Compassionate Use of Electric Fencing For Maremmas
Updated: Jun 2
I really dislike using electric fencing. In the title of this blog I almost feel like the words "compassionate" and "electric" don't belong in the same sentence, but there are times that well thought out use of electric fencing can save a dog's life.
Here on our ranch we had a long history of using electric fencing to keep the livestock from putting pressure on our painstakingly constructed, expensive fencing. That worked beautifully. All of the livestock I have ever owned learned to stay away from the fences very quickly, and without showing much stress in having had to learn this. That has NOT been true for my multitude of Maremmas. Many of them have ultimately figured it out, but the emotional cost to them has been obvious. I am not willing to hurt my dogs, so I set out to learn all I could about meeting my husband's goal of keeping the livestock off the fences, and my dogs not being "shocked", or hurt.
Our electric fences are constructed using high tensile wire and are powered by typical livestock chargers. Chargers such as this are powerful enough to keep working in spite of minimal obstructions, such as grass touching the wire. It takes more power to charge a fence made of heavy gauge wire, such as we use, than it does lighter weight wire. I have touched our electric fence a few times over the years. It hurts, all the way up my arm! And I am standing in shoes! I can't imagine what it must be like for a dog to be shocked like this with four tender pads making a direct connection to the ground. And what about during wet, winter weather - fences hurt more when the circuit makes a better connection. When my dogs made contact with our fences, usually with a wet nose, they screamed and bolted.
LGDs are somewhat feral dogs. As a survival of the fittest species, they instinctively hide pain because in animal populations weaker individuals are often targeted or driven away from the pack, herd, flock, whatever. So, when an LGD screams his partner will attack him. Dogs are emotionally triggered by hearing other dogs fight. So my dear dog, who through no ill intent, just touched the fence and got big time shocked, is now also pursued and attacked by his trusted partner. That attack is based on instinct and the emotional trigger. There is usually no blood drawn in these altercations, but one dog is completely confused and traumatized. Additionally, many of the partner dogs in nearby fields would turn on each other and fight for a few minutes until everybody got their brains back. Not OK, not fair, and this is all due to human decision making, and error, in my opinion.
So, there's some background information for you. In the photos below I'll show you some of what works well for LGDs, if electric fencing is a necessity, and what doesn't. Remember, all this is my opinion only. A lot of ranchers accept the use of electric fences as appropriate general management of LGDs. I am not one of them.
This fencing is around a small pen I raise puppies in, and frequently use for training. The low wire seen just past the gate is the height of the fencing for the rest of this large pasture. An LGD needs to feel powerful and confident in the pasture he owns and is in charge of. A low wire like this keeps my donkeys from scratching themselves on the fencing, but it is also easy for an LGD doing a perimeter check to touch accidentally. So this good dog is punished for doing his job. Not OK. Also, the adult dogs in this field often came up to talk to the puppies across the fence; adult approaches, puppies approach, adult screams in pain, the pups are terrified and bolt back to their stall. That is not a helpful association for a puppy to make in interacting with an unfamiliar adult dog. This happened more than once, and usually in the area where you see the higher wire. Our compromise was that Mitch moved the hot wire so high up that my dogs couldn't come in contact with it, in a limited portion of the pasture. That wasn't enough to keep me happy; I threatened to run over the fence charger, so it was unplugged. Also noteworthy here is that the tall strand of hot wire you see in this photo will not keep an LGD home. For an electric fence to shock something, that something needs to be in contact with the ground, because this completes the circuit. A dog that could actually climb a fence such as this would not still have a foot on the ground. Think of birds standing on power lines; this is why they don't get shocked.
This is what most of our electric fencing looks like now. We have many pastures. Some of them really do need to be hot to protect them from pushy horses and mules. Because the power source for most of these fields is near the house the fencing getting to these needed fields must be hot, even if I don't want it to be because of my dogs. This fence is OK with me. The wire is 4' off the ground. The only way for a dog to touch it is if he has his feet on the fence, up high, as if thinking of climbing over it. By observation, I don't think the shock is quite as strong when they touch this higher wire. I wonder if having only two foot pads on the ground is part of why; I don't truly know. But what matters to me here is that a dog is never accidentally shocked while doing his job.
