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Fencing for the Livestock Guardian Dog

My heart jolted out of my body for probably the 4,000th time in a month to the sound of a honking horn. In the weeks since moving to our new farm, situated right next to a paved road, it had seemed like one catastrophe after another and the honking horn was a sure clue that yet another disaster was unfolding right outside.

Blaze, our benevolent Great Pyrenees, had once again escaped the pasture where she lived and was out on the road stopping cars. This is a 50 MPH road, so you can imagine the chaos that ensued. She would refuse to move, barking at these evident trespassers and nothing we could do short of dragging her back off the road would make her stop. This was happening at the same time as the neighbor issue and I was over capacity for dog related stress.

Our existing fence was pretty good at keeping everyone else in, but it takes a special kind of fencing to keep a determined LGD in. I’ve seen Blaze walk to where two cattle panels form a corner and shimmy her way up and over like she had opposable thumbs. Where she couldn’t climb over, she’d go under. If there was a gap large enough for a Nigerian goat kid, she could make it through that too.  With no other options, she even climbed straight up and over the 4′ field fence while I looked on with dismay.

Many livestock guardian breeds are instinctually wanderers, roaming large distances to protect their territory as they define it.  Some dogs simply don’t agree that the territory you define with fences is what their territory should be.  Some dogs would rather be with people and don’t want to be confined solely with the stock.  For Blaze, it was a combination of both.  She really loves to be with the kids, but she also loves being with the animals, so she struggles sometimes to be content with where she’s at.

In our case, her tendency to wander out on the road was a deal breaker.  There is simply no way to allow her to be with the kids and the stock when her freedom means the potential to cause accidents and injuries at the road.

Electric Fence for Livestock Guardian Dogs

The first–and least expensive–option we considered was electric fence.  Two strands of electric wire at the top and bottom of existing fence will keep livestock guardians in with the added benefit of keeping the rest of the animals in too.  There have been times we’ve looked back and wished we’d gone with this method, but the major disadvantage to us was the fact that we have small children and we didn’t want to have issues with going in and out of the gate – I don’t like worrying about it for myself, either!

The cost of electric fencing is relatively low.  The charger itself is about $100, depending on the model you get.  We lucked out and found an older one for $20 on a Facebook sale group.  Craigslist has a saved search feature that will automatically email you when an item is posted that matches your search terms, so that’d be a good way to find a bargain as well.

Iowa State has an estimator for different fence types and lists polytape at $.20 per foot to install.  If you’re adding to existing fencing, this will likely be the most economical way to keep your LGDs in.

If you’re starting from scratch with no fence, high tensile electric is becoming a popular option.  Iowa State lists that one as costing $.89 per foot, compared to what we have – field fence at $1.93 per foot.

Invisible Fence for Livestock Guardian Dogs

The invisible fence has a higher up front cost and, depending on how you install it, potentially more maintenance, but this is the option we went with and we’ve been pretty happy with.  The brand we chose was SportDog and we haven’t regretted it.  I ordered the complete kit on Amazon (aff) and have contacted SportDog directly with setup questions.  They’ve been great to work with.

When we installed it, we used J clips that are for building rabbit cages and wired the invisible fence wire to the existing field fence.  Originally, we wanted to ring the entire perimeter of our place, but we found that Blaze quickly realized she could muscle through the shock and just run across the wire.  The only way to keep her in was a combination of invisible fence and physical fencing.  Over the years since I’ve written this, I’ve spoken with countless LGD owners who have concluded the same thing – a combination of both is the only thing that keeps their dogs in.

We have an easement road going through the middle of our property so we used the invisible fence around one whole side and then wired the other whole side separately, but joined them together across the driveway and into the box near the house.  This electrifies both pastures on one box.

The initial box purchase is the most expensive.  It currently costs $260.  That kit includes one collar, so if you have multiple dogs like we do, you’ll need to pay another $80-$90 per collar.  The Petsafe branded collars work with the SportDog fence and we found those cheaper at Walmart.

For extra wire, we found 500′ spools for only $20, but looking now for this article I see it’s dropped to $17 – sweet!  This wire is the same diameter and quality as the green stuff that comes with the original kit, but at a much, much cheaper cost.

The Downside to Invisible Fencing

The biggest problem we’ve had with this fence is the high maintenance time.  Because we chose to string it along the fence instead of burying it, anytime a curious goat or dog without a collar decides to take a nibble, we have to walk the line and find a break in the wire.  We did bury it at the gates, but we’ve found breaks out in the middle of nowhere and spent countless hours sometimes walking to find a tiny break we missed the first 50 walkabouts.  My goal this year is to work toward burying most of it since we’d end up spending less time burying than fixing it.  I just didn’t like the idea of having to dig to find a break, but I imagine breaks would be pretty much nonexistent if the entire fence is below ground like it’s designed to be.

Update 2021: this wire is so thin–including the stuff that comes with SportDog–that we spent hours and hours tracing breaks and fixing them.  I went with heavy duty gauge (aff) and replaced the entire line for about $300.  It’s been a year and we had our first break when an aggressive dog bit the wire through when trash talking another dog through the fence.  Well worth the investment.  Update 2022: that one break in the wire is still the only one we’ve had.  Best $300 we’ve ever spent.

Checking the Collars

About every 6 months the collars need new 9-volt batteries.  This can vary depending on how much the dogs test the fence.  There is an option to have a warning chirp before the shock or no warning and we’ve found that turning off the warning keeps them from pushing as often since they get shocked every time they try.  Blaze had figured out that if it doesn’t chirp, she’s free to fly and we’d find a grinning dog sitting on our back porch.  Turning off the option solved that.

I credit the SportDog with preserving our ability to keep dogs here along a busy road.  Without it, I don’t think we would be able to have them securely on our 9 acres.  Now, as I revisit this article in 2022, we’re running two pairs of dogs, each with their own collar.  This works so well to contain our dogs that even a female in heat isn’t enough to get them to escape and I have such peace of mind knowing that they’re safely contained along this high speed road.

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