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Invisible Fence Vs Physical fence: Which Is Best? An Independent Review From A Professional Dog Trainer

June 24, 2021
June 24, 2021

An Invisible fence is a popular solution to limiting your dogs freedom at home. But is this the solution for you, or is a physical fence better for you?

I find this really strange, in the UK? Invisible fences are not a thing, Pretty much every property with outside space is fenced, maybe it’s because we have so little of it per person, that we desperately cling to it? Maybe it’s just that we’re a little more private. Or even just tradition! 

So in the US, I find it very strange to see little flags around peoples gardens denoting the line to which their dog can move freely. All for the sake of not putting up a fence…

Perhaps my british sensibilities are affecting my life in the US – but which is truly the best option for you? 

It’s a question that is regularly asked, and so I want to go through that with you in this comparison, and I’ll be impartial throughout. 

First though! For those of you reading this, wondering what on earth an invisible fence is… let’s start there.

What Is An Invisible Fence?

An invisible fence is an option some dog parents use to keep their dog within the confines of their property, this is an application of technology that means that the dog in question learns the limits of their domain. There are many brands of invisible fences, this is the brand name used for PetSafe.

small flags denoting the boundary of an invisible fence
small flags like this often denote the boundary of an invisible fence – beneath a wire is buried that will act as the ‘containment’ for your dog.

How Does An Invisible Fence Work?

Invisible fences work in a very similar way to an e-collar or shock collar, but as opposed to a remote triggering the actions, the presence of a buried wire denoting the edge of your property does. 

You bury a wire around the perimeter of your dogs space, it gets hooked up to a power supply and your dog wears a special collar. This collar will activate the closer your dog goes to the invisible fence boundary. It will beep as a warning, and if the warning is ignored, then it will create a current that goes straight into the dogs neck. 

This aversive means that your dog learns not to approach the barrier — mainly by trial and error.

This effectively creates an invisible fence that prevents your dog from leaving the perimeter.  

Now Let’s Look At The Comparison! 

Now that those questions are answered, let’s have a look at Invisible fence versus physical fence, and examine some pros and cons for each. Let’s start with the invisible fence – seen as we’re already in that mindset! 

small flags of an invisible fence, clearly visible in snow too.
small flags of an invisible fence, clearly visible in snow too.

Why Would I Get An Invisible Fence?

✅ No visible barrier
✅ Cheaper to install
✅ Fast to install
✅ Still active if a tree falls
✅ Better suited for rocky environments
❌ Electricity usage
❌ Animals can still come in
❌ People can still come in
❌ Aversive solution
❌ Can be run through
❌ Works in both directions
❌ Not active without special collar
❌ Confusing when paired with other shock based collars

Pro – No Visible Barrier

It does have an appeal to have borderless yards and gardens, it makes things look very seamless and natural. It makes the open space feel much more open and doesn’t create any light impingements or otherwise. 

Pro – Cheaper to install

A big thing with these fences is that they’re much more cost effective, you can install them yourself with relative ease, but they do rely on your effort if this is your choice! The cost varies depending on the type of physical fence (and if COVID has hiked the price of wood), and whether you pay to have professionals install your fence or do it yourself, but the larger the land, the larger the cost disparity – that much is obvious.

invisible fence underground wire
invisible fence underground wire – they’re so easy to put in, it barely takes time at all.

Pro – Quick to Install

The biggest benefit of these! They go down so fast and they’re so simple to run! Dig a shallow trench the whole way around where you want the fence and pop the wire down and you’re good to go. They’re the quickest solution you’ll find to fencing for containing your dog.

Pro – Still active if a tree falls

We’ve had issues where a tree has come down in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to us, and it’s meant that our physical fence has had a gap in it. The particular time that I’m thinking about, it meant that the hounds went missing for days. Yes, however, if we had had an invisible fence, that would have almost certainly (unless the fence wire line were pierced by a protruding bough) mean your fence was still in tact, and most dogs would look at the magical invisible line and probably not chance going through it – even if it was broken

a very rocky garden can be tough for a physical fence
a very rocky garden can be tough for a physical fence

Pro – Better suited for rocky environments 

For those who live in rocky areas where putting in fence posts is just not an option? An invisible fence is because you can flex it around rocks, trees or problematic areas and barely cover it with soil for it to be active and protected from the elements. It’s a neat solution for this sort of problem.

Con – Continuous electrical usage

As we move into a more environmentally conscious time, do we really want to be using power, 24/7 to power an invisible fence? It’s a debate, (especially when the flip side is the use of wood andor metal to create a physical).

Con – Animals can still come in

To be honest? This is the headline for me. From Deer to bear, or even your neighbours dogs. An invisible fence is only a fence to your dog – and it won’t stop animals from coming in. If your dog is in season, or an intact male with a local lady in season, it might be the case that that neighbour’s dog decides to just invite themselves into your yard – uh-oh. 

It does depend on your area. But this one to me is really important and should strongly be considered.

signs for a physical fence
signs for a physical fence are really handy, but that’s not something you can do with an invisible one…

Con – People or children can still come in

Similar to the animals above, people and children can still come in with an active invisible fence. And, let’s face it, the local dog lover who genuinely believes all dogs love them, could just wander in. The risk then is if something goes wrong, you’re not watching, and it’s the person’s word against the dogs. Or worse, a child. To me? This isn’t setting your dog or puppy up for success.

It also wouldn’t stop someone from stealing your dog from your yard…

Con – Aversive Solution

One of my big things is not using pain, discomfort or similar to create a desired response. You can teach invisible boundaries in a positive way that would actually be almost as effective (and not use a collar, power, or have any install costs) but you would have to invest a lot of time in training that. 

Still, I feel like electrically prodding your dog to stay in an area? Is the less desired solution. 

Con – Can be run through by your dog

This is another headline for me. If your dog so chooses? And particularly if there is something on the other side they really wanted – like a deer, rabbit, person, or similar – there’s no reason they wont just plough through and take the shock the fence induces. And if their adrenalin is up? They may even barely feel it.

Con – Works in both directions for the collar wearer

Then, worse, let’s say they do get out, they’ve run through the fence – they can’t get back in. 

The fence doesn’t distinguish between directions and won’t recognise your dog is trying to come back in. It will beep and shock them again for attempting to return home. Which… is pretty worrying.

Con – Dependant on a special collar

If the collar isn’t on, the fence doesn’t work. Now, that would be less important if it weren’t tied directly to your fence and limitations of your dog. But when it is? That collar becomes really important, and it can be a problem.

Con – Confusing With Other Shock Based Collars

If your dog is in the yard, and you’re electing for e-collar (shock collar) training* then an underground fencing collar could be immensely confusing when used in tandem. Your dog may end up confusing which shock means which, which will make training virtually impossible in your yard – which is a pretty important space to get it right.

*For training purposes, and others reading this concerned about my personal methodology I do not like the use of ecollars, but my primary aim here is to educate… which goes above my own personal desires.

a metal physical fence that's wonderfully decorative too!
a metal physical fence that’s wonderfully decorative too!

Why Would I Get A Physical Fence?

✅ No Energy Costs
✅ Best For High Prey Drive Dogs
✅ Visual Deterrent
✅ No wild animals in your yard
✅ No issues with unwanted breeding
✅ Keeps other people or children out
❌ Expensive to install
❌ Higher upkeep 
❌ Can break if a tree falls

Pro – No Energy Costs

Once your physical fence is up? There is no cost to keep it going. It’s just there, unlike an invisible fence where it has to have power all day. Whilst the power draw isn’t high, that will still mount up over the lifetime of your dog. It would be a curious thing to cost the install and upkeep of both products across the lifetime of a dog, sadly, I’ve yet to find that! I’d bet they’re not dissimilar.

golden retriever chasing ducks
golden retriever chasing ducks – an example of high prey drive!

