Our guardians spend a lot of time outside – some of them spend all their time outside. This is necessary as, for them to be effective in their guard dog role, they need to be “on the job” 24/7.
The weather on the Mesa can be kinda volatile, it can be raining and windy one minute then freeze the next. It can go from a mild 40F sunny winter day to -20F windy and snowing that night. In the monsoon season we can get several inches of rain in a very short time period and in spring we get hurricane strength winds. It can be pretty crazy, and pretty hard on our guardians – tho they take it in stride.
Because of this weather volatility, and the safety and comfort of our guardians, we needed to give them various “safe houses” where they could escape the weather. They always have access to the barn via a dog door, but we found that whichever guardian is on the job at the time of a weather event, they will often not abandon their post/duty by seeking shelter in the barn. They’re that hardcore! 😉
So, another type of shelter needed to be built in the yard, one that would allow them quick access so they could quickly escape from the weather while still being able to watch over the yard (as much as possible). I wanted this shelter to be bomb-proof in construction, and not only protect them from wind, rain, and snow but from the extreme temps as well. Since this is an arid high-desert environment where the native Pueblo Indians have lived in Adobe Brick “dugouts” for 100s of years, I figured that was a well-proven building method to base my plans on.
And from that thought process the “Zen Den” or “Chill Den” was built. The Den is a cider-block walled “dugout” with an insulated, waterproof, wood roof.
First, we had our friend use his tractor to excavate a 3 foot deep 10’x10′ hole where we planned to build the Den.
We chose to put the first Den in a smaller area of the yard that has a very tall double fence. In the past we had some issues with Luytiy, our male Caucasian Ovcharka, jumping over our 6′ fence and escaping the yard. So we had the 6′ fence replaced in this smaller area with 10′ “Coyote Fencing” made from local Aspen trees (called Latilla locally). This area was sectioned off from the rest of our fenced-in yard to give us a fortified area to keep Luytiy in while guests are over or if we leave him out while we are gone. We chose to build the first Den in this area as we could allow Luytiy to be out in this area 24/7 with no fears of him escaping while we adjusted the rest of our fence to keep him from jumping it.
Next we leveled-off the bottom of the whole and had our supplies delivered to the house. After leveling the base of the hole the depth was around 2.5′.
For the main structure we used 2 full pallets of 8x8x16 inch Cinder-Blocks. We would have preferred to use Adobe bricks, as they eventually degrade back into earth, and we don’t plan for these Dens to be permanent structures, but unfortunately we couldn’t find any Adobe Brick suppliers at the time of construction (Tho now I see Adobe Bricks for sale all over the place).
The next step was to start building the walls of the structure. We set the base Cinder-Blocks in the hole dry. Since this is not a permanent structure, we built the Dens without using cement to hold the blocks together – this added some unique challenges, but we felt it was necessary as the Dens will need to be removed if/when we sell our house. We got the first layer of blocks to fit as snugly as possible, which required some extra leveling of the ground, with the understanding that any cracks between the blocks would be filled with dirt once we buried the base of the structure.
We continued stacking the blocks until we reached the top of the hole (ground level). Once we reached ground-level height with the walls we started to leave space for the door to the Den. For this we had to use half-width Blocks since we wanted the opening to be large enough for Luytiy to fit in. Later, we would make the entry much larger as we found that the small entry made the Den a bit to confined-feeling (we assume) for the dogs. We’ll get to the door alteration later in this post.
As we got to the last few layers of Cinder-Blocks we hammered 1/2″ (#4) rebarb into the openings of the blocks. We hammered the rebarb into the ground a good 5′. We did this to add rigidity to the walls of the Den, the rebarb would later work with the sand, dirt, and rock we would poor into the walls of the Den (in the holes of the Cinder-Blocks) for added stability.
After the rebarb was in place we filled the Cinder-Blocks with rocks, sand, and dirt to make the walls more dense and solid. This may not have been needed, but we figured the added weight and mass would make the walls more stable while adding more thermal mass to the structure helping to keep the temps inside the Den stable while the temps outside the Den changed.
Next we filled in the area around the Den so that the dirt was level (or higher than) the ground. This put over 2′ of the Den completely underground, which helps to slow the thermal-swing of the inside (the Den) temps. Moving all that dirt was a lot of work, but worth it in the long run. Being partly underground reduces heat loss from the ground via conduction.
Now it was time to build the roof of the Den. we wanted the roof to act as a platform for the dogs to sit on as well as provide shade on the sides of the Den while keeping hot or cold air trapped inside by reducing solar heating and insulating the space. This means the top needed to be pretty large, insulated, and water resistant. We built an 8′ x 8′ box out of plywood and 2x4s, added insulation to the inside, and then sealed the top to make it water proof.
The final product has changed a bit since the original design. The original design had a rather small opening (door) to the Den, we found that the dogs didn’t like to go into such a closed dark space so we ended up making the opening (door) much wider. To the left is a pic of what the Den looked like after completion. This opening was too small for the dogs.
So, we eventually made the opening much larger…
We also added steps to the back of the Den so that the smaller dogs could have a safe way to access the platform on top, which has grown to be a favorite place for the dogs to hang out – it gets them up off the ground where it is dry. Another thing we added later was Pine Shavings to the inside of the Den so that the dogs had a nice soft bed to sleep on…
And that’s how we built our dog’s “Zen Dens”! 🙂
So far we have been very pleased with the results. When the temps are very warm the dogs will take shelter in there as it stays nice and cool. When the temps are very cold the dogs do the same as the temps in the Den stays much warmer than the outside temps. I did some monitoring of the temp difference between the outside temps and the inside tempos and found that they can vary as much as 30F! This means on a -20F night the inside of the Den is 10F and on a hot 90F day the inside temps will be as low as 70F! We are rather impressed with the results.