The other thing that is true, and I do get in trouble for this a lot, is that the dogs learn, ultimately, when a fence is no longer hot. Then, these long and expensive insulators become chew toys. The dogs can actually pull them out of the wood. So when we do decide there is a need to tune up the livestock and plug the fence back in, Mitch often has to replace many of these insulators before the fence will work again. If I quit unplugging it he would never have to do that..... If all the wire in the pastures was up high like this I could probably convince myself to leave the charger alone, but they aren't. The field with the low wire, which is the field closest to the charger, houses most of my mini donkeys. They like to rub on fences, particularly in the spring. A tall wire like this does not slow them down at all.
We have learned that ceramic insulators last longer than the extended wire ones we prefer for the livestock, but even that system isn't flawless, as you can see here. What is going to happen here, though, is that ultimately some unsuspecting dog who has been chewing on this over time is going to get shocked when he tries it after Mitch plugs the charger in. Mitch argues that I am unfair to my dogs in unplugging the charger, because sometimes they get shocked and sometimes they don't. He makes a good point; we have not yet found a perfect solution.
Recently, one of my six year old, angel of a dog, turned into a rototiller on me. For some reason, he began to dig out of every field I put him in. He would show up in the barnyard, smiling, or in a neighboring pasture with the pair of dogs that live there. This is an intact male doing the traveling, and he doesn't love every other dog on the ranch, so his visits were probably not welcome. Sometimes his partner would go with him, but often she stayed where she belonged and waited for me to bring him back. Sometimes he would dig into a new field, and out of that field. The dogs in the field, now with a tunnel on two sides, never followed him. But this had to stop. Dogs learn from each other. So, I wired a field just for this particular pair of dogs, using the solar charger shown in the photo. This charger is termed a "pet" charger, meaning that it has less power behind the shock in comparison to a livestock charger. What I like about this is that if a dog touches a wire charged by this system, he jumps back, and he may yip, but he does not scream, nor is he attacked, and none of the surrounding dogs notice what happened.
The ceramic insulators are placed 5' off the ground. That means growing grass will short out this fence, so we kill the grass along this fence. The wire is very close to the fence, which makes accidentally touching it while doing a perimeter check unlikely.
The insulated wire that is in the grey pipe goes under the gate. This dog learned to dig under the wood beams I typically use under gates, so for his field I buried, just out of my sight, a hog panel - take that, dog! I don't know if my beloved fellow has given up his naughty ways, but since wiring his pasture this way life on the ranch has been less eventful.
This is the first time we have used a solar powered pet charger with our high tensile wire. The charger says it can power several miles of wire. So far, I really like the fact that it keeps the dogs away from the fence without actually hurting them. If this unit proves to be durable I may be willing to use it on the low wire where the donkeys live. We'll see.
From a training standpoint....
In my experience, I have found that dogs that are six months old or less just don't seem to understand where the boogie man is. When they get shocked it is a huge issue for them emotionally. They typically become frightened, broadly, and insecure in general. This can last for weeks. I am emphatically opposed to using electric wire, of any strength, with young dogs.
***A note about comparison of the use of an e-collar vs electric fencing:
I avoid the use of electric fencing as much as possible because I prefer not to train using aversives - and I prefer to train. That being said, one of the considerations about an e-collar, in comparison to an electric physical something, is that the shock/vibration/tone comes from the universe, and it makes no sense to the dog. That is very scary because it cannot be understood. Touching an electric fence, or electric netting, can be understood. It isn't pleasant, but it can eventually make sense to most dogs. You might touch a hot burner on a stove once, but probably not twice. You might also become broadly afraid of stoves, anything that looks vaguely like the stove, the area where the stove sits, anything that vaguely looks like where the stove sits. Animals make associations on their own.