Hidden fences

Out of sight may not mean peace of mind

What Sport can't see might shock him at least if he steps over the line. What joggers and dog walkers can see might shock them as well especially if Rambo comes hurtling around the corner with no visible barrier between 60 pounds of charging pooch and the sidewalk.

Both shocks may be caused by an underground fence, an electronic barrier designed to keep Sport and Rambo on their own property.

Underground fences are becoming more and more popular. They are often less expensive than traditional fence and preferred by homeowners in subdivisions that do not allow visible fences. They offer an illusion of freedom for the homeowner who thinks that the family pet shouldn't be fenced in or that his yard should be open.

Underground fence is not a buried hot wire that zaps a dog for getting close to the boundary. It is a radio antenna that sends out a signal that activates a battery in the dog's collar. The battery causes a shock similar to static electricity, and the dog backs off. The field of radio waves can be adjusted so that the dog does not get too close to the edge of the property before hearing the warning tone.

Underground fence was invented by Richard Peck in the mid-1970s and marketed exclusively as Invisible Fence until the patent ran out in 1991. Today, several companies sell the hidden barriers, but Invisible Fence claims the most innovative equipment and services with its programmable collars, battery replacement program, and assistance for the life of the system.

A hidden fence system consists of boundary wire, a transmitter, a receiver, a test light, training flags, and a sign. The receiver is attached to the dog's collar; the correcting shock reaches the dog through prongs that touch the skin on his neck.

Once the wire in installed, the flags are placed along the fence line. For the first week, the dog is kept on a long leash with the receiver-collar on. For the first few days, one prong on the collar is taped so that the dog can hear the warning tone without experiencing the correction. Each time the dog nears the fence and hears the signal, the leash is jerked to bring him back into the safe area and he is praised.

After a few days of conditioning to run back into the safe area of the yard when the tone is heard, the tape is removed from the prong and the dog is allowed to experience a correction. Then it's back into the safe area for play and praise.

When the dog has the idea that the boundary causes the correction, distractions can be added. Each time the dog ignores the distraction outside the fence, praise and play are in order. The initial phase of the training takes about a week.

The second week involves supervised off-leash training so the dog learns that the correction comes from the boundary, not from the leash.

After two weeks, every other flag can be removed each day until the flags are gone.


The advantages of an underground fence are clear, but the disadvantages are at least as clear for some dogs and owners and for meter readers, mailmen, joggers, and dog walkers.

Underground fence cannot be seen by the people who come to or walk past the house, so visitors, servicemen, and walkers may be startled or frightened by a charging dog protecting his property. Underground fence is also invisible to the critters that inhabit suburbia rabbits, stray dogs, and cats may enter a yard with disastrous results.

Some dogs have a high pain threshold and will go through the barrier if the distraction is strong enough. Once they go through, they receive the correction when trying to re-enter the yard and may be reluctant to return when the chase is done.

Success of the system depends on maintenance by the homeowner. Batteries must be replaced, collars must be fitted correctly, and contact between the prongs and the skin must be maintained. If the dog has a thick or heavy coat, it may be necessary to shave his neck for contact to occur.

Kerry McManus of Cincinnati Invisible Fence, (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA) said that he does not sell the system to contain dogs that have a history of aggression, biting, or running away. His company will install fence around the perimeter of the property and put in side sections to keep the dog in the back yard. The front yard is fenced to minimize the chances of the dog escaping if it slips out the door, he said.

However, many people allow the dog unsupervised in the front yard without considering the impact of a charging, barking dog on the neighborhood. Although dogs will bark and jump at a traditional fence, a barrier that can be seen allows a measure of confidence that the dog will remain confined. Most joggers, walkers, and delivery men accept that a dog behind a fence is doing its job at a safe distance; with a hidden fence, there can be no such trust.

Because dogs can easily leave a yard with a hidden fence if the maintenance is not done or if the dog has a high pain threshold combined with high prey or defense drives, some breeders and shelters will not sell or adopt dogs to be confined by these fences. The large guardian breeds are particularly likely to have the characteristics that make underground fences a poor choice of confinement.

Dogs should always be safely contained so that they cannot be teased or injured by other animals or by children and so they cannot escape. If hidden fence is the only alternative to tying out, owners should research each company and each do-it-yourself kit to make sure it fits their needs. Then they should keep the collar in working order and supervise the dog while it is outside. If Tugger braves the correction to take off after a squirrel or Rambo ignores the shock to chase Mrs. Smith's Fifi, at least the owner will know his pet has left the yard. And if a stray dog gets in the yard and does a number on Sugar, at least the owner can rescue his pet if he sees the action.

[More on fences]
-- By Norma Bennett Woolf --
Norma Bennett Woolf

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