Let’s face it – we can all get stressed at times! This may well rub off on our dogs who may already be stressed themselves. We asked Caroline Hearn of Hedgerow Hounds to give us some ideas for helping our dogs – and us – relax in the garden. Not to mention helping wildlife! This blog first appeared on the Hedgerow Hounds website and we reproduce it here with thanks.

Slow down, you move too fast!

We all live the most insanely busy lives nowadays. We are stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, burnt out and not taking enough time for ourselves. Life can become one big tick list of “to dos” that we never quite get on top of.

Trying to fit in the early morning walk, keeping an eye on the clock, showing irritation as your dog seems more intent on sniffing anything and everything rather than actually getting this walk ticked off today’s list.

Dogs read us like a book. They notice the energy we give off, our body language, tone of voice, our intentions and they observe our faces and our changing moods. So although we can try and hide our stresses from others when it comes to our dogs, they have us sussed!

But what about the dog?

Our lifestyle and the activities we decide are “good” for our dogs have a big effect on their emotional wellbeing. With a steep rise in reports of dogs being nervous, anxious, reactive, destructive and showing illnesses directly linked to stress it is time to rethink their lifestyles as well as our own.

Smell that!

We as humans tend to rely on sight as our main sense and approximately 5% of our brain is dedicated to analysing smells. Compare that to 33% of our dog’s brain and you can see how important scent is to a dog and crucially that they should be given the opportunity to fulfill the most highly developed of all their natural senses.

When dogs are given the freedom to wander in a natural environment there is much more sniffing than walking taking place. They will take in new aromas and process the information held within the new smells. Even when running at speed, a sudden whiff of something interesting can bring on an emergency stop to investigate further, this can be something as small as scent on a single blade of grass.

Woah, hang on! What was that?!

Insight from feral dogs

Observations of feral dogs show that they spend the vast majority of their time sleeping, dozing, scavenging, foraging, exploring and brief episodes of trying to hunt down supper. What they are not doing is constantly running around, interacting with others, chewing things or being overstimulated in any way. When there is conflict or the thrill of a chase the “fight or flight” hormone Adrenaline kicks in followed by the stress hormone Cortisol, which can take a number of days to leave the system. This is not a problem if the dog has an otherwise stress free life but if like us, the dog has constantly high stress levels, through being forced to live in our world and what we think is the norm, the impact on overall physical and mental health will start to show.

So, what can we do to provide an environment that promotes relaxation for our dogs, a place of our own to relax and observe our dogs natural behaviours and on the plus side, support the wildlife that will visit as well?  One way we can do this is to get back in tune with nature.

What is the aim of a sensory garden?

Our aim should be to give the dog a safe space to relax, bring down stress levels and fulfil their natural behaviours.

They should be free to sniff, explore, forage, roll, dig and just chill. This may involve sectioning off an area of the garden or designating a space just for this purpose. If you want to grow herbs for your own use, then depending on how your dog treats the area it may require you to have raised beds or pots just for culinary herbs.

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The strawberry thief

 I soon found out that you can’t be too precious about the sensory garden as some dogs will enjoy the experience to the full and walk over, through and occasionally dig at or roll on certain herbs. But herbs are robust and will spring back or it may require a rethink to what you plant where.

Engaging the senses

Dogs are naturally inquisitive and born problem solvers so to put this to good use we are looking to create a space with scent, texture, sound, visuals from light and shade, easy obstacles and possibly taste through selecting herbs to eat or offering ways to forage using interactive mats or toys that contain their favourite treats.  

Texture underfoot can be provided with something as simple as fallen, dead leaves sprinkled to make a short track, an old tree branch laid down so they have to walk over it or a small area of sand. Shade can be offered with a small gazebo, garden umbrella with a base, an agility tunnel with a climber planted over the top or being inventive where there is natural shade in the garden.

Sound could be from a small wooden chime, bamboo grown in a pot or a solar powered water feature. Avoid larger volumes of water if you have a water baby and the mere whiff of water sends their emotions sky high.

Be mindful if your dog is elderly, frail or has limited sight. Make the garden very easy for them to manoeuvre around and remove any obstacles. You can use scent and different textures to reinforce their location within the garden to help guide them around.

Avoid using bark chippings and cocoa shells, they are toxic to dogs and can cause a gut obstruction if eaten.

What it’s not intended for

A sensory garden is not an area to encourage activity that leads to hyper-arousal, excitement and over stimulation. We should resist the temptation to train, control and influence the desires of the dog but rather allow them to just be a dog and exhibit their natural behaviours. To some people’s surprise and disappointment, dogs will not use the area as a salad bar and graze freely on the plants. They will interact in other ways and possibly only at certain times of the year when that plant is in flower or bearing seed. The garden will evolve over time as it matures and continue to bring benefits over the changing seasons. If you want to provide grasses for the dogs to graze on then pots or troughs planted with shoots from barley, wheat, couch and lemon grass will be ideal.

Helping wildlife

Habitat loss and the widespread use of chemicals have had a profound impact on wildlife. For example, since the 1930s, England and Wales have lost 97% of their wildflower meadows with a disastrous impact on biodiversity. The humble nettle, which seems to be a popular target for the use of glyphosate weedkiller, provides a home for 40 species of insect. These include butterflies such as the Red Admiral, Comma, Peacock and Tortoiseshell.

