How To Create a Dog-Friendly Backyard using the Top-Rated Ground Covers for Dogs

by Katie Dillon

Best Ground Cover For Dogs
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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)

dymondia dog ground cover gardening
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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)

irish moss dog ground cover gardening
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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”)

elfin thyme dog ground cover
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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 violet dog ground cover
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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)

snow in summer pets ground cover gardening
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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)

best ground cover with pets
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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

dog friendly live grass landscaping yard
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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

If you don’t want to hassle with maintaining a live lawn, consider what many dog facilities are installing: 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

dog yard wood chips landscaping
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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!

Your Turn…

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

Katie Dillon

Katie writes La Jolla Mom, a lifestyle site focused on parenting, luxury travel, cooking with kids, home management and local happenings. When not traveling, she lives in the seaside community of La Jolla, CA with her 5-year-old fashionista, dog, and husband. Follow Katie on TwitterPinterest and Google +.

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  • Chrissy
    February 19, 2014

    Hi, Love the article and also wondering what type of dog is in the first picture? It’s the black and white dog with the purple flowers in the backyard. Thanks so much.

    • February 20, 2014

      Hi Chrissy. I regret that I am not sure what kind of dog this is. It looks like a border collie mix to me, but I’m not an expert. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Beth Van
    February 25, 2014

    Great article.. I need all the advise I can acquire! Thanks for the insight!! I have a dachshund who is about to discover our backyard once all the snow disappears. And I would love to introduce pavers and remove most of the grass. Wish me luck 😉

    • February 26, 2014

      Thanks Beth! If you need any assistance with anything please let us know, we are here to help. Also, please do come back and let us know how your Dachshund adapts to the pavers if you end up going that route or any other ground cover option you choose….we would love to hear about it 🙂

  • An runio
    March 12, 2014

    For years I have been giving my dog plain yogurt 2/3 times a week. About 1/4 cup each feeding. It helps alot to neutralize pet urine. It really does work. I have less dead grass spots. And it is approved by the vet. Female dog urine is alot stronger than males.

    • March 12, 2014

      Thanks for the interesting suggestion An!

  • asimpledogowner
    March 23, 2014

    Is there any plants that help repel insects and are safe if my dog decides to eat it?

    • March 23, 2014

      Verify this with your vet, but citronella is supposed to be safe for dogs and it’s actually an attractive, grassy plant in pots.

  • Gypsie
    March 28, 2014

    The black and white dog looks to be a Dalmatian

  • Gypsie
    March 28, 2014

    Sorry border collie

  • Mary
    March 30, 2014

    I loved this article and look forward to putting many of the suggestions to work this spring. My dogs destroy the fence line from running up and down the yard. When we cut grass we dump the shaving there and it keep it from turning to a muddy mess. They also love laying in a pile of cut grass! lol

  • Melissa
    April 30, 2014

    Great article! I learned a few things that I will be sure to try out with my dog, especially the yogurt!
    Chrissy, the dog you asked about is a boarder collie. I have one and she looks just like the dog on the picture. They’re wonderful dogs, very smart too! 🙂

  • Bill
    May 4, 2014

    After the new patio and bigger garden we only have 100 sq ft of ground to cover, I’ve been looking at dog or pet turf (name depends on who sells it) but it’s looking either too expensive or they wont sell this small of piece. I really need an idea for this part of the yard, Does anyone have any other ideas besides what’s in this article?

  • Lesa
    May 6, 2014

    Bill, I am looking at river rock. I live in KC MO and Missouri River rock is not expensive.

  • tlynnec
    August 31, 2014

    Thanks for the great plant suggestions. Do you have any recommendations for nearly full shade in a hot climate (summers can hit 110, but it rarely freezes in winter)?

    I’ve actually used outdoor carpets in part of my yard to great succession. Lowes sells inexpensive ones made from recycled bottles that can be recycled when you’re done with them. A light layer of sand underneath helps with drainage and landscaping spikes secure it in place. My dogs’ kiddy pool sits (and gets dumped) on it all summer with no problems.

  • Kara
    March 23, 2015

    I wish I saw this article last year when designing my backyard! I layed flagstone with stepable Thyme in between. The thyme did not hold up too the dog urine but it looked great while it lasted. It is still great around the boarder but I need to redo the main yard now. Thanks for the suggestions.

  • Kat
    April 4, 2015

    Regarding the wood chips. I believe cedar chips actually repel fleas and ticks. I use them in my dog run and my dogs never have a problem with fleas. I also have no problems with them eating them or getting slivers.

    They sell a product on-line that is made from cedar and it repels fleas and ticks. I believe it’s called Cedarcide.

  • Jessica
    April 5, 2015

    Is there a specific kind of plant that dogs are attracted to? I’m hoping to plant some planters with something that my dogs will gravitate toward and do their business by.

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