Invisible Fences

Containment Option? Or Recipe for Disaster?

author Nancy Derrico, a TOTTSHR volunteer

It's a warm, sunny day and you leash your dog for a walk. You decide to take a different route this day, through another neighborhood, for a change of scenery. Across the street and a few houses away, you see a dog napping peacefully beneath the shade of a maple tree in his front yard. Before you fully comprehend that no fence surrounds his property, he hears you and your dog approach. He springs to his feet and happily races across the yard to greet you. As he closes the distance between his napping spot and the promise of a new friend on the other side of the street, your heart races with fear as you picture him beneath the wheels of an oncoming car. Suddenly, he skids to a stop at the edge of his property, seeming to collide with a hidden wall.

What is this hidden wall, and can it safely contain a husky?

The "hidden wall" is an invisible fence—a buried wire or cable set around a property's boundary and connected to a transmitter located within your house or garage. The transmitter sends a low-frequency radio signal to a collar worn by a dog when he is approaching the wire. If the dog ignores the audible signal and continues approaching the boundary, the collar emits a brief and unpleasant correction.

As to whether an invisible fence can safely contain a husky, this subject has prompted many heated debates among its proponents and opponents. The only right answer is: It depends on the dog's temperament, whether his motivation to stay in the yard is greater than any temptation beyond his boundary, and how dedicated his owners are to properly training him to respect the fence.

What's Good?

Let's look at the benefits of an invisible fence:

  • The cost of installing an invisible fence system is relatively low, compared to the cost of installing a structural fence made of wood or chain link. For an acre of property, an invisible fence can cost between $300 (if you install it yourself) and $1,200 (if you hire a professional) compared to triple that amount—or more—to professionally install a structural fence for the same area.
  • Installation is easy and, depending on the size of the property, can usually be done in a day.
  • The wire installed for an invisible fence can easily accommodate radical changes in terrain, such as hills, streams, and rocky areas. It can even be safely strung across driveways to fully enclose a property without the use of gates.
  • In addition to defining the outer boundary of a property, the wire also can mark "off-limit" places within the boundary, such as pools or gardens.
  • Unlike a structural fence, a dog cannot jump or climb over an invisible fence, nor can he dig beneath one.
  • Invisible barriers are more aesthetically pleasing to some people than structural ones.
  • Invisible fences provide an alternative containment system when zoning or other restrictions prevent the installation of a structural fence. Invisible fence systems can easily be moved to a different residence.

What's Bad?

And now let's look at the drawbacks:

  • An invisible fence cannot keep intruders—both human and animal-out of your yard.
  • In a multiple-dog household, the dogs can chew each other's collar off or get tangled in them during play.
  • Some dogs' fur is so thick that the dog never feels the correction.
  • Power outages or deep snow can cause the system to fail.
  • The batteries in the collar can wear out without warning.
  • If the dog does break through the fence, he is unlikely to come back because he knows he will feel another correction.
  • Training a dog to an invisible fence takes time and patience. During the training period, you must walk your dog on a leash within the fence boundaries every time he has to go out. You cannot put a collar on your dog and let him out the door unleashed until he is thoroughly trained.
  • Some dogs, regardless of how diligent you are in training them, simply will not respect an invisible fence. Their desire to run and investigate the world is stronger than their temporary discomfort of the correction they receive when they cross the boundary. Some dogs even learn to "test" the fence for weakness and even figure out how to drain the collar battery until they know it's "safe" to walk across.

What's Training Like?

The method for teaching a dog his boundary and training him to respect the fence is similar whether you do the training yourself or work with a professional. Depending on the dog, training can take as little as two weeks or as many as six or more. Dogs can be trained at any age, but puppies should be at least six months old before training begins.

First, flags placed along the wire provide a visual clue to the dog for where his boundary lies. With the dog wearing the collar but with the system turned off, the trainer walks the dog on leash toward the flags. When the audible warning is heard, the trainer says something like "Bad flags,!" and pulls the dog away from the flags and toward the center of the yard while praising him. The idea here is to teach the dog that when he hears the signal, he should back away from the flags.

