Mention invisible fence, and a lot of dog lovers cringe. But it’s the way it’s used that’s most important. Combined with the correct training, it can be safe as well as effective for some dogs.
Like a lot of dog lovers, I disliked the idea of hidden or invisible fences. Then one evening, as I was driving home, I witnessed a disoriented Lab run into traffic and get hit. I immediately parked and ran to help him – he was obviously someone’s lost companion, because he was wearing a collar. But he fled the scene before I could catch him. It struck me that maybe a hidden fence would have helped prevent this tragedy.
I spoke with Jody McGlothlin, a hidden fence expert who also owns Labrador retrievers. She agreed with me that some people think this approach to backyard containment is cruel, yet others feel it’s the best invention since sliced bread.
The truth actually lies between these extremes – and the key to success is the right training. A hidden fence should never be installed without the recommended training for proper use, because anxiety and other behavioral issues can easily arise in dogs exposed to repeated “shocks”, no matter how mild, particularly if they’re turned loose in the yard without a customized plan. “You don’t just go to an electric collar for a quick fix,” says dog trainer Chris Zimmerman.
Benefits of invisible fences
Why would someone install a hidden fence in the first place, when another form of fencing would supposedly work just as well and without the use of electricity? “Invisible fencing might be the best solution if the terrain doesn’t allow for regular fencing, or if there is a lot of acreage involved,” says Chris. They also give a dog more space to roam around in and allow him the opportunity to see beyond the confines of his own yard. He also can’t jump over, dig under or chew through a hidden fence. Jody adds, however, that a hidden fence is not intended as a reason for a dog to live in the yard full-time, nor is it recommended for extended periods of use without proper supervision.
Understanding how it works
A lot of people’s aversion to invisible fences arises from a misunderstanding about how they actually work. “Our systems operate on an electronic radio signal that is sent from a ‘transmitter’ (usually placed in your garage or basement) through a wire buried a few inches underground,” explains Fred King, president and founder of DogWatch. “Your dog wears a special collar with a small radio receiver that responds to the radio signal. It is a common misconception that the wire is ‘electrified’ but it is not; it is a radio signal. If your dog gets too close to the buried wire, the radio signal triggers the receiver collar.
“The first signal is simply an audible sound that alerts the dog that he is getting too close to the boundary. The dog is trained to stop when he hears the signal. He learns that if he continues beyond the audible signal, he receives a ‘stimulus correction’. The term ‘shock’ is a strong word, associated with a belief that the dog will be hurt or traumatized by the sensation from the receiver collar. But it can best be described as similar to a strong ‘static electricity’ shock – it does not really hurt or harm you, but it gets your attention and you’d prefer to avoid another one. With proper training, most dogs figure this out very quickly and rarely go past the audible warning zone.”
It’s important to note that hidden fence companies vary in their approach. For the sake of your dog, go with a company – such as Invisible Fence or DogWatch – that offers an audible signal as a first warning, rather than one that relies entirely on stimulus corrections. It is also important to select a hidden fence system that allows you to adjust the strength of the correction to suit the size, age and temperament of your dog.
Training is essential
Even with an audible signal as a first warning, proper training and a customized plan is needed – if the dog learns to respond to the sound from his collar, he can minimize or even avoid the electronic correction. Invisible Fence and DogWatch offer training resources and custom training assistance. “Someone who is experienced in training dogs (and their people) makes sure the system is properly set,” says Fred. “Dogs who are properly trained are rarely subjected to the correction, beyond learning where the boundaries are. Key elements are making sure the hidden fence is properly installed and set for the dog, and that the dog is properly trained to stop at the audible signal. Training includes beginning with a visual reference to the boundary (flags), which are then associated with an audible warning, which is then associated with receiving the correction. It is a learning process that includes positive reinforcement and play. Proper training is very important to positive outcomes.”
According to Chris, border training might be more challenging if you have a smart dog. “I’ve known huskies that have run the fence line because they figured out how to drain the batteries on the stimulus collars,” says Chris. “These are very smart dogs, and so they discovered a way to get around the system.” Before allowing the dog access to your backyard off leash, Chris recommends using good aids for obedience training inside the backyard, Chris, who prefers border training to hidden fencing, uses visual boundaries on the property, such as the small flags often employed by hidden fence companies, to teach boundary training.
Improperly used, and without the right training, invisible fences can cause emotional and behavioral issues in your dog. With the correct system and training in place, however, they can broaden his horizons while keeping him safe and sound.