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How to Create a Sensory Garden for your Dog

We always seem to focus so much what's dangerous for dogs in our gardens but what if we decided to use these spaces to enrich their lives instead? We spoke to Fiona De Rosa, an Adelaide-based urban planner who combined her unique skills and experience in urban planning and dog behaviour to plan and design spaces for dogs and their owners.

"Let me tell you my story of creating a sensory garden for my dog, Eb. I lived with Eb, a Kelpie cross, on a small suburban block in Adelaide 
for 15 years. Instead of buying her lots of toys for entertainment, I wanted to create a garden to enrich her everyday experiences. 

I wanted a garden where she could sniff, explore and linger during the day and night, and I looked to nature for inspiration.

The garden was her sanctuary. A place where she could smell, explore and heal. I wasn’t much of a gardener but having a dog made me see the garden differently - through a pet lens. I continued to develop different spaces within my garden for her to experience, from lush grasses to cool spots under ferns. Eb is no longer with me, but she lives on in the garden. 

What is a Sensory Garden? 

A sensory garden is designed to stimulate or heighten the user’s senses through the garden: 

✔️ Smell
✔️ Sight
✔️ Sound
✔️ Taste
✔️ Touch

Sensory gardens are generally established for people e.g. sensory gardens in schools for children with autism or as healing spaces in aged care facilities for people with dementia.

However, there are a few examples of sensory gardens designed for dogs, such as:

1. The Dogs Trust [1], Bath Cats Dogs Home, Mayhew Animal Home (United Kingdom)
2. Paws-itive Canine Sensory Garden (United Kingdom)
3. Busselton Snuffle Gardens (Western Australia) 

4, National Animal Welfare Trust, Cornwall Sensory Garden (United Kingdom)

Creating a Sensory Garden for Dogs

You don’t need a big backyard or a big budget but you do need to design the garden with your pet in mind. Start small and let it evolve. 

I am currently working with an animal centre in Australia to create a sensory garden and trail for shelter dogs. The vision is to create a relaxing environment where dogs can engage in naturalistic settings providing relief from their individual pens.

Where can you create a sensory garden for dogs?

Sensory gardens and trails for dogs can be created in a range of public and private settings such as:

  • Private gardens – back and front yards and apartment balconies 
  • Street verges – along quiet streetscapes 
  • Fenced dog parks – in a dog park or on the approach to a park 
  • Animal rescue shelters 

How did I start? 

#1. Power of Observation 

I started by observing how Eb used the backyard. I wanted to see where she would go to capture the sun, the shade and the places she liked to explore.

She had a morning ritual where she traversed her nest, and then headed to the back of the garden to explore the plants and smells that may have come in during the night.

She was a digger and liked to hide in the garden, sit on top of tussocky plants, and make nests in the garden. The nesting areas were where she would go to hide, be alone and heal. In the last two weeks of her life, she spent most of her time in her favourite nest.

These insights helped me create a garden with her behaviours in mind. I wanted to give her special spaces to explore, sensory trails through plants and natural places to linger.

#2. Plants, Features and Ephemeral objects

I experimented with different plants and herbs including thyme, catnip, chamomile, wheat grass, marigolds, violets and rosemary. Wheatgrass was Eb’s favourite: she would sniff the plant, stick her nose in the middle, and graze on the grass which became part of her morning ritual.

I created a bamboo forest. This was one of Eb’s favourite spots for sniffling, digging and exploring. She liked the bamboo leaves resting on her face.

I collected objects for the garden such as seaweed, feathers, and pine cones. I changed these elements over time to see how Eb would interact with different things.

Simple Tips and Ideas

If you want to create an enriching and sensory garden for your dog, here are some simple tips and ideas to get you started:

1. Design with your pet in mind

o Observe how your dog uses the garden. Then, you are in a better position to design the garden to your dog’s behaviours. If your dog is a digger allocate a dedicated space for digging e.g. a sandpit in a shady spot and train your dog to use that area.

o Provide opportunities for your dog to run around. For example, you could have formal paths and informal trails around the garden creating a circuit to explore. Try different surfaces such as sand, crushed aggregate or mulch to add texture.

2. Think about your setting

o Whether you live on a large or small block or in an apartment with a balcony, there are opportunities to create sensory spaces.

o If you don’t have a backyard, think about creating a sensory garden on the street verge. Streetscapes can provide interesting elements, not only for your dog but for other dogs and people walking by.

o Try putting plants and herbs in containers if you have limited space such as a balcony.

3. Use a combination of plants

o Use a combination of robust plants like tussocks with medicinal herbs suitable for dogs. I used rosemary, thyme and basil near walkways to give off a fragrance when brushed against.

Space the scented plants/herbs around the garden, so they are not overpowering in one area of the garden. 

o If you have ‘no go’ zones for your dog in the garden, consider using raised garden beds, or sensory hedges such as rosemary or lavender to direct the dog away.

o Try putting delicate plants in pots or recycled tyres for protection. Recycled tyres may work better on street verges and in larger areas.

o Avoid plants that are poisonous or toxic to dogs and plants with invasive seed heads that may become lodged in their ears and other body parts. Seek advice from your vet and other reputable source to select suitable plants for your dogs.
See Resources (at the end) for suitable plants and herbs for dogs.

4. Stimulate the senses

Create opportunities for your dog to engage with different senses:

Smell – Try planting medicinal herbs in the garden. Some of the herbs used in the Bath Cats and Dogs Home Sensory and Enrichment Garden included plants for dogs to self-select such as Catnip, Chamomile, Peppermint, St John’s Wort, Wheatgrass and Valerian.

Sight – Experiment with visual elements such as rocks and logs, and varying heights for dogs.

Sound – Try plants that rustle in the breeze (bamboo), running water and wind chimes.

Taste – Plant herbs that are appropriate and non-toxic to dogs e.g. medicinal herbs.

Eb's mate Winston is enjoying his time in the sensory garden!

Touch – Experiment with different textures for paths and plants. 
“Valerian is a favourite with dogs as is thyme and lemon. They love bamboo, they get their head right in.”
(Pat White, Paws-itive Canine Sensory Garden, pers comms, 18/11/2018)

Let dogs smell, explore and linger!

Remember, you don’t need a big backyard or a big budget. But you do need to design the garden with your pet in mind. Give your dog choices and let them smell, explore and linger.

Start small and let it evolve. My sensory garden still develops although Eb died on 22 October 2018. In memory of her, I still maintain her favourite nest and tracks in the garden. My journey continues in the design of sensory gardens for dogs."

Why not start planning yours today?

written by Fiona De Rosa, December 2018 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

About the Writer

Fiona De Rosa is an Adelaide based urban planner and dog trainer. She has her own business - Balancing Act Adelaide. Fiona blends her unique skills in urban planning and dog behaviour to plan and design spaces for dogs and their owners.

She gained an Urban Planning Degree with honours from the University of NSW, a Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Adelaide and a Diploma in Canine Behaviour and Science Technology from the Companion Animal Sciences Institute.

About Balancing Act Adelaide

Balancing Act Adelaide is a small award-winning consultancy specialising in ‘pet-friendly’ planning for public spaces, dog parks, aged care facilities, and medium to high density living. Fiona works with local and state governments, residential developers, aged care providers and animal shelters.

For more information, please visit or contact Fiona through her website.

Last updated 3 May 2023

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