Bees and other pollinators are also in dire trouble. As we rely on them to pollinate 75% of our crops, they need to be our priority when choosing plants for our gardens. A change of both mindset and action with the recognition that using toxic chemicals has a catastrophic effect on wildlife throughout the food chain is long overdue. Whether that is hedgehogs feeding on slugs that have been poisoned by slug pellets or ladybirds eating aphids covered in pesticide.

It takes very little space to encourage bees into the garden and a trough, raised bed, small area scattered with wildflower seeds or bee-friendly plants will make a huge difference as well as being delightful to watch as they intently collect pollen.

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Lawns are a fantastic opportunity to create a thriving habit for wildlife and sensory space for our dogs. My dogs spend a large amount of time sniffing, rolling on and exploring the grass in the back garden. Now it is the sort of lawn that would horrify some keen gardeners, no stripy, bowling green-style lawns to be seen here! Instead, it has self heal, yarrow, daisy, wild strawberry, sorrel, sweet violet, dandelion, yellow rattle and clover growing happily. The variety of insects and other wildlife that thrive within it is staggering, plus the dogs love it!

Every visit from any wildlife, however small the creature, will leave its scent behind for our dogs to analyse in a way that only a dog can. Now, this may be a step too far for some, but could you incorporate a wildflower strip somewhere in your garden and base your sensory garden around it? Chamomile used as a lawn is beautiful or maybe grow it in between gaps in a pathway, which when crushed underfoot releases its divine aroma.

May be an image of flower and nature

Remember that any lawn chemicals used will directly affect our dogs whether they lay down on it, consume any grass or absorb the chemicals through the pads on their feet. This all adds to the stress levels of their bodies.

Thankfully the trend for artificial lawns seems to be on its way out. They offer no support for wildlife or enrichment for our dogs, plus being synthetic are not good for the environment.  

What to plant

Herbs do like well drained soil so a little preparation may be necessary before you begin. I dug in course grit to the existing soil to improve drainage before planting.

You can provide groups of herbs in pots or troughs displayed at different heights or ideally a simple bed that the dog can freely walk through if they desire. If you want to edge the beds with wood to contain the soil, make sure it is at a low enough height to allow easy access in and out. Take time to observe your dog before starting. Is there an area in the garden they spend a lot of time in and love to be? Could you make some changes there and enrich that area?

The list below shows a good selection of herbs to plant in the garden. Some will provide scent from leaves and flowers and others form interesting seeds at the end of flowering. All are dog safe should they be nibbled on, crushed under foot, rolled on or their scent inhaled. Try and avoid plastic and instead choose terracotta, pottery, wood and natural planters, these will be much more inviting to your dog.

As an experiment I decided to plant the herb seedlings with the phase of the moon. So, after reading the Almanac for 2019 where it was recommended that above ground plants were planted from the first quarter to full moon (12-19th April) I chose the 18th. All I can say is that within a month I had to replant the first bed as it was too overcrowded. Give it a try yourself and see what happens!  

Suitable herbs for the sensory garden  

Lavender  * Lavandula angustifolia

Lemon Balm –Melissa

Catmint * Nepeta mussinii

Thyme  * Thymus vulgaris

Calendula * Calendula offficinalis

Yarrow * Achillia millefolium

Chamomile (Roman) Anthemis nobilis

Chamomile (German) Matricaria chamomilla

Milk Thistle  * Silybum marianum

Chicory Chicorium intybus

Echinacea * Echinacea purpurea

Valerian * Valeriana officinalis

Vervain – Verbena officinalis

Borage  * Borago officinalis

Meadowsweet  * Filipendula ulmaria

Rose * Rosa rugosa

Lemon verbena – Aloysia citrodora

Lemon Grass- Cymbopogan citratus

Barley Grass – Hordeum vulgare

Violet Leaf – Viola odorata

Clary sage * Salvia sclerea

*Herbs that are particularly useful for all pollinators*    

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I think your dog will thoroughly enjoy the sensory garden but very importantly it will offer you relaxation and enjoyment, observing your dog interacting with nature as you create a little haven away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Herbs were either grown from seed, swapped with plants from friends or brought online from Herbal Haven who have all the herbs mentioned above plus lots more.

There is a Facebook page called Hedgerow Hounds Enrichment Garden showing the progression of the garden, information about the herbs and links to other resources if you are interested in gardening with nature in mind.

Caroline Hearn, MICHT, Dip. ICAT, ISCP.Dip.Canine.Raw.Nutrition

Caroline is a sports, remedial and holistic massage therapist qualified to treat canine, equine, and human patients. She has a lifelong obsession with dogs, passion for holistic healthcare, natural nutrition and a love for foraging in the countryside; all of which lead her to form the company Hedgerow Hounds which makes veterinary-approved nutritive herbal blends for dogs and other natural healthcare products. She has recently developed Hedgerow Horse. 

Caroline also writes regularly for the holistic magazine Edition Dog and covers subjects such as raw feeding, canine therapies and the progress of the herbal sensory garden she created for her dogs. You can find her website here and her Facebook page here

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