by the flat and use an inch or two of space at the most between plants, if you’re going to use it and need it to fill in an area.
Miniature sedum works well in drought-tolerant gardens.
5. Labrador violet (viola labradorica)
Labrador viola sure has a fitting name for the purpose of this article!
Use it as filler between stones, not larger scale applications, because it is slow to spread.
Native to Greenland, this plant does well in colder climates with purple flowers blooming in spring.
Labrador violet grows to roughly 8 inches tall and wide and can take daily, light foot traffic.
6. Snow in summer (cerastium tomentosum)
This relatively drought-tolerant ground cover grows well in full sun or partial shade.
Its hardiness makes it a more pet-friendly ground cover, however, consider using a plant border as it can be difficult to contain.
White flowers and silvery-green leaves mimic winter tones when they bloom in early summer, hence the name.
Snow in summer grows to 6 inches tall and is excellent choice for between pavers.
7. Winter creeper (euonymus fortunei)
The experts at Lowe’s like euonymus in yards with pets because it’s tough to destroy and can grow in either shade or sun.
Yes, that’s a cat, but evidently they love laying in euonymus, which can grow up to 6 inches tall.
Four Live Grass Options
No live grass is immune to brown spots and excessive play.
Dial down your expectations of a perfectly manicured, golf course-worthy lawn and consider these if you have a dog.
1. Buffalo grass
Buffalo grass is now marketed in places like Southern California as a low-water/drought-tolerant grass.
You can buy buffalo grass, as seed or in plugs by special order at many local nurseries.
Though the slender grass looks fragile, in fact, it is far from it and grows to 3 inches tall while requiring very little care.
2. Kentucky bluegrass
This grass can reseed itself and take high traffic, though its more suitable for cooler climates.
Kentucky bluegrass seed is also used to patch bare spots in other types of lawns because it grows quickly.
3. Tall fescue
UC Davis issued a report stating that tall fescue tolerates lawn burn from pet urine better than other grasses.
Because tall fescue is deeply rooted and has wider blades than other grasses, it can take serious traffic.
Reseed patches with Kentucky bluegrass as tall fescue is a slow-grower.
4. St. Augustine
Because St. Augustine grass has deep roots, this might be a good alternative if you have a dog who loves to dig.
This grass, however, will not tolerate high traffic or excessive pet urine.
Tip: If you catch pet urine quickly after it happens on the lawn, water it down to decrease the intensity of the brown spot.
Consider Artificial Grass: Pet Turf
Make sure your turf installer applies a deodorizer to help absorb pet urine odors along with a membrane to allow air circulation between the turf and base. Also, have the installation team add deodorizer to the top of the installation for added protection.
No need to worry about brown spots in the lawn or digging with synthetic pet turf.
And, no, pet turf doesn’t look anything like astroturf–it looks more like grass!
Tackle The Digging Problem
There’s no grass or ground cover that can survive a digging dog, so let’s discuss how to solve this tricky problem.
Dogs dig to find cooler soil when they’re hot, to chase the scent of a rabbit or other animal, when they hear insects below ground, when they’re bored, or if they are nervous.
Experts agree that a well-exercised dog is a calmer dog, therefore, a solution as simple as a long walk or two during the day just might bring digging to a halt.
If frequent exercise doesn’t get to the root of the problem, observe your dog to see if you can figure out a pattern.
For example, if your dog digs on hot days, make sure there is a cool bed available or watch to see if he or she digs due to separation anxiety on days that you are away.
Digging is more prominent in some breeds like terriers and dachshunds, so chronic diggers might just need a designated digging area in the yard.
Re-direct digging in forbidden spots to the designated digging area or a toy to play with.
Risks of Using Wood Chips
It’s inexpensive and easy to shovel cedar or other wood chips into an area for your dog.
Dog experts warn that wood chips can harbor fleas, give dogs splinters and some dogs actually eat them.
They recommend using pea gravel as an alternative to wood chips, but make sure the gravel is shaded, otherwise it can burn paws on hot days.
When using gravel with large dogs, make sure it’s not getting stuck between your dog’s paw pads.
General Dog-Friendly Yard Tips
Make sure there’s enough shade as well as a cool spot for your dog to rest, especially in order to prevent digging to cooler turf.
Train your dog to relieve himself in a designated area (we know, easier said than done).
Use natural pest control methods to avoid accidental ingestion of chemicals.
Tip: When moving into a new home or getting a new dog, observe your dog’s behavior for a few weeks before investing in new plants or hardscape.
For example, if there are areas where he or she likes to pace, consider adding pavers or gravel there.
It is easier to maneuver around the dog’s habits than to start new ones!
Do you have any dog-friendly backyard solutions to add?
Photo credits: dichondra, Flickr: Macleay grass man; snow in summer: Flickr, hunda; dog on wood chips: Flickr, Bad Apple Photography; labrador violet: Flickr, wallygrom; euonymus fortunei: Flickr, wallygrom