Create a Dog-Friendly Wildlife Garden

With a little planning and the right mix of plants, homeowners can design a haven not only for wild animals but for pets as well

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Jun 01, 2009

IS IT POSSIBLE to share your life with rambunctious dogs and still garden for wildlife? Yes, says Kim Winter, NWF's habitat programs manager, who owns three mixed-breed dogs ranging in size from 30 to 80 pounds. "It's trickier to maintain habitat," she says. "Dogs do destroy plants." At her home in northern Virginia, Winter takes the "divide and conquer" approach to landscaping: Her pets roam and romp in the backyard while most of her wildlife garden goes in the front.

Pups and Plants

You can also successfully mix pups and plants, says Elizabeth Bublitz, a landscape designer and owner of Pawfriendly Landscapes in Golden, Colorado. "Create a Fort Knox effect," she says, locking up and protecting your plants with raised beds. "Dogs see things differently from humans," Bublitz explains. "We can use that to our advantage. Most of them see elevated beds as a big wall."

"Raised beds do keep dogs out," agrees Jill Martini, horticultural manager for The Oregon Garden, a botanical sanctuary located 45 miles south of Portland in Silverton. Among the more than 20 demonstration plots at this nonprofit organization is a "Pet Friendly Garden." Martini says placing mulched or grass pathways between raised beds will help guide dogs away from the flowers. And she suggests putting in an arbor for vines. Not only will most of the plants be out of harm's way, the pathway created by the trellis will direct your dog's movement. "Work with your animal's instincts," says Martini. "Dogs like to patrol borders. If you leave room around the perimeter of your yard, you can often avoid having your fence-line shrubs trampled."

Sturdy plants are a must for a joint dog and wildlife habitat. Native viburnums are hardy shrubs that provide lots of berries for songbirds and can withstand canine assaults. Flowering trees, such as fringe tree and redbud, are also good choices. And look for ground covers that can tolerate some foot traffic, such as speedwell, a butterfly-attracting native.

Tough perennials like coneflowers and liatris are other possibilities. Bublitz has found deer-resistant native plants work well. She also recommends using junipers and other evergreens. "Most dogs hate juniper," she says, even though wildlife love it for winter cover, nest sites and food. Thorny plants will also deter dogs. "Usually one little poke and they leave it alone," Bublitz says. Anything with weak stems will probably be trampled by dogs, says Martini. In her demonstration garden, she places decorative stakes around fragile flowers. Bublitz often uses cobble to keep pets away from delicate plants. This large round rock is very awkward for dogs to walk on. Her favorite pet barrier combines cobble, a retaining wall and thorny bushes.

Avoiding Hazards

When selecting plants for your yard, in addition to durability it is also important to make certain they are not poisonous to dogs. Do some research before heading to the garden center, because nurseries seldom have this information available. Veterinarians are one possible source. In addition, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) offers a database of toxic plants.

The ASPCA list is lengthy and includes some unexpected plants, many of them natives. Holly berries, for example, can be toxic to pets, and so can buckeye seeds. Yews can be deadly. "Milkweed is poisonous to just about everything except monarch butterflies," says NWF's Winter. Several exotics, including English ivy, Chinese wisteria and European bittersweet, can also be harmful, providing another good reason not to grow them. "Stay away from invasive species," she cautions, pointing out that wildlife is already losing much of its native habitat to these out-of-control alien plants.

Winter also says dog owners should not try to attract squirrels, chipmunks or other mammals because a wild animal encounter might injure a pet. In her own wildlife habitat, Winter gardens mostly for birds and butterflies. "You should also keep bird feeders clean to avoid attracting pests such as rats and other scavengers," she adds.

When gardening for wildlife, it is always a good idea to curb the use of pesticides and baits, and it is doubly important when you own a dog. If you must use them, look for products labeled "pet safe." Be especially careful with snail and slug bait. It often contains metaldehyde, which is appealing and tasty to most mammals but also highly toxic. For less harmful ways to control pests, consider the alternatives offered by Beyond Pesticides.

Paying attention to commercial garden mulches is also critical. Certain types, such as those made from cocoa beans, should be avoided. Dogs are attracted to this mulch, which smells like chocolate, and they will sometimes eat it. Many brands contain small amounts of theobromine, which can sicken some animals. The best mulch for your pup—and the environment—is raked leaves. Not only is reusing your leaves safe for pets, it also keeps yard waste out of the landfill. Making your backyard work for both your dogs and wildlife won't happen overnight. But with a little planning and a little strategy, says Martini, "your plants and pets can live in harmony."

Frequent contributor Doreen Cubie is based in South Carolina.


Let Your Dog Be Your Nature Guide
Garden for Wildlife: NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat Program

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates