a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Invisible Fence Saved Our Siberian Husky

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Invisible Fence Saved Our Siberian Husky

SUMMARY: My experience with the so-called invisible fence.
An "invisible fence" isn't really a fence at all. It's a transmitter attached to a wire that you place around the area in which you want to keep your dog (or to keep your dog out of). The dog wears a collar receiver that's a shock collar; if the dog gets within range of the wire, she gets a shock.

You don't just put the collar on the dog and wait for it to work. You train the dog by first putting up a visible indicator of the wire's range (kite string attached to stakes, for example). You walk with the dog on leash, and when you see the dog react to the shock, you immediately run with the dog into the yard where it's safe, and reward the dog for running back into the yard with you. You do this for a week or two, first with the visible indicator, then without it. It's time-consuming training; you never want the dog out in the yard without you there until they've learned the right reaction.

I refused to put something on my dog that I wouldn't try on myself. So I did: wrapped it around my bare arm and walked within range of the wire. Zap! Very startling, but didn't seem much more painful than when you get a really sharp static discharge on a dry day, walking across the carpet, and touching something metal.

The only reason I went for this option was because we tried for 6 years to keep our Siberian Husky in the yard (I won't bore you with the long list of all the things that we bought, installed, fixed, and/or methods we tried) and we finally put her up for adoption, only to realize on the night before handing her over that we couldn't do it. We needed another option, and I had recently heard about the Invisible Fence.

It succeeded much better than anything else. Her yard escapes reduces from nearly constant to almost never.  (We could also have built a kennel with a concrete pad and solid walls and a roof. I preferred the option of letting her roam the yard and house.)

Our yard was fenced but it was very large (half an acre). We attached the wire to the fence around most of the yard, and cut a groove through the driveway to install it under the pavement where it crossed the driveway.

Its major use is for yards that don't have fences--usually because the yard is huge and the cost of fencing is prohibitive, or the local CC&Rs don't allow fencing (we had a friend who lived in such an area back east).

In 1996, I sent a friend an email about some of the advantages to invisible fencing:
  • It can be used inside a yard as well as around a yard, for example to keep the dogs out of the vegetable garden.
  • It can be used around yards that are, for whatever reason, difficult to fence.
  • It requires much less maintenance and is easier to install than a regular fence.
  • It costs much less than a regular fence.
  • It can be used  around fenced yards for dogs who are escape artists (our situation).
  • Used with a regular fence, if your regular fence is damaged somehow (e.g., wind storm, rotting, whatever), it ensures that the dog won't get out before you notice the damage.
  •  It works almost all the time--compared to all of our other methods and fences, none of which could ever be relied on to work. But we did use it in conjunction with a real fence.

I also noted that, like most solutions to behavioral issues, it is not without its caveats:

  • You must train the dog to recognize that staying in the yard (or running *into* the yard when startled) is the safe and correct way to avoid the fence's correction. This is not a replacement for training, but a [very strong] supplement to it.
  • You must regularly test the collar to be sure that the battery is functioning or simply replace the battery on a strict schedule (the Invisible Fence company has a battery-subscription plan where they simply send you a battery at some fixed interval!).
  • You must monitor whether the wire that provides the "invisible" fence is intact and has power. Ours came with 2 lights that remain lit as long as these 2 things are ok.
  • Densely coated dogs (like a Siberian Husky) have to have a small patch on their necks trimmed or shaved on a regular basis for the collar correction to work.
  • Because she had to have it on 24 hrs a day "just in case", she occasionally developed small sores where the contacts rubbed on her neck and those needed care & prevention.
  • A dog working under a lot of adrenaline can power right thru the fence barrier. In theory, the more they're trained at the beginning, the less they're inclined to try it, although Sheba figured out pretty quickly that, if the gate was left ajar, she could make a break for it and be gone. (And the dog might hesitate to *return* to the yard. If I knew that somehow Sheba had gotten out with the collar on--e.g. during a power failure when I wasn't home--I'd turn off the fence til she came back.)
  • Intelligent dogs who like to escape will test the fence occasionally--we knew when we had neglected to shave the neck, replace the battery on a regular schedule, or check that the line was still working, because Sheba would vanish.
  • It will not keep other things *out* of your yard, such as other dogs, and your dogs are then more or less trapped in your yard.
  • If you forget to take the collar off when you put the dog into the car, and then drive the car over or near the fence, you are torturing your dog. I did this once. Gods, I felt awful!

For more on the down side, here's an interesting post, "The Illusions of Invisible Fencing," from someone who almost lost their dog who powered through an invisible fence (with no supplementary fencing) in front of a car.

The result, however, was that our dog was out roaming only on rare occasions; I spent so many sleepless nights before that, agonizing over whether she'd be hit by a car or we'd never see her again. It was amazing how often she left and yet we got her back again. We were very lucky. Our lives got so much better with her in the years after we installed the fence, and she lived to be 17.


  1. Sheba girl!!! She was such a character. Thanks for the photos.

  2. I hate shock collars, unless you use it to keep a dog safely in the yard. Invisible fences are awesome!

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  4. Remote stimulation training collars, also known as e-collars or shock collars, have grown in popularity over the last decade. They are viewed as a quick and effective way to control a dog’s behavior, especially from a distance. See more http://dogsaholic.com/training/electronic-dog-training-collars.html

    1. I do *not* condone the use of shock collars in training. The same ends can be accomplished with nonpainful methods, and yes I've done it and seen it done. This post was for an extreme case with the choice that it was better to keep a very experienced escape artists in the yard than to continue risk her being killed by cars or people with guns. I'm leaving your comment here with great misgivings, mostly so that people can see that some trainers still condone the use of painful abuse int the name of training. I can't recommend those trainers, either.

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    1. Those are good suggestions. We had a 6' fence around our half acre, half no-climb wire and half wood. Did not keep our dog in the yard. We started digging a trench along the bottom of the fence with the intention of pouring concrete into it because of digging, but she went *through* the fence over the concrete that we did get in place. She escaped from harnesses more times than I can count. Could open windows in the house. Tried an electric fence wire and she just pulled it down repeatedly (I suspect the husky fur kept it from being effective--certainly zapped me when i'd forget and brush against it). Dang clever dog.

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