Friday, May 23, 2014

Getting Buzzed

No, this is not about the very special G&T my husband just brought me to celebrate the close of my Friday afternoon workday (although I have to say the Rogue Pink Spruce Gin and Fever Tree tonic does make a mighty nice wind-down to a long week...)

This is about keeping our dogs in our yard. As some of my readers know, we are in the process of moving to a country home. That sounds so hoity-toity. Really, we are in the process of moving to three acres of really beautiful land with a funky, old 1930s money-pit-but-livable house sitting on it. At least my office has a nice view.

ANYWAY I digress. The yard surrounding the house is a huge improvement over the 2 feet of owned land and unfenceable common areas around the townhome we've been living in for the past several years. The dogs, who have been doing their business outside on leashed walks, were particularly glad to see the acres of tall grass, fruit trees and deer frolicking (yes, they frolic here frequently, look in the windows and drive the dogs insane).

Trouble with this lovely country home is that while there isn't much traffic on the gravel road just across from the property, the small amount of traffic that does go down that road is going downhill, usually very fast, and not looking for children or dogs. (Which, I'm sure, worries the two families just down the road from us who have small children too...) Unless we want our dogs chasing deer into the path of a speeding truck, this means fencing an un-fenced property.

We identified an area around the back of the house to fence-in. But the best part of the yard, the area where we are most often wanting to work in the garden or have a picnic with a pretty view, is an area that would be spoiled by putting up a fence. After all, it is the pretty flow of the land that made us fall in love with this place. The dogs want to be where WE are, not banished to the back yard if we're not out there. And besides, paying someone to fence that much land is pretty expensive.

So we started investigating options for underground fencing. You know, the electric kind where the dogs wear little collars that keep them from crossing the invisible line where you want the fence to be by giving them a tone and an "electrical stimulation" when they cross the fence line. I had some reservations about the whole "electrical stimulation" thing. Is it just a shock with a fancy name? (I am, after all, a PR professional, and have a pretty good "spin" detector.) I needed to learn more.

We looked at four brands:  SportDog (definitely the favorite among DIY types who have sporting dogs), PetSafe (the one you see at pet stores everywhere, also a DIY option), Innotek (another DIY option with a dual system that includes a remote trainer) and Invisible Fence (the brand that started it all and the one that was recommended highly by Remy's breeder who is also a veterinarian).  Here are a few of the pros and cons as we saw them:

DIY Brand - PROS:
  • Less expensive than professionally-installed systems. This is a huge PRO.
  • Readily available, just buy it and install it on your own time. (You have to train the dogs yourself, but there are a lot of online resources to help.)
  • Uses the standard technology that has been proven over years of use.
DIY Brands - CONS:
  • Those who have never used electronic collars with their dogs are prone to mistakes -- not setting the system right and the dogs get through or setting the system too high and thus over-stimulating the dogs.
  • If you don't do it properly and the system breaks down anywhere, the dogs are roaming free and there is no one to call.
  • Once a dog crosses the boundary (some dogs will just grit their teeth and run through if there's something they really want on the other side) they are now outside and cannot get back in without getting the "stimulation" again. That's a disincentive to come home.
While I really appreciated the wallet-friendly price point, which was in the $300-$600 range, I wasn't particularly comfortable with the risks of the DIY systems nor was I confident in my ability to adequately train the dogs to stay inside. Just letting them out the door and trusting the system was a leap I wasn't quite comfortable with. Also, I knew that we have a zillion projects to do and it could be months before the installation would get done.

Invisible Fence - PROS:
  • The system is professionally installed. This saves time and guarantees the work gets done. It also means someone is accountable for the proper installation of the system. In the world of software, where I often work, there is a term "one throat to choke" when something goes wrong. In this case, it's not the dog, it's the company. They not only do all the work, they guarantee their system and their training methods and keep coming out until it all works.
  • They send out professional trainers for at least 3 sessions to work with your dogs, starting at the lowest possible "stimulation" setting and working up so your dog never gets more stimulation than is needed. (This also gives you the opportunity to "stimulate" yourself and see how it feels, which seems like a good idea.)
  • They have a newer technology that remains ON after the dog crosses the boundary and turns OFF when the dog comes back in. This is an incentive for the dog to return and not just keep running after that deer. (Caveat: there is a time limit on the stimulation, but it can be set by the trainer.)
Invisible Fence - CONS:
  • Price. Yes, it definitely costs more to have someone else come out and dig a trench around your property and install a continuous wire and a wall-mounted control unit. In fact, it can be anywhere from 3-4 times more expensive than the DIY systems, depending on the size of your property. Maybe more. But it is still less than fencing the same amount of property with a nice fence.
  • You don't get to buy it and install it the same day. After the installation, they ask that you not let your dogs out with the invisible fencing alone until they have completed 2-3 more training sessions (you get a couple of sessions on the day they install it). The training sessions are included in the price and are sometimes a week or two apart and based on the trainer's availability. (I should note that even though the DIY products can be installed in a day, it is recommended that you take a couple of weeks to train your dog to the system -- but it's on your time schedule. If you were to hire a trainer with a DIY system, the time and cost would start getting closer.) Either way, it's not speedy, but it does help ensure that your dogs are REALLY READY before you send them out to run free with an invisible fence around them. 
  • Strangers dig trenches around your yard. This I don't mind. We've had so many strangers (contractors) in our house lately I'm getting used to it.
You can probably tell from this that we ended up going with the Invisible Fence brand. We just had it installed this week. As an added plus, the system came with an indoor transmitter that we can use in the house (no extra cost) to keep the dogs off anything within a 1 to 6-foot radius of the transmitter. The trainers use this to train the dogs to avoid the flags, so once they get outside, they know that a flag means a boundary.

Based on our first training sessions, it does seem to work. In the future, I know the indoor unit will be helpful in keeping the dogs away from areas we don't want them to go into (which, given the construction going on around our house, is hugely helpful). We joked about just handing it to certain house guests who don't like dogs near them and strapping it to Kirby to keep Remy from jumping on him. 

As for the outside system, we have homework. The first on-leash training session was remarkably productive in teaching the dogs where the boundaries are. Now our job is to walk the dogs around the perimeter of the yard, where the flags indicate the boundary, to get them used to the tone and "stimulation" each time they cross over a flag. After just a day, the dogs already avoid the flags and if they stick their heads across the line, they immediately make a U-turn and come back in. This looks promising.

As for the "stimulation?" I tried it on myself at the same level as the dogs were set. It felt almost exactly like the electrical stimulation I had received for a shoulder injury at the chiropractor and the acupuncturist. Slightly more than touching a TV, slightly less than the shock from shuffling my feet on the carpet and touching something. But it was, definitely, enough to get my attention. And, apparently, that's true for the dogs as well.

I'll keep you posted on the progress!

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