Ask the vet: thoughts on electric fences

Q: I am thinking about installing an electric fence in my yard for my dog.  What do you think about the do-it-yourself electric fence kits? 

— Sarah

A: I will answer this question by giving you my real life experiences with electric fences.  When I got out of veterinary school and my husband and I purchased our first house, we wanted an electric fence for our two dogs, a shepard mix and a pug mix.  Money was tight, so we decided to install the electric fence ourselves.  At the time, there were two types of fences available, one in which you laid an electrical line along the perimeter of the property, and one where you staked a transmission center in the middle of your yard, and it produced an electrical current in a circle around the transmission center.  We elected against getting that version as it shrunk the area of the yard the dogs could use considerably.  We went with the version where you bury the line.  We soon discovered that we had incredibely hard soil, and we ended up needing to rent a ditchwitch to cut into the soil to lay the line.  The collars for the dogs were large and clunky, and the distance between where the dog would get the audible cue and the actual shock varied along the distance of the line.   The dogs did learn where they could go in the yard, and where they couldn’t, but overall we didn’t have a very positive experience with the do-it-yourself electric fence.

When we moved homes, we decided to try a professional electric fence company.  They came and installed the line, and we paid extra to have them come out and do some of the dog training for us.  The training is pretty simple, and the “free” training DVD is easy to follow.  If you are a first time electric fence user, though, I think paying for the extra training is worth it.  On each of the systems we’ve used, we tried the shock out on ourselves first before putting it on the dogs.  I would describe the shock as more disconcerting then painful.  But it certainly gets your attention and is not pleasant. 

Although not as expensive as an actual fence, to have a company come and install an electric fence is still pretty pricey.  The collars from the professional fence company were small and worked well, and we had no problems with the audible cue or shock going off at unexpected times.   If your choice is between a do-it-yourself electric fence and a professionally installed one, I think the professional fence is worth it.

An electric fence does have its inherent cons, however.  My German Shepard mix got loose twice from her fence.  Once when the battery died, and once when we had heavy snow falls.  One side of our yard butts against the street, and the plows would pile snow in the yard.  The snow got to be about 6 feet tall at the edge of this part of the yard and my dog was able to race up the snow pile and out of the yard without hearing the audible cue or getting the shock.  That whole winter we needed to either use a tie-out, or take her out on a leash. 

The other problem with an electric fence is that animals can still come into your yard.  After my German Shepard died, we decided to get a Great Dane.  We discovered that as he got closer to maturity he started exhibiting some territorial aggressive behaviors.  We had the unfortunate experience of a young neighbor girl walking her large, exurberant yellow lab on a flexi-leash by our yard at a time when my Great Dane was out in the yard.  My Dane was respectful of the fence line, but the Labrador came into the yard and my Dane pinned the Labrador.  Luckily, no bite occurred, but it was a frightening experience for the girl, and not a good way to stay friends with the neighbors.  We realized that an electric fence was not an appropriate containment system for this dog.

The choice about whether or not to get an electric fence is multi-variable.  If you have a reactive dog, with territorial tendencies or is dog aggressive, an electric fence is not a good choice.  Also, if your property butts up to a busy sidewalk where other dog owners might allow their dogs to come onto your property, an electric fence may also not be ideal. 

Currently, I just have my Pug mix.  Although we don’t have an exact date of birth, we think she is 18 years old.  She doesn’t do much other then snooze on the couch or the front step.  When she passes and we get another dog, we might consider installing an actual fence in the back yard and not deal with uncertainties of an electric fence. 

 Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at [email protected].