Next, the trainer repeats this process with the system activated. This time, the trainer lets the dog feel the correction before pulling him away from the flags. The combination of the correction, the "Bad flags!" reminder, the pulling back to safety, and the praise teaches him that the only way to avoid the correction is to come back inside the "safe zone"—his yard. This stage can provide a good indication of how well a dog will respect the fence (for many dogs, one correction is enough!). A critical factor in the success of this training is to never let the dog break through to the other side of the boundary—you want him to believe that the only way to stop the correction is to turn back into the "safe zone."

From here, distractions are introduced. With the dog still on leash, the trainer introduces temptations beyond the boundary, such as asking a child to run with a ball or a volunteer to walk by with another dog. This stage determines whether the dog is ready to progress to the next stage or whether he needs more practice without distractions.

Lastly, training progresses to the point where the trainer drops the leash and tests the dog's awareness of the boundary. The trainer continues to try to distract the dog, always ready to grab the leash should the dog venture too close to the flags. Training is considered complete only when the trainer is confident that the dog's motivation to stay in the yard (that is, to avoid a correction) is stronger than outside distractions.

But About Those Bad Things...

We've seen how the proper training can help prevent some of the bad points about the invisible fence. Let's revisit some of the other drawbacks we mentioned earlier:

It is true that a physical barrier is a greater deterrent than an invisible one. However, dogs should never be left unattended in a yard regardless of what type of containment system is used. Keeping an eye on your dogs also prevents accidents if they chew each other's collar off or get tangled in a collar during play.

For dogs with thick fur, such as huskies, most invisible fence companies make longer prongs to penetrate that fur. Using longer prongs, fitting the collar snugly, inspecting the collar daily, and clipping the fur if necessary all help the collar keep the proper contact with the dog's skin.

Invisible fence companies also enhance their systems in a variety of ways to prevent system failures, including:

  • Battery backup systems that take over during a power failure, surge protectors to protect the transmitter from lightning strikes, and indicators to alert you if some part of the system is malfunctioning
  • Collar battery maintenance plans, which involve sending new collars before the old ones wear out. Some companies make collars that contain a "low battery" indicator; others offer rechargeable batteries that can be charged at night when your dog is safe inside. If a collar uses non-rechargeable batteries, you can make battery changes part of a monthly routine, such as the first day of every month or the day on which you administer your dog's flea, tick, and heartworm preventive.
  • Ways to vary correction levels and width of the signal field (the distance from the flags before audible tones and physical corrections begin). These adjustments are useful to tailor the correction to a dog's temperament and to keep the system running through unusual circumstances, such as deep snow.

Is the Invisible Fence for You?

Only you can answer this question. After reading the points in this article, ask yourself the following questions, and be truthful in your answers:

  • What kind of temperament does your dog have? In general, sensitive dogs with lower prey drives tend to be easier to train to an invisible fence. Training also is easier when the dog is closely bonded with its human and when a person is in tune with his or her dog.
  • Do you have the time and patience to follow through with the training required to teach the dog his boundaries? Even if you work with a professional invisible fence trainer, you still will need to continue the training at each level when the trainer is not present. Remember, this means taking the dog out on a leash every time he has to go out, even for quick "potty" visits.
  • Have you researched the systems of a number of invisible fence companies? Systems vary widely in technology and application. Be sure to investigate the best systems you can afford and know how their features keep the system running smoothly and your dog safe.
  • Do you plan on leaving your dog outside while you go to work or run an errand? If so, an invisible fence is not recommended. Your dog may be trustworthy to stay in the yard, but there is no way for him to defend himself from intruders if necessary.
  • How well do you know your neighbors? Neighborhood children may think it's OK to come into your yard uninvited. Delivery or utility people may be unnerved if they aren't aware you have an invisible fence and your dog approaches them.
  • Do you live on a busy street? Even dog owners we know who favor invisible fences cringe when they see them used to contain a dog on a very busy street.

And lastly, but most importantly,

  • Do you have a "plan B" should the invisible fence prove a failure? The invisible fence is not for everyone. If your dog does not successfully complete training (that is, does not develop a respect for the fence and the boundary while still leashed), will you accept that the invisible fence is not a viable containment system and will you seek an alternative?