Pro – Best For High Prey Drive Dogs

If you’re in an area with lots of deer, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels or rabbits, it could really be worth investing in a physical fence, because it just means that your dog cannot go out without you, and that animals cannot come in either (with very few exceptions). So, if your dog is inclined to chase? This investment is just so worth it. 

Pro – A Physical Fence Is A Visual Deterrent

It also acts as a visual barrier between your dog and a potential problem, like the c-a-t across the street. Which means they’re much less likely to bark or get frustrated because 

Pro – No wild animals in your yard

You decrease the likelihood of animals in your yard hugely by putting in a physical fence. You’re likely to still get small critters, but bigger things like deer and bears etc are less likely to be presence, which makes your yard safer, and actually decreases the chances of ticks, fleas and other parasites! Which is always a good thing.

Pro – No concerns about unwanted dogs in your yard

Now, no matter how responsibly you are, if you don’t have a physical fence, other peoples dogs can come into your yard. Whether this is to cause trouble, or to potentially create an unwanted mating with your dog (think long and hard about breeding your girl, people! It’s not easy!) there’s so many things that can go wrong, that it’s just safer to put up a fence.

Pro – Keeps out people and Children

This one is big too. If your woof is out, unmonitored in your yard, a physical fence will stop people interacting with them properly, which means that your woof is safe from any accidents, any mishaps, slips or other issues that may, possibly, in some strange circumstance result in a bite. That’s a situation to avoid at all costs (no matter who is at fault) because reputation regardless of wrongness is something you want to avoid being associated with your dog.

Con – Expensive to install

Physical Fences are expensive – that’s the single biggest drawback with a physical fence. They’re just so expensive. From the supplies to the installation, fences cost a lot – and worse? The more space you have, the more expensive it’ll be. Ugh. 

painting a physical fence takes time, but it's worth it to keep the wood strong
painting a physical fence takes time, but it’s worth it to keep the wood strong

Con – Needs Upkeep (e.g. painting & repairs)

The nature of a fence is that it goes up and is perfect, and as time comes to all of us, it does your fence also. You may find a panel warps, or that a part breaks, or that a post moves with time. Or even that nature decides to wash away some of the base — ugh. 

But it does mean more work. Whether that’s painting or repairs, there is likely to be some semi regular maintenance needing to be done. 

Con – A Physical Fence Can Be Easily Broken 

If a tree falls or if tampered with or similar, your fence line can be broken and it can become a problem. 

I’ve experienced this problem! And I don’t recommend it! It’s the reason we have trackers on the girls and the physical fence.

fallen tree on a physical fence.
fallen tree on a physical fence. They’re a much bigger problem with a physical fence than an invisible fence, sadly!

Better Safe Than Sorry

This is one of my Mum’s favourite sayings – certainly when I was a child. And it pretty much sums up the discussion in this post. It might feel like an extra step, like a step too far, or maybe just more than necessary, but, if it avoids a whole host of future issues? Better safe than sorry. 

Conclusion

There is no doubt in my mind, as a professional trainer (first) and as a passionate believer in force free training (Second) that the invisible fence is a non-starter for dog parents. It’s very rarely the only option a dog parent has, and consequently should never be the option you choose. 

They rely on pain to achieve a desired result, which is never a great option. 

And even then? They’re not fool proof. 

If you can? A physical fence is far superior, especially with any dog with a prey drive (which is roughly 70% of dog breeds, by the way, way, way higher if you consider that 4 out of 5 of the US’s most popular dog breeds are considered high prey drive breeds…

So? If you can? Go for a real fence, a physical barrier. It’s not something you’ll regret doing. It means years of safety and peace of mind – which is priceless to me.

Ali from Rebarkable and her dog Indie

Author, Ali Smith

Ali Smith is the Positive Puppy Expert, dog trainer and is the founder of Rebarkable. She is passionate about helping puppy parents get things right, right from the start.

Ali has won multiple awards for her dog training, and has had her blog (this blog!) rated as the worlds best pet blog!

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